Secret sauce

What is common between a good spouse, a good hair-dresser and a good customer success executive?


Weird question? Let’s look at two quick stories.

A couple of months ago, I went to a new salon to get a haircut. The hair dresser asked me multiple questions to know how exactly I wanted my hair. What cut I wanted, length in front, length at back, length on my ear.. this went on throughout the process. Now knowing exactly how I wanted my hair at each and every step should have ideally gotten me the best haircut I could have and should have gotten me extremely happy. However, when I came out of the salon, I found myself surprisingly unhappy. I looked in the mirror several times to find out what was wrong, but couldn’t figure out. Finally I went to my regular salon and got a haircut again and only then I felt contended.

A while before this incident, I was dating my then boyfriend. I always had a feeling that I had never been able to help my mom-dad enough. So I used try my best to make myself as useful as possible. I had helped him with his job applications,  trained him for his university interviews, helped him with his academics. I had become his travel assistant, career therapist, his financial advisor and so on and so on. One would guess that after so much of hard work, I would get the best girlfriend award. Alas! We ended up parting our ways.

For a while at work, I was discussing with our Head of Operations about training our customer support team on communication. This guy has an immense amount of first hand experience in.. running businesses, finance, marketing, operations and so on. He told me something very valuable.

He said: When a customer calls us or writes to us for help, they are in trouble. When one is in trouble, they have various needs of communication – broadly of two kinds.
1. Functional needs, where they need us to solve their problem and hence need to know whether we understood their problem, whether we will be able to solve their problem, when we will solve it and so on.
2. Emotional needs, where they need to know something which we mostly miss out. They need to know that we feel their pain and their problem is our problem. They need to know that once they tell us the problem, they can depend on us and sit back. They need to know that they are safe in our hands.

This is applicable not only for customer support contact centres, but to any relationship – business to customer, boss to subordinate, father to daughter and many more. In every relationship, people have some functional needs and some emotional needs.They are of course different in every relationship. But catering to only functional needs may not be helpful enough. In fact, not addressing the emotional needs might completely mask the efforts to fulfil the functional ones.

In the above two stories, the failure was precisely because the failure to cater to the emotional needs.

My partner had many expressed and unexpressed, realised and unrealised questions.
Do you need me? Am I valued?
Do you trust me?
Can I trust you with darkest of my secrets?
Do you love me?
I got so engrossed solving for the functional side, that I absolutely missed on communicating these. And the rest is history.

I observed what my regular hair dresser does so special; and it reinforced the same theory.
The moment she sees you, she flashes a big smile and greets you with, “Seeing you after a long time” or “How are you?”
When she touches your hair, she either compliments them and asks how you have such a beautiful hair, or scolds you for not taking care of your hair and empathises with you for not having enough time to do that. While cutting your hair, she constantly makes a conversation. It may be a mutual agreement about how Bangalore water spoils your hair or about the traffic or anything that may strike the chord.
Finally, she asks you only minimal details about how you want your hair and lets you literally sit back. You can rest assured that she knows what is best for you.

Moral of the story: empathy in communication is of paramount importance.It shapes the whole experience! It is the secret sauce of every successful relationship- personal or professional.


Let me know your thoughts in comments!

Thanks for reading 🙂

3 thoughts on “Secret sauce

  1. Fantastic write-up. Specially enjoyed the way you took everyday situations (your hairdresser) to teach an important lesson on empathy and customer support.

    Here’s another school of thought:

    You see, one may argue that empathy and relentless attention to the customer’s needs is key to Amazon’s success. The problem arises when things start to scale.
    It is easy for your hairdresser to empathise with you, assuming that she serves around 50 known customers a year. When you scale, empathising becomes difficult.
    Not every company is Amazon, and they have limited customer support resources.
    Take for instance, this HBR article which argues that apologizing is sometimes counterproductive, and that possible solutions work better.
    I tend to think that a good mix of empathy with a focus on possible solutions can be a winning formula.


    1. Hey Sourav,
      Thanks for reading! I am glad you gave it quite a thought and shared it too.

      However when you equate empathising as ‘apologising’, you are confusing it with showing sympathy. That is not what this article advocates.
      Apologising and sympathising without understanding the problem is no empathy, and further, even empathy without an action to solve the problem has no value.

      So, having a solution to the emotional need without solving the functional one – can never be recommended.

      Thanks for sharing the article! A good read.

      Liked by 1 person

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