My son learned a tough lesson a few years ago, and it’s this: Never, ever give your car a name. He named his first car Alfie – and although Alfie was only a rusty, duckweed-green, high mileage Audi estate, the fact that it had a name made it a real emotional wrench when it came to selling it. He’s had three cars since – and hasn’t named a single one.
I tried to tell him, I really did. We have a P-reg Honda CRX which should have been replaced years ago. But we named it ‘Baby’. I rest my case.
Names have power. Names have magic in them. Names wrap up all our expectations and emotional baggage into a neatly labelled parcel, whether we like it or not. There’s a reason why Prince George and Princess Charlotte are not Prince Adolf and Princess Kylie. There’s a reason why so many Muslim boys are named Mohammed and why Catholic girls are frequently called Mary. Names have import, value and status. JK Rowling tapped into this truth when her boy wizard, Harry Potter, brought about a symbolic power shift by naming ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ out loud. We name our children, pets, homes (and sometimes our cars too) in order to bestow certain qualities and characteristics on them. Or so we hope.
This phenomenon has relevance for our professional lives too. Some years ago I was called in to help a particular organisation with their customer service delivery. It was, to put it politely, lacklustre. (Definitely no naming names on this one – they’re far better now and it wouldn’t be fair). In this particular organisation, the names their people commonly used for their customers were along the lines of ‘this bloke’, ‘some complainant’, ‘some moany woman’ and even ‘bl**dy nuisance’. Other names were not repeatable. And how did I know this? Well, because in listening to their recorded telephone conversations, that’s how they were referring to their customers when they had them on hold or on transfer. (People often don’t realise those bits get recorded too).
The thing about names and labels is that you start to believe them. Then you behave in accordance with what you believe. When the labels you use are negative, it sets in motion an unhelpful, downward spiral of expectation about that person or group of people. Of COURSE they’re going to be a nuisance! Of COURSE they’re unreasonable and demanding! You behave in expectation of that behaviour, and lo and behold! They become to you precisely what you thought they would be. See, I told you there’s magic in names.
So next time you or someone you’re working with refers to a customer as ‘a pain in the backside’ or some other choice label, challenge them to rethink it. Our customers – yours and mine – are not an interruption to our busy day. They are the reason for our busy day, and the generators of our livelihoods. It’s true that they can be demanding, unreasonable and rude. They can also be charming, confused and overwhelmed. However they behave, let’s never lose sight of who they are and who we are: they are our Customers, and we are Customer Service Professionals. You can define for yourself what messages those names carry with them. I’d suggest that positive ones will bring about better outcomes for everybody concerned.