Psychological Barriers to a Super Customer Experience

In the past I have written that great choices create a super customer experience. A recent jaw dropping experience at the Hilton Garden Inn once again shows that the opposite is also true. Bad choices burn customers.

Many of these bad choices are driven by psychological barriers. Awareness of these psychological syndromes gives managers, CSRs, reps & agents the ability to make better behavior choices and deliver super customer experience.

Psychological Barriers Can Destroy Super Customer Experience Image by:ian boyd

Psychological Barriers to a Super Customer Experience

Which of these have you witnessed in service reps, agents, and managers?

  1. Cognitive Dissonance: When a person’s self-image or view of performance is in conflict with facts or another person’s perception, denial can set in.

    Example #1: When Jason, the general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn realized the horrible things Karen the front desk manager said to me, it was in conflict with his existing view of her.

    Burning behavior: He clearly declared that her behavior was unacceptable yet slipped into cognitive dissonance and thus burned my experience with “she is a good manager.”

    Caring behavior: Instead of changing the reality to meet his perception of Karen, he could instead admit the failure and the dissonance. “Her behavior is unacceptable and I must admit quite surprising to me.” Or simply admit the failure and keep the dissonance to his own private thoughts.

    Example #2: A patient said to a dental hygienist during a cleaning, “That’s painful. I am in pain.” The hygienist’s view of herself was that she does not inflict pain. What she was hearing didn’t fit with her self-image.
    Burning behavior: She simply responded, “Well there will be pressure!” in a sing-songy voice. In her mind she was applying pressure not inflicting pain. She offered no empathy because that would require her to accept that she had inflicted pain. The patient never went back. She told the story of the samurai hygienist to the next caring hygienist she found.
    Caring behavior: The next hygienist said: “I am sorry. I can put some fluoride on your gums to ease the pain then continue.”

    Cognitive dissonance burns customers because most don’t see that the rep or manager is the one struggling psychologically. Customers believe at that moment that the statements and behavior are a direct reflection of what the manager or rep thinks of them. This is a huge risk to super customer experience and loyalty.

  2. Defense Mechanisms. Karen’s defense mechanisms were in full swing when I objected to her giving my room number to the cab driver. She was unable to accept that her actions were out of line and change course.
    Burning Behavior: Karen made it a win/lose between her and me. When you define customer interactions as win/lose, you trap yourself and in the end your company loses.
    Caring Behavior: Define interactions as win/win from the start. In that mindset, changing course is not backing down. Changing course is a logical way to finding a mutually agreeable road.

    When a manager, rep, or agent is defensive, they have basically declared that there is a war and their focus is protecting themselves. Customer service is not a war. It is the continuous improvement and delivery of superior interactions between ourselves and our customers. Otherwise, why would they come back? To fight a war?

  3. Weak self-image. Even after 20 years of teaching customer service, I still encounter one or two reps in each class who admit they cannot say “I’m sorry” unless it is proven they themselves made a mistake.
    Burning behavior: I feel for these reps. Their inability to say to a customer, “we are sorry for the impact this had on you” is rooted in a struggle to always feel good about themselves. It will also leave the damaged relationship to smolder in pain as the customer shares their dissatisfaction and disappointment with other potential customers.
    Caring behavior: Experience the greatness of putting others’ feelings ahead of your own. A sincere apology for the service team’s failure to deliver outstanding service — bonds, corrects, and heals the wounds.
  4. Overactive Ego The manager, rep, or agent who has to dominate any interaction with a customer comes across as a control freak.
    Burning behavior: The mindset, “you need my help so follow procedure and do it my way.” Communication may not be as blunt as that yet the tug-of-war that ensues can leave the customer fatigued and disinterested in your services.
    Caring behavior: Share control of the interaction with the customer. Give and take is far easier than any tug-of-war.

Every customer wants service to be easy. Paying their money to handle psychological syndromes, hangups, and barriers isn’t on their bucket list.

Free the customer and yourself from the trap of psychological distress. Embrace reality, make it a win/win, and create an easy super customer experience for everyone!

