It just takes a moment


“That’s it. He just lost his tip. “

“What a rude person. “

“She just lied. She’s a liar.”

It just takes a moment for a relationship to transform. Unfortunately, too many of these transformations shift the relationship into the negative zone when promises are broken. And it usually happens because someone failed to pay attention.

Every relationship – from an intimate friendship to a transaction at an airport ticket counter – contains moments when everything can change. Aside from the obvious basics of politeness and consideration the primary factors in these moments are truth and promises. When something that is said turns out to be true it solidifies faith in the person who said it. When a promise is kept the person keeping the promise is appreciated.

But sometimes these are not just singular events. And sometimes they don’t just contribute to a relationship; they solidify people’s impression of us — often to our detriment.

Here’s how that works: If you are caught lying you are a liar. And if you break a promise you are not to be trusted.

If it sounds simplistic that’s because it is. There are primal impulses driving these processes. But the effect can be massive. It determines who gets a second date, who gets the account, who gets repeat business, who gets our loyalty.

And it can all come down to a single moment when someone was not paying attention.

Here’s a recent example: I went to the auto repair center to pick up my car. It had been in the shop for an entire week undergoing repairs. The rep called me to tell me the car was ready and I asked him, “If I come in now will you be there?” “Absolutely,” he answered.

When I arrived I heard a large crowd of people cheering. They had gathered the entire staff in one corner of the shop floor. It was like a pep rally with a guy in a tie at the front making a rousing speech. “And I want to thank each and every one of you for everything you’ve…” Apparently they were celebrating a successful year under new management.

Which was great for them, but I was just left standing there waiting for someone to help me. And the guy in the tie said, “Twelve months ago customers would have to wait ten minutes or more for someone to help them…” And I thought to myself, “You’re an idiot. If you think this problem is solved then why am I standing here?”

That was the moment. I watched myself draw conclusions about this business that would be really hard to reverse: They are out of touch. They are delusional about what actual customers experience. They are not self-aware. (Notice the use of the pronoun “they.” It’s often an indicator of negative judgements.)

I don’t know what “they” could even do to win back my business, and neither do they. Because they don’t even know I’m unhappy. It is unimaginable how many businesses suffer from the fallout of moments like this one, and they have no idea what even happened.

Of course many larger companies are now conducting “customer service experience” surveys. Certainly they will find out if some of their customers are especially unhappy about an interaction. But I’m more concerned about the low-grade encounters that are simply unsatisfying – the ones that make us shrug or sigh and click the survey window closed. These are harder to quantify, yet their impact on business must be enormous.

The key dynamic at play in these moments is trust. If you want to gain a person’s trust, or to keep it, there are some basic rules of thumb to follow:

  • Less talking, more listening. People need to know that you “get” them. You can’t get them if they don’t get a chance to express themselves. And if you don’t get them you can’t be trusted to look out for their best interests.
  • Say things that are true. This is obvious, but not always easy. Sometimes you provide facts that are not true, because you are afraid to admit that you don’t actually know the answers. There are also those times when you are tempted to embellish the facts to make yourself a bit more interesting. Getting caught in these traps can be pretty devastating.
  • Make promises. Perhaps you get shy about making promises and commitments because you don’t want to commit to something you can’t fulfill. But making a promise signals that you are confident, and confident people inspire trust.
  • Keep promises. This goes without saying, but it is the single most important factor in winning a person’s trust. If you forget to keep a promise, or you forget that you even made a promise in the first place, you are violating the trust that someone has placed in you.

And finally, the most difficult one:

  • Honor implied promises. The most frustrating part of keeping promises is noticing when you are obligated to keep a promise you never made in the first place. For example, you probably haven’t promised that you will respond to all emails within 24 hours. But you’ve discovered that some people will get upset if your response is delayed by a day or two. That’s because an implied promise has crept into our online lives that emails require a prompt reply. And even though you never made the promise (and perhaps you even find the obligation unfair and distasteful) you are nonetheless expected to honor it. If you don’t, you will lose trust.

It only takes a moment to win someone’s trust, or to lose it. In the stories we know from books and films these moments of truth are clearly signaled to the audience (or reader). The main character may or may not notice, but we do. We recognize these moments as turning points in the story. We know exactly whom we are supposed to dislike.







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