From August 2016

A Simplified Customer Service Methodology

or, How I Came to Write a Pseudo-Proto White Paper

As my job in retail is my primary financial support, I’ve been thinking about the issue of customer service for a few years as I observe people in their activities while in my store. It’s easy to devolve into an adversarial mindset. After several years with many of the same cow-orkers (I’ve been a longtime admirer of Cory Doctorow’s favored re-spelling) and even several of the same managers, camaraderie and affection are a natural outgrowth. Customers can be difficult. That’s not to say that most, or even many, are “problem” patrons, but, if only due to a familiar setting, employees can tend to view their workplace as, well, theirs. Up to a third of our lives (sometimes more) is spent there. Customers can become invaders, encroachers, intruders. Overcoming the adversarial tendency and anticipating the difficult customer is a prime goal of customer service. This is all hyperbole to better outline the issue.

I’m not interested in pursuing a career in customer relations, so I wanted to be succinct. How could I quickly translate my simple, surface observations into an easily-digestible package? In these situations, where my ambition is bigger than any underlying motivation, acronyms have proved eminently useful.

The following is not a true white paper, it’s far too succinct and sourceless. It has only my personal observations to back it up. But, hey, just for the record, here it is.

A Method for Simple On-Site Problem Solving 

by Marcus Harwell

The basic level of customer service is the patron’s impression of their visit. Customers, as a group, regularly and continually have questions and problems which need to be solved. Successful resolution of those queries (and a positive experience) can often be achieved in a brief interaction. In order to maximize customer satisfaction and experience, an employee using the following method may improve results when it is followed as a first and ongoing procedure. Even when the problem is unsolvable, a customer may still leave the store with a positive experience due to the crew’s direct responses. In a very simplified way, this fundamental level can be addressed with a simple, sequential system, namely the three Es:

  • Engagement
  • Empathy
  • Enthusiasm


1. Engagement 

Awareness and Involvement 

This is the first level of interaction with any patron. Being directly involved with the customer asking a question is key to quickly solving problems. Actively listening to a customer’s problem involves both listening and showing understanding. Engaging allows customers to identify with crew and reduces anxiety. So:

  • Be aware of the customers around you
  • Be ready to actively listen to customers when they ask a question
  • Personal body language should reflect these attitudes


2. Empathy 

Identification With the Customer 

One of the quickest ways to create a negative customer experience is to appear unconcerned. Taking on the question or problem as one’s own is a way of connecting with the customer. The Walt Disney Company, for example, conceptualizes their customers as guests for this reason: it allows them to more easily identify with them. Additionally, empathy can create urgency and resolve in the crew. The customer should never feel belittled or burdensome for their question. Their problem is important in the moment. So:

  • Accept the problem as your own
  • Strive to solve the question because of its importance, rather than to get the customer out of the way


3. Enthusiasm
Positive Response and Assertion
Eagerness to resolve an issue can promote and sustain favorable customer relations. Regardless of outcome, affirming that a problem is solvable, or that one can answer a question, can keep customers on the crew’s side. The reason enthusiasm functions best as the final step is that if the customer is engaged and connected, even a response in the negative can result in an overall gratifying experience. This effect can carry forward to expectations of similar experiences in the future. So:

  • Affirmatively respond that a question is answerable
  • Assure customers you will do what you can to answer their question or solve their problem
  • “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out for you” is a valid, positive response, regardless of a disappointing answer

The importance of this sequence lies in the end result. Even in cases of negative or “No” answers, if the first two principles are followed, the customer is still engaged and empathized with, and therefore more likely to leave their encounter with a positive experience and a feeling that the establishment values their business.
This formula should by no means be seen as the be-all, end-all of customer service. Difficult or hostile patrons require trained management intervention. It’s merely a simplified starting point to quickly get employees involved, and from which to expand to more subtle and complicated issues.

Time Lapse Drawing

In celebration of getting this mess working again, here’s a video from fall 2014. Kiel Johnson, who taught this advanced drawing class, makes an appearance at about 15 seconds. I know I mention Kiel a lot, but he’s been an inspiration in more ways than one (especially productivity), and I think his ideas about bringing others into art making are important and fresh, so I’ll probably keep doing it. I started recording most of my painting and drawing (at least the large drawings) in his class, and c0ntinue to do so today.

The soundtrack is in tribute to the late Doug Fieger and his co-writer, Berton Averre, who rips out a typically searing solo. I do not own the music copyright, Capitol Records does. It’s the opener from Get the Knack. Buy here: