Customer Service Psychology 101 – 6 Powerful Principles

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In a perfect world, everyone in a customer-facing position would take Psychology 101 – because, as every customer service professional knows, people are complicated.

Some are moody, some are grumpy, some are mad, some are absolutely lovely and brighten your day. And whatever emotional cornucopia these patrons come in with, you can bet that something completely outside of your control is the cause. Once they’re on the phone (or in the chat box) though, your goal is to turn every frown upside-down to create delightful experiences, no matter how the conversation began.

Did I say take a class in Psychology? You might need a doctorate!


There’s a secret to making this happen.

If you can understand the underlying essential needs of your customers, you can deliver outstanding experiences almost every time.

But first, you have to understand where your customers are coming from.

Two emoji, one sad before and one happy after customer service.

It’s always emotional

We tend to take people at their word – their logic-based word. They tell us the problem, we logically try to fix it. But, whatever the problem may be, and however logical the solution, there is always an emotional component. We’re human; emotions are part of everything we do.

When neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had sustained brain damage to areas of the brain that generate emotions, he found that the subjects were unable to make even the smallest of decisions. Their logic and reasoning abilities were fully functional, but if they were asked to choose between pasta and risotto for dinner, they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t feel one way or another.

The conclusion: Practically every decision is an emotional one.

What this means for customer service is nothing short of exciting: Since decisions are emotional, if your customer service interaction produces positive emotions, you have the power to generate positive decisions.

Think: making sales, upsells, generating referral traffic – you basically become a secondary marketing and sales engine.

In fact, a study out of Missouri University of Science and Technology reported that “consumers’ emotional responses” while on e-commerce websites were predictive of purchases. It might seem obvious, but they essentially proved that we buy from stores we enjoy. And there’s no better place to create a joyful experience than customer service.

Positive experience is the start of a positive association, which builds upon itself over time. One transaction or interchange turns into a relationship. Zappos, Wistia, and MailChimp are three companies that have a business approach which accentuates the positive, and, as a result, their customers are both passionate and loyal.

Walter Chen, co-founder of iDoneThis, for Kissmetrics

How do you produce positive experiences?

Reduce pain

Fun fact: pain is also emotional, which doesn’t make it hurt any less (the emotional component actually makes it hurt more!). Reducing the pain your customers feel is one of the most powerful ways to create a positive experience. It sounds like a no-brainer, but very few companies have mastered this. One of the ones that has is Amazon.

Amazon offers one of the most loved customer experiences, some argue , because it provides “an unparalleled sense of emotional satisfaction” by reducing pain points with features like multiple wish lists, a save-for-later area, an easily accessible cart, and even more easily accessible price comparisons. If and when a customer does have a problem, returns are easy and customer service gets top marks for speed of response and ability to solve the issue.

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A lot of bad customer experiences are death by a thousand cuts annoyances. If you can avoid exacerbating pain in an already painful situation, the better the customer’s perception of their experience will be, and the more likely it is that they will become repeat purchasers .

Take a page from Amazon’s site and alleviate the most common frustrations your customers experience.

Increase pleasure (it’s all about instant gratification)

Most psychological models agree with Freud: Humans act on the “ pleasure principle ” the instinct to gratify desires and avoid pain. When we don’t get what we want, we feel bad – a negative outcome we’ll go to great lengths to avoid. If you look at instant gratification as a biological imperative, Amazon Prime is really just the natural result of human evolution. It was bound to happen sometime.

On Twitter, over 80% of customer service related tweets are negative or critical of the brand in question, a large majority of customers expect a reply in less than an hour (unfortunately, most companies are failing to deliver)

Touch Agency

We’re hardwired to want things as fast as possible, and when you’re looking at generating more conversions, the ability to feed that need can really help – like with an instant chat feature .

  • Install an instant chat function on your product pages. When a user is on your website, looking at the product, and wondering “will this work for me?” – you want to be available to answer that question right away. This does two things: It keeps the customer on the site, rather than continuing to research elsewhere, and it makes the customer feel grateful for your attention. That gratitude will influence them to make the purchase once you’re done with your chat – it’s Cialdini’s Reciprocity principle in action.
  • Encourage self-service. Give your customers all the resources they need to succeed ASAP. That means not only having an FAQ page and resources page, but making sure they actually contain the information users need most.

