What humour can do for your customer service

Kelly  | 

About two weeks ago, an Amazon customer made a silly little joke about the customer service representative who’d accepted his chat request. The rep happened to be called Thor, and the customer just had to ask if he could play the part of Odin, Thor's father in Norse mythology (and in the cult Marvel comic book series - and the 2011 movie). The transcript of the resulting chat went viral – all thanks to the rep’s sense of humour and the way he responded to the customer.

Amazon.com, though known for its high staff turnover, is clearly not afraid to let its staff show a bit of personality as long as they get the job done. Thor wasn’t using macros at all, so there were no signs of macro overuse syndrome. What he used was his sense of humour.

Should we all use more humour in our customer service? Perhaps, but this exchange would not have had the same effect coming from an unknown SME. It went viral only because Thor works for Amazon, and the chat’s silliness is at odds with the status of a company that had almost US $75 billion in revenue in 2013. As an SME, it’s only natural to want to be perceived as trustworthy, reliable – and serious. So the question is: does humour have a place, even at smaller companies?

Customer vs. Machine

Back to Odin. Thor could have shut the joke down immediately. If Thor is actually his real name, he may well be sick of people commenting on it and could have lightly dismissed the comment. He could have dropped the joke after his first response, or he could simply have ignored the comment in order to get to the point of the chat. All of these options would probably have been faster and kept Thor’s chat times lower, but instead he took the time to run with it.

Fine for Amazon, but would you have run with it? When you are building a business, you want to make sure you project a solid, stable brand. As with everything, though, there is a balance to be struck. Many businesses make the mistake of wanting their entire company, be it big or small, to conform to a single uniform image. They expect every employee to promote the company line in each and every word and action. But when dealing with individuals, we want to feel like we’re interacting with another human being – not a machine.

So how do you show individuality while keeping in line with the company’s chosen profile? It can seem more difficult for SMEs. Bigger companies are able to take more liberties, as they already have a solidly serious image which will not be impacted by the actions of individual staff.

Encouraging individualism

But you don’t need – and shouldn’t try – to achieve viral status or be funny. Just show a bit of personality here and there. It's easy to do this through social media, with low barriers to entry. Encourage your staff to Instagram pictures of their favourite mugs for morning coffee, their new office chairs, or the brownies someone brought in for their birthday. Your team members don’t need make an effort to be entertaining; just let them do their own thing if they want to, and don’t put them under pressure to perform if they don’t. Another plus: studies have shown that encouraging individualism in staff reduces levels of burnout, too.

Sure, you need to work hard to present a strong brand and a professional front. But individualism and humour will actually improve your company’s image, not detract from it.