Tuesday was not a good day. I was driving to a client meeting and was almost certain to be late. I was raised to believe that you are on time if you are ten minutes early. It looked as if I was going to arrive exactly at the appointed time (which means I’m late). I left my office with plenty of time to spare, but forgot that summer is the time most cities in America decide to tear up perfectly good roads and rebuild them exactly the same as before. So two-lanes become one-lanes, and every other driver on MY road doesn’t seem to understand that they are in MY way. I believe what George Carlin once said, “Every other driver who is driving slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac.”
All the while my GPS keeps updating my ETA to show a later and later arrival time. Have you ever thought that the GPS should just have a little voice that announces, “Forget it, you’ll never make it.” My wife wants to re-program mine with her voice saying, “See, I told you. You should have left earlier!” While sitting in the parking lot that a day earlier had been a highway, I was reminded of the book by Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis. In his quest to answer the question, “What makes a human being happy?” Haidt discovered that seeking happiness is not the real goal; happiness occurs once you simply remove stress. Finding and mitigating stress factors in your life automatically results in a calm, stress-free brain.
In one of the many sources of research cited in the book, it was discovered that a major source of stress for humans is dealing with the unknown. The brain can literally reset itself to accept most sources of pressure, adapting to situations and labeling them as “normal.” As such, people can live in high-pressure, anxiety-ridden environments and the brain can adapt so the person doesn’t suffer in the long run.
The unknown, however, seems to be one source of stress to which the brain cannot adapt. The lack of control over one’s immediate environment causes angst that is too great for the brain to manage. Over time, living in a state of constant unknown can cause depression, anxiety disorders, higher rates of illness, and a shortened life span. Conversely, even a small amount of control eliminates stress. In one study, for instance, people were sat alone in a room and told that a very loud horn was going to be blast in their ears at unexpected intervals. The noise was painful enough to cause anxiety, so the participants demonstrated elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, and other signals similar to someone visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles.
However, some participants were given a small button and told that if they pushed the button the noises would stop. They were told that they could push the button at any time, but to try to go for as long as possible enduring the painful noises. The participants given control over stopping the blasts from the horn were able to endure much longer periods in the noisy room than those who were not. The simple knowledge they had control over their environment allowed them to better withstand the unknown without anxiety.
The reason I was reminded of all this research was another discovery in the book; that start-and-stop traffic is one source of stress that the brain cannot seem to manage. With all of its ability to reset itself to manage sources of anxiety, the brain can’t seem to adjust to the inconsistencies of a daily commute. If your daily commute involves a nice, long drive through the country, then your stress actually dissipates. However, if your commute is in heavy stop-and-start traffic, anxiety will increase. No matter how often you experience the same commute, your brain will never get accustomed to it.
So naturally, as I sat in traffic watching the GPS remind me I should have left a week earlier, I thought about how the unknown has affected me as a customer and/or business colleague. I thought of how calming it was to get simple confirmations of meetings or conference calls the day before the event. I thought of how surprised I was when I provided confirmation calls to clients the day before a keynote, workshop, or meeting and they were so appreciative of a simple phone call. All the details of these events had been set weeks earlier, but one final call made everything more relaxing. Even better, I remembered how much more calming a phone call was compared to an e-mail. Sure, electronic communication provides written confirmation, but human beings are ultra-social animals. Social mammals aren’t calmed by reading text, we need human contact. A voice calms a person better that text ever can.
I got a voice-mail from a tenant recently. As landlords (yes, I believe in multiple income streams, even the streams that include fixing broken windows every now and then), my wife and I have become accustomed to hearing, “It was like that when I moved in!” This phone call was the kind every landlord dreads, “We took a bath, and when we opened the bathtub drain, water started dripping into the kitchen below!” This time, however, we knew it wasn’t the tenant’s fault. We had just had the bathtub drain repaired by a professional plumber (yes, I am smart enough to know when to call an expert). It was a difficult job to remove the old drain, and there was a lot of sawing and banging involved. The plumber most likely broke something while fixing something else.
When I called the plumber he said, “Okay, we’ll get someone over there as soon as we can, but I’m not sure it will be today.” I told him to call me as soon as he knew when a repair could be scheduled. After calling the tenants to keep them up to date, we waited. And waited. Like most people, my wife is not good at waiting for an undetermined length of time; she had me call the plumber again toward the end of the day. I left a message. It was a Saturday, so we weren’t sure if we would hear from them on Sunday, which we did not; which made for a long day. Monday morning came with a call from the plumber letting us know the repair would be made that day. (Funny how quickly you can get service when you are going to be billed, but how slow when the cost must be handled by the company that screwed up.)
The plumber could have relaxed his customers by simply saying, “I’ll get right on it, and it will probably be Monday morning before we can get there.” Instead, we were left with the unknown; an entire day of Did they call? No, honey, nothing yet. Should we call again? I don’t know, I left a message already? When do you think they’ll call? I don’t know honey, I don’t own the plumbing company. Companies have become so averse to being held to a time-line, that they now just refuse to give one. If the customer doesn’t know when to expect service, they can’t complain when they don’t get it, right?
We had to return a mail-order item from a big-box home improvement store that was damaged during shipping. While waiting for the item to be credited to our account and a new one shipped, we have no idea what to expect. When we called the store we were told your order is being processed. We have no idea what that means. That statement makes you feel like the immigrants at Ellis Island in the early 1900s, who were also told to wait while they were being processed. We still have no idea when the matter will be resolved, and it is the not knowing that causes stress.
Not providing a timeline can keep the company off the hook, but it sure makes for a stressed-out customer. A simple, “It usually takes a few days” is all it takes to let us relax and stay off your back while you do your job. Without it, dealing with the customer service department feels like a daily commute, full of stops and starts, with no GPS telling us when we are going to arrive at our destination.