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Can you teach someone to care?


You usually can't create passionate users unless you deeply care about them. If you didn't, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog. But what about the other people on your team? How do you get them to care?

Obviously you can teach customer service skills. You can teach active listening. But can you teach them to care?

But you can infect them.

Passion is infectious, and so is caring. The brain usually can't help sliding toward the behaviors of those that brain is around. So if you want people to care, make sure the culture of your environment has hit a critical mass of caring.

I worked for the Sports Club LA/Reebok for a few years, and one of my jobs was to write software that trained employees on customer service skills. Each of the several thousand employees in the entire company had to go through the same customer service training program. But we noticed that at some facilities, virtually 100% of the employees were nice-as-pie to the customers, while in a couple other facilities, you'd think it would kill some of the front desk staff to even smile at a customer let alone help them out with anything. What was the difference?

Critical mass.
In the places where the service was awesome, the norm was to treat the customers like gems. If a new employee started working the front desk, for example, and didn't say goodbye to a customer as they walked out, everyone noticed. The rest of the people there would turn around with an odd look. Not a condescending or angry look, just... that it was strange to not hear someone say goodbye to a customer. The norm was to greet and say goodbye to customers, and anything that violated the norm was really noticeable.

But in places where the service sucked, that culture didn't exist. If a new employee started working the desk and didn't greet a customer, nobody noticed. Nothing out of the ordinary.

We fixed the situation in less than two weeks by taking the front desk employees who couldn't imagine not greeting the customers and sent enough of them out to the other facilities until we thought we had critical mass. It worked.

There's another question, of course, which is, "Yeah, but weren't they just being fake and going through the motions?" Just because they had the behavior of caring doesn't mean they actually did. That's true, although in many cases, it doesn't matter all that much as long as the behavior of the "faker" is indistinguishable from the Real Thing. But it would matter, in the end, because sooner or later that employee would be put to the test.

But that's where the brain kicks in... because the brain can get "infected" by an attitude of caring. It's not guaranteed, of course, but just as having a teacher or friend who is enthusiastic about something can eventually cause you to start genuinely liking that thing, you can be infected by being around enough people who really do make caring a top priority.

The tougher job is when you don't have critical mass and you somehow have to get there. And that's when you need to bring in The Big Guns... real customers. Most often, when people don't care about the users, it's because they don't see users as real people. They're just abstract concepts. But if forced to meet one face-to-face, or at least see some in a video talking about real needs, hopes, dreams, concerns, they'll have to start seeing them as real humans. And unless you've got sociopaths on your team (and I have a former manager or two I might put in that category ; )), it'll be hard to keep them from feeling something.

So you can't teach caring (although you can certainly teach ways to demonstrate caring to users), but you can use the brain's built-in tendency to model what it sees in others to infect the newcomers. And by finding ways to keep users "real people" instead of spreadsheet numbers, a critical caring mass shouldn't be that tough to hit.

I heart users : )

Posted by Kathy on February 28, 2005 | Permalink


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For me infectability of care has proven itself on the ranch. I remember subscribing being interested in Java, and getting replies to posts from interested fellow certificands, big names, and just plain old interested guys. The whole Java gig easily became an organic whole with some leading material that are the books and the ranch as palpable 'life support' system.

A wonderful formula :-)


Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Feb 28, 2005 3:53:52 AM

I'm with you big-time on this one, in fact, I'm starting to sound like a bit of a cracked record on the topic:


You really can't train this, they gotta have the "G-a-F" gene...!

(Sorry Bren)

Posted by: Rich...! | Feb 28, 2005 12:08:16 PM

Can I be a bit of a fly in the ointment here?

I like your post, especially the messages: passion is infectious and customers are people too


I feel for the sales reps working for minimum wage a Reebok, who have to Be "up" all the time. They come in to work and make their meager living, without understanding why they have to meet successively higher sales targets every month, but keep getting their own hours cut short. I understand why some days they don't feel like smiling at everyone that walks through their door. After all, often it doesn't even feel like "their door" as much as managerspeak may try to convince them that their work is their home.

I also think that is is possible to care passionately about your customers, while feeling increasingly apathetic towards the work you do. If you don't feel like your work is valued by your company - why should you care whether they make more money or not?

I do agree with your post. It is important to be a passionate person, and even more important to be passionate about others but I do feel like your example was exactly what the big companies (sun microsystems to you) say when they want their employees to tow the corporate line in the name of the almighty dollar.

Maybe as human beings we should all just strive to be better people every day.

Posted by: Jay | Feb 28, 2005 1:17:35 PM

Are you trying to tell me that garbagemen, janitors, and telemarketers aren't passionate about their jobs? Sacrilege!

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Feb 28, 2005 10:32:08 PM

It's the culture of whatever place surrounds the people... uncaring begets more uncaring. It's as if people can look at the crabbiest person and say, "If he/she can get away with that, I can also!"

But put a passionate, caring person in the mix, and somehow the atmosphere lightens -- especially if that person is in management! Imagine if management treats his/her employees, co-workers, vendors, and customers with respect and attention (active listening and all that): that respect becomes infectious.

It's the Buddhist concept of 'we're all connected' ("interbeing").

Negativity begets negativity; that's one reason why muckraking and negative-news is so popular - everyone loves to jump on the bandwagon. It's more "interesting" than respect and joy.

And YET joy and respect beget the same.... but think back to stories of athletes overcoming tremendous odds... the lunar lander on the moon... your joy at getting a raise or a promotion... someone handing you a free ice cream or doing you an act of mercy...

Makes you think what you can influence in your own sphere.

Posted by: Lauren Muney | Mar 10, 2006 7:43:23 PM

Erm, you mean instead of caring about customers, you just need to goodbye them? And you expect the rest of the team to practice that and start caring them?

Why not show by example that you and others care about them, too?

By the way, a forced good behaviour can be annoying, in case you haven't noticed. While you can train people to smile, you can't train them to cheat with their eyes and attitude, which will tell.

Posted by: Yuri | Dec 20, 2006 1:47:38 AM

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