The Human Chemistry Of Customer Service

martin hill-wilson
Martin Hill-Wilson Director, Brainfood Consulting

Posted on April 6th 2011

The Human Chemistry Of Customer Service


I’ve just come back from Rioja. A place obviously associated with wine.

It was only on my return though that I discovered how much I’d developed a taste for its intoxicating chemistry of taste and aroma. It took quite a few days and a mini bout of cold turkey to recover!

The excuse for all this was an inaugural customer service conference. It comprised every region from the globe plus a healthy smattering of outside brands to provide contrast for an internal discussion on what ‘Being The Best’ meant.

It was interesting. As facilitator I’d co-crafted the three day experience. One of the titles I’d settled on for an afternoon session was ‘The Human Chemistry Of Customer Service’. That title came to summarise an essential strand in the overall discussion as this quorum of top performing brands explored what actually ‘made the magic’ as they went about their daily customer service business.

For me, this is a juicy topic. Because in spite of all the great progress that process-led interventions have contributed, it’s not the bit that makes the earth move for customers. Nor is it for those “professional communicators” who do the talking on behalf of the brand.

When it works, something else is at play.

Unbroken Chain

A phrase currently in vogue is ‘Customer Engagement’. That’s because trust and attention are in such short supply that a new understanding is now needed to convey the size of relationship challenge between brands and today’s generation of customers. Engagement seems to capture that essential need pretty well and is a welcome advance on the ‘command and control’ notion embedded in the legacy phrase ‘customer management’. I mean think about it. Would you prefer to be engaged or managed?

It is of course a way of describing a very old business competency – being able to create a bond that matters to both parties. This is something that cannot be defined as a process and is seldom captured in a training programme since the human chemistry that takes place in authentic engagement is a bit special and not that easily bottled.

So this is my take on how the human chemistry part actually works. Warning! It sounds so simple that if you receive it just as a head based idea, it sounds light weight and obvious. So take your time and see if you can trace the connections in terms of experience so it comes to life.

Engagement thrives when there is an unbroken chain of experience. That means ‘Customer Engagement’ is a function of ‘Employee Engagement’. And this in turn is nurtured by ‘Leadership Engagement’. When the chain is broken, the magic switches off.

This way of looking at engagement explains quite a lot. Fot a start it helps predict real world levels of customer engagement. Look to your own experience of being engaged. I doubt you’ll need even half your fingers to add up those organisations that ‘do it’ for you.

This is because ‘leadership engagement’ is not yet a mandatory competency for those winning top jobs. When organisations catch up with that flawed recruitment profile, things will then change. But right now, the result of this leadership failure is that the people who need the nuture are less inclined to engage given the example being handed down. In many cases a lot less inclined! To the extent that they often leave the alive, engaged part of themselves at home and just turn up to ‘do the job and get paid’.

Evidence? Can you think of a recent customer service experience where it felt the lights were on, but nobody was home!

Contrast that with a story one of the external brands told about themselves. Their professional communicators have no imposed boundaries on engaging and satisfying their customers. Instead the emphasis is put on developing an ‘in the moment’ instinct for what is needed to meet both stated and implicit needs. In other words these people are sufficiently engaged through the right style of leadership that they are able to naturally flex their rapport and empathy skills to generate human chemistry between themselves and their customers.

It is no co-incidence to also hear that their van drivers (they are in the food business) are trusted with their customer’s front door keys as and when deliveries need to be put away safely. Conclusion? Engagement and trust become natural bedfellows. Put the other way around, the current absence of trust that is so often highlighted between organisations and their stakeholders is caused in part by estrangement. Getting engagement levels up starts to close the gap.

Social TV Enables Engagement

Here is another way of looking at engagement. I heard this story a few days ago and liked the spirit of what is being attempted. CBS Television Studios recently announced it will use Instagram, a photo sharing app, to promote its show NCIS: Los Angeles. Fans can follow the show on Instagram for behind-the-scenes shots by the cast and crew.

But the engagement flows both ways.

A photo competition called “Flaunt Your City” gives fans a chance to contribute. The best photos as voted by the cast will appear in the season’s finale. All submissions are naturally socialised and explored on Facebook.

Assuming you are a fan of the series, this is something that can add a whole new dimension and reason for staying connected to the series. Remember it’s tough these days delivering TV audiences, given all the other distractions that these shows now have to fend off.

Anyway, just another example from another industry and geography of how to put engagement into practice.

Last Words…

Rioja reminded me of a major truth about engagement. You can’t fake it. The last time that point occured to me was when I heard the Zappos story from one of the founders. My takeaway then was that there is no half way house to doing this stuff. If the leadership are shy, the human interface will never be a memorable point of customer experience. Bar of course any lone spirit strong enough to prevail.

As a matter of co-incidence, there is a quote pinned to one of the whiteboards in the study where I’m writing this. It’s been there so long I usually blank it. But not tonight.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.

Just as well, since it provides me with a great way to summarise this theme around The Human Chemistry Of Customer Service. And guess who wrote that? That great provider of insight into how humans work - Carl Jung

P.S. If you fancy a more relaxing, intuitive way of absorbing and reflecting on the ideas in this article, try out this more chilled music based version.

martin hill-wilson

Martin Hill-Wilson

Director, Brainfood Consulting

I am a long standing member of the UK customer service community. I’ve served as consultant, facilitator, director and CEO for a variety of brands. I also participate as conference speaker and blogger in my role of passing on best practice and next generation thinking in customer service and social business. I currently work as an independent under the Brainfood brand with a range of clients focussing on customer related strategy assignments. This increasingly includes social media and social business integration. More at

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Martin - Love your post.  Outstanding commentary on customer engagement.  You are right, any breakdown in the chain and there is no magic.  The challenge is that command and control is such an ingrained behavior that it really requires a significant change process to overcome it This of course requires time and energy.  In today's "helter skelter" environment it seems organizations are unwilling to go through this process.  They are afraid they will take their eye off the "profit ball" which is understandable, however that thinking is so short term.  The organizations that take the time and devote the energy to this change will win in the long run.  Thanks for inspiring me and a special thanks for your musical rendition.  That's awesome.

Enthusiastically Yours,


Bill Campion @culturedude


Thanks for the response. Can't really add much because you nail the dilemma facing the executive. But there again, why are such folk paid so handsomely if they lack the bottle to take a risk to find a better future? It is tough, but fortune favours the brave.

Anyway, enough self evident truths! Delighted that you tried and liked the music version. Inspired to do more!