What Maslow’s Hierarchy Says About Customer Service Employees


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We’ve all felt beaten up by a customer.

It’s part of the job. A customer is angry, maybe even unfair. Intellectually, we know they’re complaining about the product, the problem, or the situation.

The attack still feels personal.

Years of pithy advice tells us to “not take it personally.” That’s an instinctive impossibility. We’re wired to take it personally.

What happens next is interesting. Some people are able to recover, overcome the instinct, and serve the customer with a smile. Others get defensive or angry, and service quality declines rapidly for that customer and perhaps the next customer, too.

If you manage customer service employees, or you serve customers on the frontline, it’s important to understand the psychology behind this. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs gives us a clear explanation.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

In a paper written in 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed what’s now famously known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs.

It ranked our basic needs as humans in priority order:

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

The idea was you had to meet highest priority needs before you could concentrate on the next highest priority.

So you’d be willing to risk your physical safety (priority #2) if you had unmet physiological needs such as food, water, or air.

Serving that angry customer is the lowest priority for humans, sitting at #5, self-actualization. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy, we can only commit to doing this if our higher priority needs are being met.

Meeting Higher Priority Needs First

In my book, Service Failure, I shared a story about Paul. 

He was working in a nightclub’s office when he received a call from an angry customer. The customer had apparently been contacted by his credit card company about a fraudulent charge and he assumed that someone at the nightclub had stolen his credit card number.

Here’s an excerpt:

At first Paul tried his best to be helpful, but he quickly realized the man just wanted to vent. The customer’s repeated accusations, “Your server stole my credit card number” and “You guys need to be more careful,” soon wore thin. As Paul explained, “I could feel my blood pressure going up. I could feel my face get flush. I felt like, ‘Don’t accuse my coworker of doing something that you don’t know that they did.’ There are a million ways that credit card numbers get stolen. It was so frustrating to me.”

Paul found it difficult to serve this customer because his #4 need, esteem, was being challenged. The desire to be awesome at customer service (self-actualization) took a back seat to a strong desire to avoid further insult.

It’s even worse in other companies.

Paul actually liked his coworkers and felt a need to stand up for the server he felt was falsely accused. This suggests his #3 need, love and belonging, was being met in the workplace. Paul felt a part of the team.

But what if he didn’t?

I encountered one of these employees on a recent trip to the pet store. This particular chain is infamous for constantly rearranging merchandise, so you can’t find what you’re looking for from one visit to the next.

An employee was helping me locate a certain brand of dog food when she started to vent. “I guess they [the pet chain’s management] just want you to wander around so you’ll shop more,” she said. 

Notice the use of the word, “They.” 

She didn’t feel part of the team. Her sense of identity, at least at work, wasn’t strongly attached to her employer. She clearly felt embarrassed and frustrated by a corporate policy and took steps to distance herself from it.

How could she possibly provide great customer service when she didn’t care?

Take Action

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs helps explain the old adage, “Happy employees lead to happy customers.”

Many leaders make the mistake of using incentives and gimmicky programs to motivate their employees. Research shows employees don’t actually have a motivation problem. The real issue is de-motivation.

Employees want to do a great job, but many feel they can’t. 

Customer service leaders can do several things to overcome this challenge, foster a sense of team unity, and fulfill employees’ need for love and belonging:

  1. Create a customer service vision that provides a unifying purpose.
  2. Make it easier for employees to achieve the vision.
  3. Work together as a team to solve common problems.

You can take action too if you’re an individual contributor.

While writing The Service Culture Handbook, I discovered many companies with customer-focused cultures have a peer recognition program. Coworkers recognize each other for delivering outstanding service that aligns with the company’s vision.

You can do this even if you don’t have a formal program.

Take a moment to recognize your coworkers for their efforts. Go out of your way to build positive and supportive workplace relationships. This will help make your organization a better place to work and it will become even easier to serve your customers.


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