No laughing matter: Is there room for humor in Customer Service?

February 14, 2019

On April 1st, 1978, the staff at Saturday Review huddled for their usual editorial meeting, awaiting the galley proofs of that week’s magazine. Upon delivery, everything seemed normal, the still-warm reams giving off the metallic smell of ink. A second look revealed that something was off. Totally off. The issues were printed upside down, and there was an enclosed apology from the printing press, explaining that around 300,000 copies, over half their entire circulation, had been printed upside down.

The staff glanced nervously at Norman Cousins, the magazine’s longtime managing editor. His face betrayed nothing. His lips stayed sealed. But it wasn’t long until the jig was up. “Cousins,” they chuckled. There was no negligence or crisis here, just an April Fool’s spoof, the latest in a series of pranks from the mischievous journalist, now director, who’d been with the magazine for 38 years.

Laugh it off

Cousins was a big believer in the power of laugher.

A few years before that April 1st prank, and after a stressful trip to Russia, he had been hospitalized with high fever and severe pain. The doctors diagnosed him with ankylosing spondylitis, a tongue-twisting, life-threatening type of arthritis that left him nearly paralyzed and in constant pain. But Cousins wasn’t the type to wallow in his prognosis. If stress had exacerbated his condition, he thought, positive emotions would do the opposite. With his doctor’s permission, he checked out of the hospital, and prescribed himself heavy doses of intravenous vitamin C, and daily bouts of laughter. Loads of it.

I made the very interesting discovery that 10 minutes of good belly laughter would give me two hours of pain-free sleep,” he said. As if laugher was his body’s very own anesthesia.

At the time, the prognosis wasn’t optimistic — the chances of recovery were very dim. But recover he did. He promptly documented and published his story, “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing,” in The New England Journal of Medicine, a publication that rarely selects submissions from individuals outside the medical community, especially one that can be seen as verging on the anti-scientific, dispensing with the conventional wisdom of medicine.

While no one, not even Cousins, is saying that an upbeat attitude and a few vitamins can cure serious ailments — I’m always wary of New Age wellness regimens, from a trillion dollar industry that promises to do away with all your maladies, as long as your treatment consists solely of branded supplements and $50 scented candles — his case is a very curious one indeed.

Could laughter really be the best medicine?

No laughing matter: Is there room for humor in Customer Service?

Wired for laughing

Various authors have suggested that laughter’s medical capabilities range from relaxing muscles and stimulating circulation to enhancing immunity. And while the research suggests these effects are modest at best, laughing does indeed help.

It could be that laughing actively induces physiological changes, encourages positive mental states that decrease stress and its adverse effects, or a combination of the two. The medical community isn’t quite sure. But there’s one thing that sharing a laugh does do, and you definitely experienced it the last time you forwarded a funny meme to friends on Instagram, or shared an inside joke with coworkers. Laughing increases your level of social support.

It’s almost as if our nervous system were wired for laughing. It’s one of the first things babies do, and they’ll laugh at pretty much anything: a goofy face, a round of peekaboo, a stain in the wall. For all the things these tiny humans don’t understand, they instinctively know a very powerful thing — a genuine laugh is one of the most honest ways to say: “I’m with you.”

Both men and women use humor and laughter to signal romantic availability and interest, they just do it in different ways. Although “sense of humor” is very high on the list of qualities we look for when choosing a partner (right there next to good-looking, trustworthy, dog-owning), research reveals that, weirdly or not, funny means different things to different people. Or rather, different genders. Women want a funny partner; men, go figure, want a partner that will laugh at their jokes.

When we laugh, we’re building empathy. Humor, in all its forms — dark, sarcastic, satirical, self-deprecating, witty, bodily — creates a sense of intimacy that builds and strengthens relationships. Sharing a laugh, even when it’s about nothing funny at all, is an indicator of compatibility in the long haul. That bond will help carry you through stress, conflict, disagreement, and all sorts of terrible jokes.

No laughing matter: Is there room for humor in Customer Service?

Sharing a LOL with your customers

Humor can help you stand out amid a sea of customer service interactions that are as formal as they are dull. However, things become a bit trickier here. Jokes can fall flat, or worse, be misinterpreted, and that’s especially true when you’re dealing with customers through a written medium, like email or chat, where it’s so hard to convey tone.

And if the purpose of humor is to help us connect with one another, then misinterpreted jokes defeat the purpose entirely. So should humor be used sparingly, only when the situation feels right? Does a playful GIF or meme every once in a while add some much needed levity and warmth to customer support interactions?

Florence Severs, our Customer Success Team Lead, believes it’s about reading the room:

“It completely depends on the context. It depends on your relationship with the person as well. So, I wouldn’t crack jokes straight off the bat. But once I’ve gauged how the person reacts to certain things, if I feel like the mood is right, then I would go for it”.

Different contexts and people call for different uses of language registers, different tones of voice. When it comes to customer service, humor or not, you should always keep in mind these three things:

  • The person you’re talking to: understand your customer’s tone; know who you’re talking to. If they use a formal tone, then use it back.
  • The channel you’re using: adapt the message according to the channel: email, live chat, etc. If you’re replying to a customer through live chat, you can always be a bit more spontaneous and use a more humorous, informal tone.
  • The topic of the conversation: put yourself in their shoes. If you’re addressing a complex customer support issue, or dealing with angry customers, maybe it’s not the right time to crack jokes. Show empathy, reformulate the question to show that you have carefully read the message, and use a professional, polite, and warm tone.

For Florence, a good rule of thumb is to let the customer give the green light: “For me, it’s always a great sign when the customer makes the joke first, or pokes fun at what we’re doing.” That way, you know it’s okay to make a little joke here and there, if it feels natural to you.

Bringing humanity back to Customer Service

Mafalda Faria, our Customer Support Analyst, recalls a situation where, in the middle of a call, a customer noticed the nerf gun bullets lying nearby, and appeared on the screen with two nerf guns of their own. In the following email exchange, Mafalda shared a photo of a few of us holding nerf guns as well. “It’s all about adapting to the situation”, she said.

“We need to nurture the relationship. Our customers will be here today, tomorrow, hopefully for a very long time, and issues will inevitably happen. These little moments where we get to joke around a bit, show our positive energy, our team — and company — spirit, make it all worth it.”

There’s room for sense of humor, sure. But above all, there’s a burning desire to be a bit more personal. To bring the humanity back to Customer Service. As Florence points out: “It’s nice to keep it light sometimes, because at the end of the day, we just want to enjoy what we’re doing, and I think business can often be so serious and dry. So, I think it’s nice to have a bit of fun with customers, especially if you have a good relationship.”

In the end, humor is just one of the ways to accomplish that. Whether it’s through April Fool’s pranks, nerf gun battles, or just a friendly email — it hardly matters. Rather, it’s a laughing matter.

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