Leverage the Halo Effect

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias – a mental shortcut – that makes people transfer their feelings about one thing to something unrelated. Cognitive biases are useful, they let us make faster decisions and quick judgement calls, though not always accurately. In practice, it works like this:

If you like one aspect of something, you’ll have a positive predisposition toward everything about it. If you dislike one aspect of something, you’ll have a negative predisposition toward everything about it.

Nielsen Norman Group

This puts the pressure on customer service like nothing else, because if you can create a positive experience, that Halo Effect will cast a warming glow over your entire company. But, if your interaction leaves a negative impression, the opposite is also true.

Modcloth seeds its entire website – design, colors, images and copy – with positive associations that leverage the Halo Effect in its favor.

Screenshot of Modcloth website.
Modcloth's website

Because their customers associate these words, images and colors with something they already know and like, they form an instantly positive impression, and come in primed and ready to have more personal, emotionally engaging experiences. The Halo Effect works to bypass the ‘getting to know you’ phase and move the customer straight to “I recognize this – and I like it!”

They do the same with their customer service, which they don’t call “customer service.” It’s: “Ask a ModStylist.”

Stylist. The perfect person to help with any problem of the fashion variety. Just by renaming their customer service department, Modcloth sets up a positive association, which creates positive assumptions in their customers. Customers unsure of how to use a product feel very much at ease asking a “Stylist,” because they assume that stylist has expertise – because of the very name.

And, ModStylists do not disappoint.

Conversation between modstylist and customer.

There are so many ways to use the Halo Effect, but you might start by renaming your Customer Service. After all, not many people have positive associations with “Customer Service.” What type of expertise would your customers love access to?

Got that? Good. Let’s Build on it.

Now that you have the foundation of positive experience-production laid down, you might wonder: How can you put it over the top? How can you turn service into so much more – like a sales engine?

Customer service is no longer where customers are lost – it’s where they’re won.

I know, I know – customer service is asked to wear many hats, more hats every year. They’re asked to stretch over into other sectors, like Customer Success and Sales and even Marketing. It’s a lot. But customer service is also uniquely placed to be able to make these crossovers. And the results are revolutionizing the job description, if not the industry.

Here are a few psychologically-based techniques to use during your next interaction that will turn customers into brand advocates. Prepare to win friends and influence people!

Give it away

Robert Cialdini’s 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion was a game-changer for marketers looking to use psychology to increase sales. Three decades later, we’re still using his 6 principles of influence to increase conversions online, and they’re infusing themselves into every part of the sales funnel. The first of these principles is “reciprocity.”

Reciprocity: Humans are hardwired to pay their debts, so if they get something of value for free, they feel obligated to reciprocate – often by buying something.

Reciprocity comes in two main types: Trumpeted reciprocity and surprise reciprocity.

Trumpeted reciprocity is when you tell someone you’re doing something for them. Surprise reciprocity is when you surprise the person with something free and delightful.

Zappos used to upgrade customers to overnight shipping – without telling them – so they could create a “Wow” factor that just wouldn’t deliver the same punch if it was mentioned on the product page. Sadly, they don’t do it anymore, but it was a great tool for creating goodwill among their customers in the beginning (and look at how much they’ve grown).

But reciprocity can be more subtle than a “trumpeted” or “surprise” upgrade or giveaway, because that “something of value” can be anything, including the time, attention and expertise of customer service agents.

In the Modcloth example above, the customer, after having received such a comprehensive response from the Modstylist, would likely feel obligated to purchase. Hey, it worked on me. That isn’t trumpeted or surprise reciprocity, it’s just appreciating the time, attention and expertise of the Modstylist.

Effective freebies can also be entirely unrelated to your product – or tangentially related, as was the case for Cheerios’ recent Bring Back the Bees campaign, in which it partnered with Vesey’s seeds to send free wildflower seed packets to anyone who asked. That would be “trumpeted” reciprocity, if you’re keeping track.

Cheerios' Bring Back the Bees campaign.

Cheerios gave away 1.5 Billion wildflower seeds, far more than they expected, largely due to customers sharing this unusual campaign on social media.

All of that social media sharing was reciprocity in action, placing the brand front-and-center of their audience in a way that made everyone feel good and part of something important.

Brainstorm ways to incorporate freebies into your customer service program. And don’t underestimate the power of giving away time and expertise. Personal attention goes a long way towards building good will (and a sense of obligation).

