Customer Attitudes That Press Our Buttons...and What We Can Do About Them

In the sixteen years I spent as a hotel concierge in a large San Francisco property, I noticed six customer attitudes that kept repeating themselves. These attitudes were interesting not only because they appeared consistently, but because they represented the feelings that "push the buttons" of front-line service providers.

Service positions require a great deal of understanding on the part of the service provider to get past the initial, negative emotional triggers that customers with the following attitudes elicit. Being aware of these customers' attitudes is extremely important for two reasons: (1) Because you must first be aware of what is occurring, name what the emotion you are feeling is, and then make a choice, separate from the occurring emotion, to not react negatively. (2) Because while only a small percentage of customers exhibit attitudes that trigger negative emotions, these customers can have a crossover effect on the customer base that is perfectly delightful to serve.

The following is a representation of the six attitudes that seem to appear on a consistent basis.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real people in your business is purely coincidental and unintentional.
These attitudes are, however, so universal, many people in my seminars call out names and say "they were just here last week!"

Attitude No. 1: The Entitled

"You owe me."
"I expect you to do this."
"I deserve this."
"No one else exists and you have nothing else to do but to help me."

The negative emotional trigger that The Entitled can elicit is resentment. It quickly leads to the thought, "Just who exactly do you think you are?" It can result in an unwillingness to give of oneself to help such a customer, and it inhibits problem-solving

Attitude No 2: The Panicked

"What do you mean my order isn't ready?"
"But you promised!"
"Impossible, the loan has to go through, escrow closes at four p.m.!"
"Now what am I going to do?"
This attitude screams "ME," and it is both tense and intense. The emotional trigger that the panicked elicits is protection. It leads to the thought, "Oh great, now your problem is my problem." It can cause service providers to set up rigid boundaries that often result in a refusal to cross the boundaries necessary to perform problem-solving and service

Attitude No 3: The High and the Mighty

"Don't you know who I am?"
"I know more about this job than you."
"This better be good because I'm an aficionado!"

This attitude comes with finger snapping. It says, without saying, "I'm better than you, and I'm not going to let you forget it."
The emotional trigger that the High and Mighty elicits is shame and intimidation. But to be so belittled quickly causes anger, and it can trigger competition and/or even sabotage. It may lead to the thought of "I'll show you!" In such a scenario, orders seem to get misplaced, diners end up at tables right by the kitchen door, and hotel guests get placed in the room right next to the ice machine.

Attitude No. 4: The Bottom-Liner

"Can you do this for me, yes or no?"
"Tell me exactly when I can expect the answer."
"What do you mean you'll do your best? Either you can or you can't."

It is all cut-to-the-chase; no schmoozing here! The emotional trigger that the Bottom-Liner elicits is hurt and defensiveness. It often leads to thoughts such as "Well, if you talk to me like that, then I can talk right back at you the same way." It usually results in a brief but negative response that has very little to do with quality service delivery.

Attitude No. 5: The Clueless

"Are you sure you can do this?"
"If I go outside and it is raining, will I get wet?"
(I was actually asked this question.)

The emotional trigger that the Clueless elicits is irritation. It brings to mind thoughts of "Why should I even bother explaining anything to this person? "He or she won't understand it anyway." It often leads to outright dismissal of the individual who is supposed to be served.

Attitude No 6: The Imprisoned

"Why does something always go wrong here?"
"Nothing ever works out for me!"
"My whole trip has been like this, one disaster after another."

The Imprisoned are the people who are so imprisoned by their own misery that their only purpose in life seems to be to make other people miserable. The negative emotion that the Imprisoned elicits is frustration. It can quickly lead to the thought, "If you hate doing business here so much, why don't you take it elsewhere?" Such an attitude prevents us from seeing the true agenda, and makes it difficult to really serve people in a way that meets their needs. 

One thing is certain: these attitudes are not going to go away. They are human nature and are here to stay. What you can change is how you choose to respond. As service providers, your power and your success lies in how you choose to respond to these attitudes. This is where the true challenge of service really lies. It's easy to be nice to people you enjoy. It is much more challenging, interesting, and rewarding to give quality service experiences to that small percentage of customers that push your buttons and may cause you to respond in a less than stellar way.

The first thing to recognize is that all customers, especially the six previously described, wear a sign on them that says ME! Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics says all customers wear a sign that says "make me feel important." No matter what their personality or their attitude is, all human beings are wired the same way. We all want to be Remembered, Respected, Acknowledged, and Heard. One reason so many people holler at service providers is that they feel they haven't been heard. Service providers need to stop and notice the true agenda being put forward, and focus on the customer's human need to be Respected, Acknowledged, Remembered, and Heard.

To choose to do this requires that in each situation you ask yourself, "What does this customer really need and how can I provide it?" What is the human need that can be addressed as opposed to just going through the motions and providing the business need? I have a method for achieving this. I call it putting on the turtle hat of service. A turtle might not be what many people think of when contemplating customer service, but the turtle is a wonderful reminder that service is a verb and requires:
That we stick our necks out.
That we learn to have a hard shell, and not take everything so personally.
That we have to slow down and not react as quickly to the negative emotional triggers and traps.

About the Author

Holly Stiel, M.A. is a pioneer in the field of customer service. Twenty five years ago, she walked into the international convention of Les Clefs d'Or in Vienna as the first American woman admitted to the exclusive international concierges' association. In 2004 Stiel was presented an honorary membership for her lifetime of service to the profession.

Stiel single-handedly started the concierge department at San Francisco's Grand Hyatt, and was the chief concierge for 17 years. Her leadership served as the model throughout the Hyatt corporation. Holly Stiel's company Stiel Media, LLC developed the customer service training program for 1500 Hampton Inns and Hilton Garden Inns delivered on state of the art, interactive DVD. Other clients include: Bellagio Hotel & Resort, Bank of America, Hilton Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, Disneyland, Nordstrom, Loews Hotels, Marriott Hotels, MGM- Las Vegas, Nortel, Premier Resorts, Advanced Micro Devices, Sheraton Hotels, Sonesta Int. Hotels & Westin Hotels & Resorts.

Stiel's company has produced three comprehensive customer service DVD training products: The Neon Signs of Service, Taking the High Road of Service and Concierge Express. Stiel is also the author of 3 books on customer service. Ultimate Service, The Complete Handbook to the World of the Concierge, considered to be the definitive work on this topic. Thank You Very Much- A Book For Anyone Who Has Ever Said, "May I Help You?" and her most recent book, The Neon Signs of Service Getting to the Heart of the Matter in Customer Service. For more information, visit