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How to Turn Your "People Experiences" into Positive Interactions

Mastering the skills of marvelous customer service is a journey. You can guide your team on the journey with in-services based on sound learning principles.

By Max T. Russell, Max and Max Communications

Don Crawley says his book, The Compassionate Geek, is about learning to care deeply about customers. Such a book should have three features: a manageable amount of content, concrete examples, and interaction. The book is lacking in all three.

Crawley directs his instruction at technologists and engineers and says the chief qualities of outstanding customer service -- compassion, empathy, listening, and respect -- are the very same qualities of an outstanding human being. The author says learning these traits is "a lifelong journey" to enjoy.

One of Crawley's main points is that you have to think of customers as fellow humans who are much like you. In other words, always honor the Golden Rule -- treat people the way you want to be treated. The issue is not so much that your customers are paying your wages but that customers deserve your compassion, empathy, listening, and respect. By giving your best attitude and behavior, you will enrich the work experience for yourself at the same time.

Although the major section on "emotional intelligence" is squishy science, Crawley does a good job of emphasizing that professionals must make the effort to stay aware of emotions and to understand their role in human relations. Theories such as emotional intelligence have ridden on the coattails of Howard Gardner's highly popular theory of "multiple intelligences" (see Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences written in 1983). Gardner admitted years ago that he had no empirical proof for his theory. It has remained popular for honoring cognitive performance that traditionally is overlooked in measures of intelligence and academic achievement.

My favorite part of The Compassionate Geek is a concise piece of advice that should guide each work day. The author says "our objective is to effect a positive outcome for the end user, our organization, and ourselves." He adds, "Really, nothing else matters."

In support of Crawley's compassionate effort, it's reasonable to assert that anyone who interacts with customers is paid to be a good human being. Crawley says the hardest part of IT's work is dealing "with the end user." We should question whether that is so -- not that most IT professionals don't believe it but because it may lead you to think at a disadvantage.

For instance, would you say you yourself are the most difficult part of the day for everyone who has to deal with you? Every year, the Number 1 problem in K-12 education is said to be classroom discipline -- that is, the students themselves.

I taught nearly all ages -- from toddlers to professionals -- for years and discovered that dealing with human behavior is actually the most beautiful part of the job for anyone who has the good fortune to be taught the necessary skills and attitudes.

Because school teachers are known to be more people-oriented than technologists as a group, we can be sure Crawley is on the right track when he says IT professionals see people as an obstacle to getting their work done.

If you go to work every day looking at the customer as the most difficult part of your job, you may very well have things backwards. Your customer experience can become the best part of the day for both you and your customer. My twin brother believes customer service is something IT should enjoy. He likes to say, "One of the good things in life is doing good business with good people."

The Compassionate Geek will direct you to the professional skills that turn your people experiences into the kind you look forward to. Nevertheless, the book is weak on essential ingredients of a strong learning environment.

Let's examine these three ingredients and how you can make them work for your in-service or workshop.

A Manageable Amount of Content

I always insist that the value you place on the content you present is measured by the time you give it. The following is an example of devaluing your content:

In order to get through this next section, I'm going to ask that nobody asks questions. If we have time at the end, maybe we can take some questions.

That kind of talk means you consider interaction an interruption. Remember that content is not valuable in itself. Once you lose time for interaction, you have an unmanageable amount of content. You have too much! Interaction is just as important as anything you have to say.

When you prepare a presentation, you must either plan time for give-and-take with your audience or you must design the give-and-take into the content itself. I will explain that later. The main point here is that you have too much going on if you have no time for interaction. You have mismanaged the content, and you must correct the problem as soon as possible -- even during the presentation.

A veteran teacher once said, "My lesson plans last 24 hours." In other words, she was smart enough to revise her neatly prepared agenda as soon as her students began interacting with it.

"Covering the content" does not equal learning and is not a professional approach to building learning environments.

Crawley's book hurries through the content by stuffing almost every area of self-help into a single publication. The section on listening, for example would take anyone years to master.

Plenty of Concrete Examples

One of the biggest favors you can do for attendees is to spend time preparing solid examples that illustrate what you're talking about. Your audience will usually be able to add such examples if you request them, but you must come to the presentation with enough of your own.

When appropriate, talk to the people ahead of time and gather concrete examples that may or may not have to remain confidential. These can widen your view to the needs and interests of your audience and will raise everyone's interest level.

To increase the likelihood that people will remember what you present, tie every concept to at least one real-life example. Examples cause images to form in everyone's mind. They make people recall experiences. These are mental pictures worth a thousand words that you don't have time to state.

Clear, concrete examples have powerful effects: (1) They unite everyone's thinking so that interaction is more on target and more useful. (2) You gain respect and admiration as someone who has lived the life you're talking about or who at least knows about that life. (3) They go a long way toward keeping people from sinking into a state of boredom.


Don't make the silly mistake of judging the quality of interaction by the amount of physical responses. Your presentation should trigger action in the human mind, such as

  • the formation of images
  • sound effects you don't have in your laptop
  • feelings and thoughts energizing each other
  • light bulbs of understanding turning on
  • curiosities and interest stoked
  • convictions strengthened
  • resolutions made

One of the best ways to show respect to your listeners is to plan for interaction. You cannot always ask for real-time input if the group is very large or if the people are not yet comfortable enough to share their thoughts, but you can always design interaction into your presentation.

For example, an audience of any size would interact with the following story by supplying their own mental visualizations and emotions:

The superfast analytics tools we proposed were cost-effective and miles ahead of the clients' competitors. Then, 48 hours after the plan was approved, the last thing in the world we could have expected to happen happened. (Pause for three seconds while the audience wonders.) The CEO resigned without explanation and took the CIO with him, leaving behind an executive team with no experience in leading bold technological change at the enterprise level. Our adventure had only begun.

Mental interaction is no little thing. Some professional and Olympic athletes achieve higher performance by performing procedures repeatedly and precisely in their minds. The details of a BI plan can be lived out in the imagination before writing a single piece of code or disturbing your customers' work procedures. All the action in the world can happen in the boundless landscape of the mind. Supplement The Compassionate Geek with the three ingredients I described above. (Don't ever hesitate to ask hired presenters to include these as well.) You'll have a lifetime supply of in-services. As Crawley says, mastering great customer service is the journey of a lifetime.

The Compassionate Geek, Third Edition by Don R. Crawley; Seattle, WA:, 2013; 224 pages, $20

Max T. Russell is the owner of Max and Max Communications. He works behind the scenes to promote individuals and projects in a variety of industries. He and his identical twin, Max S., have been discussing and dissecting the challenges of IT in the workplace for the past 18 years. You can reach him at

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