Give yourself some Authority

Authority, another one of Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Influence, is the idea that people follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. Your customers may not believe your marketing or ads, but if you, the individual, tell them something, they’ll likely believe it. It’s another reason why Modcloth’s “Modstylists” term works so well – it confers authority over what their audience cares about most: Style.

One fun way to use your authority is to tell the customer “that’s an excellent choice,” or “that’s a good question.” It’s silly, but customers really do get a little thrill of approval when you say that. Everyone wants to think they’re a good decision maker!

Of course, your authority won’t last long unless you have the chops to back it up.

This is where taking the time to thoroughly train customer service is extremely important, and giving them the authority to make final decisions on how best to serve customers. Without training and actual authority, you’ll undermine your credibility with your customers, and your recommendations and solutions won’t be trusted: “Hi, can I speak to your MANAGER?”

Have you ever asked a frontline service provider for something special and been told, “Sorry, company policy. The answer is NO!” Doesn’t do much to improve customer satisfaction, does it? Have you ever asked to speak with the supervisor and found the answer soon changed to YES? When this happens (and it does all over the world) how do you feel about the company? Do you respect the organization more, or less? Does it improve your customer satisfaction?”

Ron Kaufman, Up! Your Service

The answers to the above questions are negative – regard and respect for the company goes down, customer satisfaction diminishes with each pass to another person, and having to speak to a supervisor to get an absolute answer has this unintended consequence: Pretty soon, customers only want to speak to supervisors. There’s a strong argument to be made to, as Ron Kaufman of Up! Your Service says, to “empower frontline staff to improve customer satisfaction.”

So authority comes in two flavors – that which you actually have, and that which people assume you have. Either way, the more authority you have, the more satisfied your customers will be that they’re getting the best possible service.

  • Build expertise and the ability to make most decisions into your customer service program.
  • Use your authority to reinforce the customers’ decisions with positive affirmations – they’ll love it.

Be Likeable

Cialdini’s principle of Likeability is simple: People buy from people they like. And, people like people who are like them. This is why most customer service chat apps show a picture and first name of the customer service representative – it puts people at ease. And, it’s why customer service scripts start with positive words, phrases, and empathy statements.

But scripts, even very good ones, feel canned.

My most memorable customer service experiences were when the conversation was off-book and contained genuine humor and personal interest. In one memorable call with a Verizon rep, I could tell the person on the other end was smiling and having a wonderful time – and soon, I was smiling and having a wonderful time too, even though I’d called with an aggravating problem!

What worked in that instance wasn’t a script, but it was a psychological technique that put “Liking” into play.

This particular customer service rep built a rapport with me through a little small talk (and a lot of charm). We talked about the weather where I was and where he was, and how he liked to walk in the park with his dog when the weather was fine. It’s funny, I can’t remember the issue I called with, but I remember how I felt during this conversation.

This is called “demonstrating commonality” – creating rapport based on common interests or experiences. You don’t need to have a phone conversation to make this work, it’ll work almost as well in a chat box (even though you can’t pick up on subtle verbal cues). Incidentally, to facilitate communication via chat box, you might want to use emoticons. People respond really well to emoticons – we recognize the emotions they convey instantly.

Likability not only smooths communication and creates more positive experiences, it can make negative experiences fade into the background. Most importantly, that feeling of liking kicks off the Halo Effect customers will feel for your whole company, encouraging them to stay with you longer, buy more, and bring their friends.

  • Smile, even if you’re typing rather than talking.
  • Don’t be afraid to go off-script and be genuinely interested in the other person (but use discretion with what you say – you don’t want to sound negative or creepy).
  • Create a sense of commonality by finding out what you and the customer share – a love of dogs or the outdoors or Friday morning bagels in the office.
  • Use your sense of humor and your sense of fun – it’s all about showing genuine enjoyment for others, and being willing to laugh at yourself.

Feelings are the most important outcome of every interaction

As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

That’s what we’re doing here: Creating unforgettable emotional experiences.

Any customer service agent can solve a problem (well… almost any).

Any customer service agent can have a polite, generally pleasant interaction.

But those aren’t the experiences that stick with us.

We remember the people who make us feel good, smart, happy – and make us laugh. We remember people who take an interest in us, a genuine interest. We remember people who are clearly out to make sure we get what we need, who protect us from common pitfalls, and who suggest ways to have an even better outcome that we could have thought of ourselves.

It’s a tall order.

But Customer Service folks – you’re used to those by now, right?