Customer Experience tale: how humanity and inhumanity shows up and the impact it makes

Whilst some of you loved my last post,  some of you found it a little too philosophical.  “Look Maz, we live in the real world.  How does what you say apply to us in the hard world of business?  OK, this post is for you.  I will share with you how humanity and inhumanity shows up in the world of the customer and the impact that it has.  Allow me to share my story with you.

I need to go and see my Dentist

Some days ago I started to experience toothache whilst eating.  I meant to do something and when the pain became painful enough I did do something. I rang my dentist only to find the line engaged so I opted for the ‘ringback’ option.  To my surprise and delight within two minutes of hanging up I was on the line to the receptionist.  We talked and she booked me in for Wednesday morning 8:45am.  At the end of this encounter I was left feeling that the Receptionist got me as a human being in pain who needed help and she played her part in helping me solve my problem.  On Wednesday morning I turned up at the Dentists.  The Receptionist greeted me warmly, told me to wait upstairs and showed me where the stairs were.  Excellent, I am now in the waiting room – all by myself.  Then I wait for around fifteen minutes for the Dentist to see me.  This waiting could have shown up in my world as a pain and it did not as I was busy on my smartphone doing email.

My “I-Thou” encounter with the dentist: my dentist oozes humanity!

Before I knew it I was with the Dentist.  He greeted me with a warm voice and smile and mentioned that it had been a while since we last met, “two and half years to be exact”. I told him my issue, he listened and said “That is the issue you came in with last time and I put a filling in there.  Let’s take a look.”

He started looking: he prodded here, he prodded there.  Then he told me that he could not see any issues with any of my fillings.  “I wonder if it is do with the fact that you have sensitive teeth?”  I replied that I did not think so.  He suggested that we do a test and see if he could recreate the pain I had been feeling on previous days.  So he blew a jet of air on the side of my gums and sure enough I felt pain but not the kind of pain I had been experiencing and that is what I told him.  His response? “OK, there might be something there that I am not seeing so let’s do some x-rays!”  So he did the x-rays.

Looking at the x-rays my Dentist showed me how there was no difference between the state of my teeth since my last visit.  He could not see any issues.  Nonetheless, I told him that I had experienced pain. Did he ignore me?  No.  He suggested that it was possible that I had a crack and that was the cause of my pain.  He went on to tell me that he could not see it and the x-rays would not show it.  So he recommended that I use the teeth on my right hand side more than I had been using them (I had been using the left side because that side was not in pain) and if there was a crack then that would show up quicker.

He gave me advice on how to brush my teeth and he gave me some toothpaste for my sensitive teeth.  Why did he show me how to brush my teeth?  Because he noticed that I had been overbrushing my teeth and he knows I have sensitive teeth.  He showed me a way to brush my teeth that would work better for me.  Why did he give me the toothpaste?  So that I could smear it on the sides of my teeth /gums so as to provide some pain relief and protection against pain.

As I was getting ready to leave he recommended that I see the Hygenist.  I noticed that I was hesitant and he looked at his records.  “I see that you don’t like visiting the Hygenist.  Why is that?  What’s the reason for that?”  So I told him that it occurred to me that all the Hygenist was doing was making my teeth look white and pretty.  And that I had little time for vanity – I simply had not been brought up that way.  I ended by saying that I was open to being persuaded if I had got things wrong.  So he told me.  He spent about five minutes explaining the benefits to me – healthy teeth and gums – of seeing the Hygenist once a year, starting there and then.  I found his education persuasive and I agreed to see the Hygenist. [ Now here is the interesting thing: during our conversation on the merits of using a Hygenist I was fully engaged in the conversation.  The Dentist did not have to use gimmicks or tempt me with prize competitions or entice me with an online game…  He simply invited me to enter into a conversation that mattered to me – my teeth, my health.  And by doing so he had my full attention and participation.]

Then it was time to leave.  I looked him in the face, smiled, shook his hand and thanked him for being great with me.  He smiled and wished me well.  “What a great experience?  He really cares about me!  He listened to my concerns.  He did more than that he educated me in an amazingly friendly, non-condescending way!”

I encounter that helpful Receptionist again!