What other psychological traps would you add to this list?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

Related Post: Simply Great Choices Create Super Customer Experience

©2012 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please first email for terms of use. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on customer service & experience, employee engagement, teamwork, and leading change. Kate turns interaction obstacles into business success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

19 Responses to “Psychological Barriers to a Super Customer Experience”

  1. Nice side-by-side comparison/suggestions of good/bad or right way/wrong way. Thanks, Kate

  2. Great post, as usual, Kate. Since you asked me if I wanted to add a #5, I’ll take a crack at it. Here goes…

    Incorrect Assumptions

    Actual example (from a recorded call): a sales rep for one of our clients, a cable provider, is on a sales call with a potential customer. The customer asks if the digital cable box has parental controls. Without missing a beat, the rep answers, “Yes, absolutely!” and excitedly begins to vomit out all of the various parental control features. The customer abruptly cuts him off – “Forget it, forget it. I don’t want it. My sister has that on her cable box, and you have to press a hundred buttons just to watch anything but Sesame Street!”

    Fortunately, the rep was able to recover and get the call back on the right track. Did this jeopardize the sale? Maybe, maybe not. The parental controls feature could be disengaged. But the rep’s initial assumption (that the customer wanted the parental control feature) was wrong, struck a nerve with this customer and definitely sent the call in a negative direction unnecessarily. It also made the call longer than it needed to be.

    If the rep had just asked the customer a simple question such as “Is parental controls important to you?” and guided the discussion from there, the entire episode would have been averted. A great coaching opportunity for this rep’s supervisor or QA person.

    Just like everyone else, a customer service provider’s ability to understand the customer is shaped by personal experience, and no two people are alike in that regard.

    I’ll save #6 for another day!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks Scott. In the true story you relate here, the other improvement reminder I would make is “never sell features”.

      As a sales technique, it always runs the risk of disengaging from the customer. Always talk about value to that customer and to that end you must first understand what is important to that person.

      FYI: If you want to add #6, it’s OK with me 🙂

      Best to you,

  3. Great post, Kate
    You did mention this but I would add the following as a distinct barrier:
    #5. Lack of Empathy. Empathy requires us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes so we can experience for a moment how they might feel. In both examples, of the hotel manager and the dental cleaning, the person did not take the time to do this brief mental exercise. Service providers should always take the few seconds it requires to do a thought exercise and put themselves in the other person’s shoes–ESPECIALLY WHEN DEALING WITH COMPLAINTS. Expressing empathy is a powerful complaint handling tool and one too few service and customer service professionals use.
    Guy Winch
    Authot: The Squeaky Wheel

  4. Shep Hyken says:

    Sometimes people think serving others is beneath them. That’s not the person I want serving customers on the front line – or maybe working for my company at all. Serving others doesn’t mean they are better than you. It’s why they do business with you – because you serve them well.

  5. Khalid says:


    Well done for your continuous creativity 🙂

    Since you opened the door for more I will add this:

    #5 Discrimination:

    A sales rep might go by the first impression about the customer’s wear or style of talking and might give more attention to more elegant customer or close in culture. This type of favorism might deter such customers from buying. Sales reps should treat all customers equally and with respect disregarding racial, relegious or sexual biases.


  6. Anne Egros says:

    Your post just comes very timely. I relate very much to the patient at the dentist. I have had some work done 8 weeks ago on my teeth and still have horrible pain when I drink or eat something cold or when I am chewing. I have been told that it was normal when I call the next day. Then 2 weeks later was still painful and went to the office but the dentist said again it was normal and pain would go away in few weeks.

    Then yesterday I came back and said it is still the same problem, then the dentist admit that it could be a crack in the tooth and I may need a crown !!! The problem is that before he did the job I had no pain so I concluded that if a crack occurred then it must be his fault.

    So I am now really upset and frustrated that I may not be able to go scuba-diving in couple of weeks because of the pain! What can I do ?

    • Kate Nasser says:

      I really feel for you Anne. Physical pain and the psychological mistrust to go with it. As for what to do … I am with Khalid on this one. Waste no time and get to another dentists for a second opinion.

      I can recommend mine highly. Email me if you want the ph#.

      Concerned for you,

  7. Khalid says:


    I’m sorry for your pain. Why don’t you seek a second dentist opinion?


  8. Simon Harvey says:

    Today’s customer service is in a predicament, the front line has changed, customers have the ability to access more information than sometimes is good for them/us and sales and service people are just not trained to serve any more. Your great examples can be found across the country and for a country that once was the leader in service, it is quite sad. Scott’s example also is so apt, I have witnessed this first hand in a cable providers office just a few weeks ago while waiting in line for a new digital cable box, with about 50 other people. It was almost comical. Unfortunately it is rare that I have examples of good service on land.

    Whether a rep or sales person is suffering from any of your 5 psychological traps or Scott’s # 6 it all comes back to knowing yourself, listening to the customer (many times what is not said rather than what is) and being in touch with the genuine you. We all make mistakes and most of us can quickly be humbled by someone that admits they made one, perhaps the biggest trap is simply never having spent the time, or had the training, learning about your own psychological self.
    Thanks for the great post.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks Simon. Interesting suggestion you make — that everyone about their inner psychological self before serving others!

