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Customer Experience: The Service Surly Effect

Over lunch last week, a colleague mentioned his passion for the customer experience aspect of marketing. This is a popular topic because we all have stories of experiencing nightmarish customer service. The worse the service… the better the story.

We shared a few personal stories of horrendous customer experiences and had a good laugh. Here is one of mine:

I had an appointment with a dermatologist in Atlanta. When I arrived at the doctor’s office, an unfriendly woman checked me in. It was my first visit, therefore I was asked to write a dissertation about my medical history and other very personal information. Many of the questions were confusing or seemingly irrelevant for a dermatological visit, so I asked Miss Congeniality at the front desk for a little clarification.

She didn’t like that. Her tone was sharp and her answers were terse. In fact, they were just sparse enough not to actually answer my questions. When I handed her my assignment there were several blank spaces next to unanswered questions.

She didn’t like that either. So, she read the unanswered questions verbatim from the form assuming, I guess, that I was illiterate. I still didn’t have the answers to those questions and she didn’t like that. We were off to a bad start.

The receptionist finally gave up and with a frustrated huff, put my paperwork aside. She then demanded my co-payment before seeing the doctor. I didn’t like that, so I questioned the policy. Her smug answer was, “pay me now or you won’t see the doctor.” I reluctantly placed three twenty-dollar bills on the counter.

“We don’t accept cash,” she said. And, by this time I was over this woman. I thought about leaving, but didn’t want to waste more of my time scheduling another doctor visit. So, I handed her a credit card.

By the time I saw the doctor, I was in a foul mood. I’m sure he could sense my negativity because he gave me the shortest examination in the history of dermatological exams. As a result, I became annoyed at his lack of thoroughness. My first thought was of the money I had just paid for this exam. What did I pay for? Was this a waste of time? I think I just got ripped off!

When I got back to work, I shared my experience with my friend Judy Beskin Isbell. Judy had the quickest wit of anyone I had ever known and could always make me laugh with a smart quip. She was giggling before my story was even finished and remarked, “Their tagline should read, ‘we specialize in service surly.’” (sur·ly /sərlē/ adjective: ill-tempered and unfriendly.) Brilliant!

Those who know me well have heard me drop that line. Unfortunately, I’ve had occasion to use it way too often.

I never went back to that doctor. I didn’t write a note. I didn’t complain. I just never went back. That’s the service surly effect.

The two most important moments in a customer experience are the first and the last. The initial impression primes the customer for the actual interaction with your business. When that first impression is negative, the customer will carry that emotion and expectation through the rest of the engagement.

My dermatological examination may have been perfectly fine, but I was primed for a negative experience. And, that is exactly what I believed I received.

It is very, very difficult to change one’s initial impression due to confirmation bias. After we make a judgment about someone or something, we look for justification to confirm our judgment. It doesn’t matter if that initial impression is made by a receptionist, a website, or a sales person. That experience sets the tone for the entire customer experience.

The last touch point with a customer leaves an impression about the entire experience. Even when everything else goes swimmingly, if the final impression is negative the whole experience will be tainted negative. This perception is exacerbated by hindsight bias and belief perseverance. We will remember the experience as worse than it really was and if we decide the doctor, lawyer, plumber, or retailer was untrustworthy or worse, it is unlikely that we will change that belief. In fact, we will justify our belief at all costs.

While most businesses focus on the middle of the customer engagement, the customer’s experience with the product or service, it is the beginning and end of the experience that often has the greatest impact. These touch points set the tone for the customer experience and leave an impression—good or bad.

It’s time to reevaluate every aspect of your customer experience. The service surly effect is a business killer and it is often overlooked. Pay special attention to the first and last touch points of your customer experience to ensure that you are priming your customers for a positive experience and leaving them wanting more.


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