I take the paperwork (that my dentist has given me) and head downstairs to the Receptionist.  She smiles and asks me if I want to book in an appointment with the Hygenistt. “Yes”, I say.  “When?” she asks. “Can you do this Friday?”.  “No, the Hygenist does not work on Fridays.”  I look disappointed and say “Oh”.  The Receptionist, seeing and hearing my disappointment, says “How about today, right now?  She is free for the next half an hours!”  I agree and she shows me into ‘Hygenist’s office’.

Hygenist: an excellent model of inhumanity, of the “I-It” encounter

The Hygenist does not greet me.  She does not smile.  She does not use my name.  I notice that she has not noticed me – not as a human being, not as the dentist did only some 20 minutes ago. She tells me to sit down in the chair.  I sit, she reclines the chair and gets busy working on my teeth.  Have you been to see a Hygenist?  If you have you will know that it is not the most pleasant of experiences.  She prods here, she scrapes there, she pokes here, there and everywhere.  In the process of poking around, vigorously, she pokes one of my upper teeth on the right hand side.  EXCRUCIATING PAIN.  EXCRUCIATING PAIN.  When she stops doing that momentarily I raise my hand, move my head forward and empty the contents of my mouth – mainly blood into the little sink next to me.

I tell her. I say “That was incredibly painful.  It is the most pain I have experienced for a long time!”.  And move back into the position.   “I am sorry.  That can happen sometimes.  Do you want me to stop? Or I can carry on?  I promise to be careful so that I do not touch that tooth there again.  What do you think?”  That is what I am expecting her to say.  That is what I would say in that situation and mean it.  And that is what my dentist would say and meant it.  What does the Hygenist do?

In my world it occurs that she has ignored me! How? Why? Because she does not say a word.  She gets straight back to work and guess where she goes back to work?  The exact spot that had caused me that pain!  So there I am again: excruciating pain – though less than the last time.   I am captive, I cannot do anything whilst she is doing what she is doing.  And shortly after that it is all finished.  I am grateful that my torment is finished.  There must be some humanity there I say to myself.  So I say “It must take great skill to be able to do what you do in such a small space!”  In a flat, cold, voice she says “Yes, it does.”  The way that is said I tell myself “This person is not a people person.  She is not interested in conversation.  She is here to do a job and that is it.  Everything else is simply ‘waste’.  Clearly she has been to the six sigma school of business: do the job as effectively and efficiently as possible and when that is finished get on to the next job.” I am convinced that in her world I do not show up as human being.  I bet that to her I occur as a product that has to be processed.  This is not that much of a surprise – one of my best friends is a doctor and I remember him telling me (a long time ago)  that after a little while human beings simply show up as ‘pieces of meat’ to be processed and sent on their way.

I thank the Hygenist.  She does not look at me.  She does not smile.  She does not wish me a good day. She does not offer any advice.  I walk out of that room and make a promise to myself.  I will NEVER go and see that Hygenist again – no matter what!

How does inhumanity show up?  Inhumanity is simply indifference to the humanity of our fellow human beings.  We get on with the ‘task at hand’ and completely ignore the person in front of us. We do not acknowledge, we do not validate, we simply ignore the other as a human being.  The leave us experiencing that they have been experienced as objects – not as fellow travellers on the path called life.

What does it take to put humanity into the game?  When I mentioned the excruciating pain a humane person would have:

a) acknowledged that I was in pain – “So when I was cleaning your top teeth you felt a tremendous amount of pain.  On a scale of 1 – 10 how painful is it?”;

b) validated me – “10! That is amazingly painful.  I don’t know how you managed to keep so calm, so still.  If I was in that much pain I would not have been able to do what you just did.”;

c) worked with me to address my pain – “I have only a little bit more work to do on your teeth.  Are you up for that today?  I promise, I will stay clear of that tooth that is causing you so much pain?”

d) left me feeling as one human being interacting with a fellow human being who gets me and who cares about me. 

Final words

You might me tempted to dismiss the example that I have shared with you here – you might label it “extreme” or an “exception”.  If you are serious about cultivating that personal emotional connection with your customers then I counsel you to recognise that inhumanity (the “I-It” mode of encounter) is pervasive – it is the default condition.  And you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself simply by moving from “inhumanity” as the default to “humanity” as the default.  As I said in my previous post, Zappos and Rackspace have become extremely successful businesses in competitive industries simply by the amount of humanity (genuine caring for customers as fellow human beings) that they put into the game every day.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.