It feels as if we live in an increasingly nasty world where a lack of civility and courtesy, an increase in bad manners, and an avalanche of negativity, especially in business, are some of the least bad outcomes. But fortune smiled on me recently and I was at a couple of events where customer experience was served piping hot and helped me realise that all is not lost, and I left feeling full of the milk of human kindness. Or perhaps it was the champagne!

The most memorable of these events was the WoW Awards held in London recently to honour recipients who are nominated by the best, and only, people that can evaluate service excellence – their customers. While there were well-deserved winners from the private sector, the public sector – first responders, health services and local government employees – was equally well represented. As each winner was announced we were treated to a beguiling combination of enthusiasm, emotion and empathy that accompanied their stories and were the highlights of the activities that were so worthy of nomination and the associated honours.

While the cynics among you may suggest that they “were only doing their job” I can assure you that what they did went beyond going the extra mile and took on marathon proportions in stamina and resilience. The stories are too plentiful to share here in detail, but it was clear that what characterised them all was the ability of the deliverer to act with compassion and empathy and to “be themselves”, rather than a human chatbot delivering senseless and meaningless condescension driven by arcane rules and processes. But more about that shortly.

The second event was the Engage Customer Summit, also in London, which I co-chaired and featured “engaging” (naturally) presentations from over one hundred organizations. This year’s theme was the Human Face of Engagement and featured a healthy mix of companies well known for great customer experience (CX) complemented by sincere and engaging presentations from those companies that don’t make the CX headlines or the award shows but have an equally strong commitment to improving the lives of their customers and colleagues. While technology also featured prominently, it was respectfully, intelligently and creatively blended with the role that humans play to show why people, customers and colleagues still come first.

Now it’s Personal – Just be you, the customers will love it
These two events both coincide with an increasing and fully deserved focus on the role that emotions play in customer interactions and feedback, and why a chatbot named Gladys will never be able to put a real or metaphorical arm around your shoulders and truly “feel your pain.” I first wrote about this some years ago and suggested then that hugging may also be involved, but recent global events have suggested that may no longer be in fashion!

Nonetheless, any organization that truly cares about customers and citizens must allow their front-line employees to express their own personalities, act naturally and spontaneously. By doing this they engage with the customer emotionally as well as practically. Most of us naturally want to help others and come pre-wired with an attitude and a caring side that is ideally suited to achieving that objective. The best companies enhance their customer engagement by encouraging employees to build on these natural feelings and attitudes, and then let them use their own words and deeds to cement the bond and demonstrate that they really care.

The key to success is the ability to find the right words delivered in the right way at the right time, which sounds simple enough. The gift of language, whether the written form or the spoken word, was bestowed on us long ago. When its power is used creatively by those in a customer service role to eloquently address many of the challenges that we face us as customers it becomes a calming and positive influence. But this gift has been squandered, abused and rendered impotent in the name of conformity, regulation and the fear of litigation. This has led to the creation of bland, restrictive and impersonal statements, often read without feeling or recognition of the circumstances, in order to meet a company’s’ quality assurance metrics, to the detriment of both the customer and the employee.

I’m sure there will be people who will say there are risks associated with letting people unleash their personalities, creativity, or rich and fruity vocabulary on poor unsuspecting customers. I’m not talking about thoughtless, knee-jerk or unplanned communications. This is all about giving employees permission to engage with customers on an emotional and personal level. It puts the responsibility for greater customer experience back where it belongs; in the hands and voices, of the people who deliver the service. Let them have the knowledge needed, the trust and freedom to use it wisely, and set them free to execute.

Ditch the scripts – Act Naturally
But this isn’t such a revolutionary idea. A recent survey from Software Advice, a website that provides information on customer support software, is a great illustration of the fact that most customers would prefer not to engage with agents who sounded as if they were reading from a script. Their survey – What Customers Really Think About Your Call Centre Script – had a lead-off question that really hit the nail on the head when it directly asked, “Does it improve your call experience when the customer service agent doesn’t sound like they’re reading from a script?” The response was a resounding “Yes” from 69% of respondents.

The survey was very enlightening and went on to focus on a number of other strategies. It discovered that using some of the very basic, human, unscripted, natural responses such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ were vastly more effective in building empathy, consistency and understanding into the interactions. The reason for this seems equally simple. When agents say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, they are not reading those words directly from a script, they’re saying them naturally. They fit into normal, everyday dialogue, and the inflection and tone of the words are exactly how it should be.

I realize that many organizations have legal and regulatory statements that need to be covered, especially in the Financial Service sector. But I’ve worked with many organizations who have found innovative and natural ways to introduce these into the conversation, and meet their commitments, without reducing the customer to tears. If you want to see this in action check out the South West Airlines videos of various cabin crew announcements, where the passengers are reduced to tears – of laughter! I’ve also experienced this on WestJet in Canada and their flight attendants are equally engaging and humorous and clearly demonstrate that it’s not just ‘what’ you say, it’s ‘how’ you say it.

Put the spotlight on talent and let the feelings shine through
Engaged and trusted employees naturally want to help and find it easy to draw on their reserves of empathy and understanding, tune into their customer and turn up their performance. Forward thinking organizations put the spotlight on these talents and believe that if you can unleash imagination, encourage innovation and build trust, based on simple human behaviour and principles, people will come together in a common purpose – and customers, employees and companies all win.

For those companies that truly understand this and measure success by the daily performance of the people who are the company, the results are clear. Not only are they reputationally and financially more profitable, but their employees achieve greater success and satisfaction in their work and life. They are also typically less likely to leave and more inclined to establish a career for the longer term.

But companies can’t make people be themselves or change their personalities, and individuals are still the best creators of great customer experiences by bringing the human touch to their interactions. Much of this is down to experience, knowledge and confidence, but in fast growing businesses, or those with significant attrition, this is easier said than done.

It should come naturally – But in case it doesn’t
If you’re young but come with a great attitude and enthusiasm pre-installed, as many do, then that can overcome lack of experience, company knowledge and other skills that can be learned as you progress. But why doesn’t this happen naturally in the world of customer service? Wanting to help others, especially those that clearly are in need of assistance and support, would seem to be a perfectly natural and worthy thing to do. Most of us, when confronted with this situation in a personal circumstance with relatives, friends and even strangers –think of the Good Samaritan – don’t hesitate to step in.

Clearly there needs to be some boundaries but, as with many things in life, most of us in polite society know instinctively how to interact courteously and respectfully towards our fellow humans and don’t need rules for fundamental, day to day activities. It’s often been said that people buy from people and that’s never been truer than today. We all crave the human touch, regardless of how many shiny new toys technology companies try to convince us that we need.

One theme that I’m hearing frequently in the organizations that I work with is the desire of the front line to have more conversation and less confrontation, and to be able to adapt their approach to each customer based on the circumstances of the interaction rather than the words in their call guides. In other words, addressing the emotion of the situation, gaining the customers trust and establishing a strong connection with soothing and reassuring language rather than just being functional.

Experience has shown me that most people already have a pretty good vocabulary to draw on when given the opportunity, that can be amplified, enhanced and expanded. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to design and facilitate workshops in which we collaboratively develop ideas, words and phrases that really help the front-line teams in having more meaningful and enjoyable conversations that lead to more positive customer outcomes and mutual respect. And that is a very worthwhile exercise that pays immediate and sustainable dividends for any organization.

Then again, maybe it’s just all talk!