The Hippocratic Oath of Customer Experience


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Retailers should follow the Hippocratic Oath when dealing with customers.

Hippocratic Oath of Customer Experience

For thousands of years, physicians have been taking the Hippocratic Oath to “first do no harm”. This philosophy is also excellent advice for anyone dealing with customers rather than patients.

I come from a long line of shoppers—perhaps that is why I am so passionate about retail. When I was growing up my Mother, Grandmother and Great Grandmother would drag me off for marathon shopping trips each Saturday.

We would frequent stores where the clerks all knew my grandmothers. They would set aside things that might possibly interest them. They knew their names, sizes, tastes and those of my other family members. Contrast that with my experience this Saturday morning.

The Experience

I had a simple list. Pick up a book club selection, find wrapping paper and a card for a gift, and a cake for a cookout. Fairly simple stuff—or so you’d think.

First, I went to Barnes & Noble. In the spirit of transparency, I love my Kindle and have not purchased a physical book in a while. However, Catcher in the Rye isn’t available digitally and that’s this month’s selection. Therefore, Barnes & Noble had a perfect opportunity to ‘recover me’ as a loyal customer. Instead, to be blunt, they pissed me off.

How did they do that?

Clerk: Do you have a discount card?

Me: (in good mood) Yes, but not with me. Can you look it up?

Clerk: What’s your phone number?

Me: 919-xxx-xxxx. That may not be the right number. We’ve moved and switched phones. Not sure which number I signed up with.

Clerk: That isn’t your number.

Me: Can you look it up by my name?

Clerk: Not here. You have to go to customer service. Do you want to buy a new card for $25.

Me: You mean I have to get out of line to go find my number?

Clerk: Yep. (glares at me)

Me: Why would I buy a new card when I already have one?

Clerk: Clearly you don’t know your phone number.

Me: (giant WTF stare and then I look at the line of people who I don’t want to make wait) Just ring it up.

Me to my husband as we leave: This is why I love Amazon.

So Barnes & Noble has systems that don’t talk to one another. Instead of trying to help me get my number, they try to sell me something I already have. Moreover, I’m the perfect customer for them. Books are a priority in my family. Yet, they seem to be trying to get rid of me.

Next, I head downtown for my other items. There is a stationery store by the bakery and I pop in for the wrapping paper and a card. I can’t help but think the store smells strange—kind of like a litter box. As I’m looking at my husband oddly, a giant Ewok of a cat rubs against my leg. I’m in a panic as I’m highly allergic to cats.

I race to the door knowing my afternoon is ruined because I’ll be in a Benadryl induced stupor. The clerk looks at me strangely as I bolt out almost knocking over a display. Over my shoulder, I call out “Sorry. Allergic to cats.” I’m already wheezing as we make our way to the bakery.

When we enter the bakery, the experience is completely different. The pastries are beautifully arranged. There are samples that the clerks are happily sharing with other customers. The cakes are so delicious that the customers are selling them to one another.

I ask a clerk which one she’d recommend for a summer cook out. Eagerly, she describes the strawberry amaretto in butter cream. I’m sold! Carefully, she packages it up for me.

Then she asks me “Have you thought about what you are going to do for your sister’s shower?” I instantly order yet another cake. I don’t feel upsold. I feel relief. And guess what? I can’t wait to come back. I feel a bit of that joy of those Saturdays spent shopping with the women of my family.

Contrast that with how I feel about the other two stores. I’m not going back to a store that wants me to do all of the work and them to just take my money. I’m definitely not going to the cathouse. In fact, as my eyes swell shut, I reach for my phone to add a tip on Four Square “AVOID if you are allergic to cats.”

First Do No Harm

When you are crafting a customer experience, you need to seriously consider if your processes, procedures or choices cause your customers pain.

For instance, up to 30% of the population has a cat allergy. On what planet does it make sense to alienate that many potential customers?

Why would you train your staff to try to sell someone a new discount card before you try to look up their old one? Or even worse, why would you implement a system that doesn’t allow for multiple ways to look up customer data?

Things to Consider

When you are creating user journeys or customer experiences, make sure you look for any places you may cause the customer pain. Some things to consider are:

  • Are you doing anything that could potentially alienate customers (is your store accessible, clean, dander-free?)?
  • Can customers easily find things?
  • Do you have procedures that make the customer do the work?
  • Are you selling at the right time? (not when the customer has a need that you are not resolving)
  • Is your staff adequately trained on how you wish them to engage with the customer?
  • Do you have adequate feedback loops so complaints can be addressed before they become big issues?
  • Are you monitoring social media for ‘customer pain’
  • Do you shop your stores anonymously to see what the experience is like?


Like physicians, retailers need to ask themselves if what they are doing causes damage to your customer and the relationship you want to have with them. It is difficult for anyone to go from pissed off to delighted in one experience.

Therefore, you should be vigilant in looking for things that may potentially do harm. While there are not lives at stake, the viability of your business may be. My husband and I are already taking bets on how long the cat stationery shop will be in business. Anyone want to take a long position?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Sheridan Orr
Sheridan Orr is considered the Ralph Nader of the customer experience. She is a noted speaker and author as well as the managing partner of The Interrobang! Agency, a consulting firm focused on crafting customer experiences. Her primary area of expertise is consumer behavior in a connected world. She has over a decade of experience working with some of the world's most recognizable brands. When she's not waxing poetic about the modern, connected customer, she's an avid skier and atomic soccer mom.


  1. Having had several minor and even a couple not-so-minor similar shopping experiences in the last couple of weeks, your post made me feel like jumping out of my chair and fist pumping a giant “YES!” into my office air.

    For instance, yesterday I secret shopped a new home community for a Northwest home construction company for which – as of tomorrow morning – I will be their new marketing director. The door of the open model house was wide open, so I walked in. I could hear people talking so I walked through the entry area and den, opened and closed a few closet doors, and walked into the great room area. When I did, I saw a man sitting down on the couch, back to the door and entry area.

    He was talking to a woman on speaker phone, both were complaining about their jobs. One of the things I heard him say was, “If my eye still hurts tomorrow I’m not coming in,” and heard the woman on the other end of the phone commiserate – apparently both were dissatisfied with their working conditions.

    Just feet away from him, I continued my private tour of the house, and he continued his “private” conversation on speakerphone.

    After spending about 10 minutes in the house, upstairs and down, opening and closing closet doors, etc., I came downstairs and turned to go. Only then did he realize someone was there, say one or two more things on speakerphone, shut it and jump up to “greet” me and see if I had any questions.

    Despite job shortages and a drastic reduction in consumer spending over the last few years due to recession, etc., while one would think that merchants would have focused on building a better customer experience and sales people would be bending over backwards to accommodate prospects, that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

    You’re spot on, and business owners who take this lesson to heart will set themselves above the rest. Those who don’t will stand around scratching their heads because they just don’t get it…

    Elizabeth Kraus, Author, 365 Days of Marketing

  2. This post is just right, I hate to be treated badly by stores and sales people. It happens in many stores. Most Wal-Mart checkout workers are the same. I recently went in a fairly upscale store dreseed casually as I had been working in the yard and just saw the store and on an impulse stopped by. As I entered, she told me that they only sold highend merchandise even before I looked at anything. There was nothing in the store that I couldn’t afford. Too bad for her. There are also several places that will not even speak to you if you are not dressed as they want you to be dressed even if your closest if filled with armani. The customer should also ways be respected because the salesperson doesn’t know what is behind the cover.


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