Monday, July 30, 2007


I have been doing some graduate work in psychology this year, and recently came across a term from the great existential psychologist R.D. Laing that explains more than half of what goes wrong with bad customer transactions, or bad human communications in general: mystification.

According to Laing, when people don’t want to answer something directly, they instead choose to mystify the other person: for example, when a child asks “What does Uncle Louie do, Dad?”, a parent may say something like, “Oh, he’s a second story man” and never actually answer the question – so that he doesn’t have to go into detail about how he can’t stand Uncle Louie.

I was reminded of Laing this morning when I called my local phone company. They recently offered to combine my wireless and regular phone bills, without telling me that between the size of the combined amount and their obstreperous policies, there was now NO grace period on paying my phone bill. (Not a good thing, as much as I travel, to come back from a two-week trip and find your phone has been disconnected.)

So I called the phone company and the conversation went something like this:

-I asked the agent why I suddenly had no grace period, and he explained that bills were due by their due date.
-I asked the agent again why I suddenly had no grace period, and he explained that I could contact them if I know my payment is going to be late.
-I asked the agent *again* why I suddenly had no grace period, and he explained how many days I had to pay after receiving a final disconnection notice.

See a pattern here? After about the fourth time around this merry-go-round, I responded with some choice things that you won’t find in most communications skills books, and then finally got escalated to a supervisor who straightened things out.

Sadly, this seems to be a trend among many people who work in my former profession of call centers, particularly with the rise of using scripted responses. But I will bet any amount of money that this phone company spent much more time on the phone with me than if they had just condescended to answer my question – and in fact, they came very close to losing a longtime customer.

So meanwhile, if you feel that answering-by-not-answering is a good strategy for you and your customer contact teams, I have one word for you: I am mystified.