Reading the Room
5 min read

Reading the Room

Sensitivity to customer attitudes and communication styles - and adjusting your own - can have big loyalty payoffs.
Reading the Room

In many ways, relationships with customers that you speak with frequently are just like any other relationship. There are phases and different levels of comfort with one another at those phases, just like with new friends, or someone you’ve just started dating. Will this person think less of me if I tell a dad joke? Can I get “tough love" with them? How direct should I be?

Many of us in Customer Success try to maintain the most professional demeanor possible at all times, following some tried and true communication styles. Following the standard playbook may look something like this:

  • Pleasant greeting
  • Restating the question/issue
  • Apologizing for any inconvenience
  • Explaining a solution/answering the question
  • Apologizing again
  • Pleasant sign off

That’s all well and good. We know the formula, and it often works just fine.

Jack and Jill and Electric Vehicles

Now imagine you’re a car enthusiast (if you’re not, you can pretend, right?). One day, you get an email from an acquaintance you’ve know for a little while, and they’re asking you a few questions about a Tesla Roadster and whether it’s worth it:

Hey Jack!
Hope you're well! I just wanted to ask you what you think about the Tesla Roadster. I've been thinking about going electric, and I just got this big bonus from the Acme Corporation for my sales record, so I'm wondering if you think this is worth the cost, or if you had some other recommendation in mind.
Let me know what you think!

Would your standard playbook apply to this question?

Hi Jill,
Thank you for reaching out to Jack for car advice.
It sounds like you’re asking about purchasing a Tesla Roadster. I am here to help answer your question. As someone who drives a car, I understand the importance of selecting the right vehicle.
I suggest evaluating the cost of electricity at your home, and whether charging stations exist on the routes between your most frequently traveled destinations. As to whether the Tesla itself is the best electric vehicle for your needs, I would say this should work out well for you.
Again, I appreciate you reaching out to me for your electric vehicle questions. If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Jill, understandably confused by your tone, will probably not happily reach out again, and is probably reconsidering the classification she places your relationship in. (In this case, now it’s the weird category.) Where once Jill thought you two, while not really friends, were at least on a more friendly level, she now thinks you two are barely acquaintances, and even if she had to contact you with more questions, she wouldn’t exactly look forward to it.

Now, you could go the opposite route:

Yo Jill! What’s shakin’? Long time no talk!
Whoa, a bonus?! How much did you sell? That’s crazy and I’m jealous. Yeah, the Tesla is bonkers cool, just like don’t crash it on autopilot, know what I’m saying? That would suck. It’s gonna raise your electric bill like mad though, so save some money from that bonus lol.
Peace out,

Yeah, maybe this is a bit more overly familiar and more intrusive than you would want to talk with someone you sort of know and are friendly with but isn’t really a friend.

But what if you’d written this instead?

Hey Jill!
It’s great to hear from you! I hope you’re doing well also. I remember you said you were going on vacation to Venice a month ago; how was it?
That’s a really great question you asked. So, Tesla is considered one of the best EVs out there, and while I don’t own one, I think if I was in the market for a luxury EV, I would seriously consider the Roadster. Some things you might want to think about are the cost of “fueling” it at home, and even maybe look at charging stations along some routes you might end up traveling if you plan to go long distance with it.
Let me know if you end up getting one! I’d love to hear what you think of it, and also let me know if you have any other questions about EVs in general.

This response strikes a perfect tone. Acknowledging recent life events, giving honest opinions, and inviting more conversation are all here, as they should be.

Don’t Be a Script Zombie

The key is to understand your audience, and communicate accordingly. For clients that you deal with regularly, adding personal touches to the way you communicate and eschewing the canned response for a tailored one builds trust and loyalty.

I have clients that I can joke with, some that I can get “tough love” with, and some who prefer that all communication be as professional and as stiff as possible. The skill of assessing your audience is so key here, and it just takes a bit of observation in your interactions with them. How do they greet you on calls? When you ask how things are going, what is the style of the storytelling they present? How do they email you? How do they thank you?

Don’t fall into the trap of using the exact same style of communication with every single customer. While it might work out just fine, it’s a long way from amazing, and that’s what we’re shooting for: amazing customer service.

Striking the Balance

None of this is to say that you should always be 100% overly familiar with all of your customers. There’s a balance to strike, and the counterbalance of your tone is the ability to provide service.

That, after all, is why you’re there.

In between the family questions and potentially jokes, you still need to provide the best service possible. Answer questions truthfully, provide help where you can, and do it all with the expertise you hold of your product, your organization, or whatever it is you help with.

Doing these things together will give you the credibility you need to keep your customers on your side, and make them feel like you’re on theirs.

”You Spoiled Me.”

These are the words of a customer who, when finding out they were moving to a different account manager, expressed gratitude for the support I provided them for several years. I was always honest, transparent, and friendly. I know if we ever get the chance, we’ll go out for a few beers. I gave them advice on how to use our product, told them when they were doing something unwise, and was patient through it all. I also always asked how the family was, and was quick with jokes.

Personalized service, as it should be. These kinds of comments are the best kind to get. They let me know I did my job well, and made a loyal customer in the end.

”Why Is It Always About You?”

To wrap up, here’s a little anecdote from my time at Apple.

I was a “Genius,” Apple’s terminology for a support technician. A lot of my skill at reading customers was learned here; though it was in person, which helped a lot, it informed my later abilities even over email. I knew when I could joke, when things were serious, and even when I should get a little more assertive. (I once asked a customer who wouldn’t stop giving me potential diagnoses of her laptop’s ailments, “can we pretend for a moment that I’m the expert here?” Got a 10 on that interaction on her NPS survey. That’s a story for another day.)

One of my co-workers, Pete, was particularly good at reading the room. I’ll never forget the time a customer came in, looking particularly neutral; to me, he was a blank slate, unreadable, but to Pete…

“What brings you in today?”

The customer began pulling his laptop out of his bag. “Well, I have a problem.”

Pete leaned on the Genius Bar, looked the customer right in the eyes, and with a deadpan expression asked, “Why is it always about you?”

The customer laughed, was put at ease right away, and Pete fixed his issue, while making sure that guy would definitely tell everyone how great the service is at Apple.

And that’s what it’s all about.