      So pleased that you added to this post.

      I’m grateful.

  9. Roy Atkinson says:

    In just about every comment, there’s a central theme: Someone did not see the other’s point of view. Whatever we call it–empathy, sensitivity, ability to think outside the box, being a good listener–when we interact with others, we need to extend trust and empathy to get past our own barriers and see things from another angle.
    Thanks for another thoughtful post.


    • Kate Nasser says:

      You captured the essence Roy. Interesting to me that leaders continue to believe that this ability is just inborn and/or common sense.

      Yet story after story shows that it is the key missing link in so many dissatisfied customers, lost sales, and broken loyalties.

      Thanks for offering the big picture!

  10. Kate,
    I love the way you’ve nailed this one down. To me, that cognitive dissonance piece is really critical — and the defensiveness emerges directly out of it. Your story from the Hilton Garden Inn is shocking.

    I like your focus on the GM as a leader, and his failure to get out of himself. I think it takes something greater, such as a very deep loyalty to a company and what it stands for, to pull people out of their comfort zones and their cognitive dissonance, their ego issues and defensiveness. You have to be really living your loyalty to a firm and the values it represents in order to let it pull you into places of learning you might not otherwise go as a person. What I am saying is that while Hilton may have done some good work training employees (hence your early good experiences), it may not actually be the sort of organization that induces that kind of loyalty and deep engagement from people. What you saw may have been the tip of a cultural iceberg.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Your comments always capture the essence and then take it much deeper. I am always expanded by your view. The point you make here about going past “training” and into the core of caring truly expresses the universal customer expectation.

      Many thanks and I invite you to comment on any post that taps your deeper thoughts.

      Warmest thanks,

  11. I love your posts, Kate. This is a great one. I’m not sure if this is #6 or #7 or maybe a combination of your #1 and #2 but – The Need To Be Right. If a service rep has the need to be right, the customer will never have a good experience. The old statement, “The Customer Is Always Right” is the wrong statement because employees don’t believe it. A better statement is, “The Customer Is Always Right From Their Perspective” and I coach staff to just accept this as a truth and move on. Don’t waste time trying to prove who’s actually right or wrong.

    I like Roy’s point about not seeing the customer’s point of view, whether we call it empathy, sensitivity or whatever term. The challenge is most employees are conditioned and coached from the inside looking out rather than from the outside looking in. The truth is, no matter what you’re selling or what business you’re in, the quality of the customer’s experience is driven by how the customer FEELS at that moment of interaction. When I train this concept, I always ask the participants to tell me about a good and a bad experience that happened to them – and then ask, “How did you feel.” This gets them to practice imagining how the customer may feel because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how we feel when we serve – it matters how the customer feels.

    Finally, in the “I’m sorry” argument, I’m glad you’re on the side of saying it. These so-called experts who preach that it’s disingenuous to say I’m Sorry when you didn’t specifically cause the issue are missing the mark. The customer wants to hear that someone cares. Saying, “I’m sorry for the impact this had on you – this isn’t what we strive for” or similar statements conveyed with sincerity are perfect. Thanks again for a great post.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Bill,
      Love you addition. Having to “be right” not only drives customers crazy and disconnects them from you, it also invades and can destroy personal relationships.

      Also, many thanks for your echo on the “We are sorry” point. If a company can’t say sorry through their reps, why should we go back?

      I am grateful for your comments and contributions here.

      Have a super weekend.

      Many thanks,

  12. Jeff Toister says:

    Great post, Kate. I particularly like the way you dissected several examples. I have a book coming out in November called “Service Failure” that looks at these types of barriers employees face every day, so this post really resonated with me. (

    Your list is great and there are some other terrific suggestions, but I can think of one more to add: Learned Helplessness. Essentially, this means that the employee has decided through repeated failure and frustration that pleasing the customer isn’t possible, so they start to give up. You often see this in situations where a company’s products, services, or procedures are very poor and employees on the front lines have to handle a steady stream of complaints. It’s frustrating for them because in their minds they don’t have the power to fix the problem, but they must bear the brunt of the criticism.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Excellent addition Jeff. I do believe they must unlearn helplessness or better yet — never learn it. As I teach, it’s all about the giving not the coasting!

      Many thanks for your contribution and keep us posted on the book. Let me know when it is ready to read.

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