Why Dignity is the Key to Customer Service

Taking another look at what it means to treat customers with dignity and how it benefits your business.
National Business Innovations
August 09, 2012

For the last several decades customer service has cycled through an evolution of different metrics, all focused on measuring if the customer is happy. It started with satisfaction, then moved to loyalty, engagement, customer value, back to loyalty, then the recommend question, and even level of effort. Regardless of the label, the intent of these metrics is largely the same. Make the customer happy. 

Putting the subtle differences between these metrics aside, focusing on just a “happy metric” of customer service ignores perhaps the most critical role of a service representative. Yes, reps are customer advocates, but they are much more than that.  They often have to be the parent, the coach or the referee who says "no." Customer service reps are not just customer advocates. They are defenders of your brand.

Understanding Dignity

What this all comes down to is not about if the customer was given what they wanted no matter what, but if they were treated with dignity in the process.

But what does dignity mean?  What happens when it is present, or absent? 

Over the past seven months, I have had the privilege of working with Sabrina Pagano, Ph.D., who has spent much of the last decade reviewing existing research on moral emotions, perceived justice and the elements of dignity, as well as researching the concept of dignity itself. In my conversations with Dr. Pagano, a few implications of the research came to light.

  • When dignity is violated, people feel moral outrage. Often, this is accompanied by a desire to punish the perpetrator. 
  • If people feel they are treated in a just and fair manner, they are more willing to accept and comply with decisions and outcomes, even ones they may not find desirable.
  • Dignity is very much wrapped up in strong emotions, ranging from elevation and self-worth on one end of the spectrum, to embarrassment, shame and even disgust on the low end.

Putting Dignity to Work

So what does all of this imply for customer service? First, if a company does not focus on and maintain the dignity of its customers, then their customers are likely to feel moral outrage and a desire to punish the brand. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where service becomes so impersonal that a brand is eventually destroyed.

Secondly, whether or not a representative says yes or no is not what is most important.  What’s most important is how the customer is treated in the process. If the customer believes they were treated in a just and fair manner, and that their dignity was upheld, then it is likely that they will be more accepting of the outcome than if they believe they were treated unjustly.

Without this focus or realization, customer service reps that are being judged by the latest fad in “happy metrics” are put in a no-win situation every day. Give in to the customer to get the high rating, or do what they are supposed to do based on policy and get a low rating. If the focus shifts to dignity, then the most important thing becomes treating the customer well, while defending the integrity of the brand.

Dignity, however, is not a simple construct. There are emotional, situational and experiential aspects that all must be measured and coached for this paradigm shift to take hold. However, adopting such an approach is a way to finally recognize the total value of front-line employees, and avoiding over-emphasizing the “happy metrics.”

Tom Rieger is the author of Breaking the Fear Barrier, and is president and CEO of National Business Innovations LLC, a member of the NSI/NBI family of companies.