Here’s a true story.

We were recently starting work with a new telecoms client. So to get a feel for the problems they face and how they get on with their customers, I spent a day in one of their call centres, listening in to conversations and chatting to people about how they felt about working there. I was sitting with a young guy I’ll call Sam (not his real name), an energetic chap in his mid-twenties. As I explained why I was there, he said he was hoping to finish on time to catch the Newcastle United match that evening.

A call came in from a customer looking to save some money on his contract (we’ll call him Bob). Bob had recently retired and so was living on a smaller budget. Sam ran through the usual questions:

‘What’s your address please, Bob?’

‘Date of birth?’

‘Mother’s maiden name?’

Then he asked Bob what his security word was.

‘Newcastle’, Bob said.

Sam confirmed this and moved on to look at Bob’s account to see what he could do to save some money. He made a few adjustments to the account so Bob was no longer paying for things he wasn’t using.

Sam had given good service. He’d listened to Bob and found ways for him to save money. Bob left the call paying less and happy; the company held on to a customer; and you might think Sam’s work was done. And when Sam’s team manager reviewed the call, he’d probably have thought Sam had done a good job.

But I thought he’d missed a huge opportunity to make the call so much better. I asked why he’d not mentioned that he was a Newcastle fan when Bob mentioned Newcastle as his security word. Sam hesitated for a moment, and said:

‘I don’t know, it didn’t really occur to me at the time.’

‘Was it because I was listening in?’ I asked

‘Maybe there was a bit of that, yes’, Sam replied.

‘So what were you worried about?’ I asked.

‘I guess I just wasn’t sure if I was meant to talk about football with a customer.’

The irony of this response for me was that this was the perfect chance for Sam to get to know Bob better. To show Bob he understood him. That there was a real human being on the other end of the phone, rather than a carefully drilled automaton following a script and doing what he was told.

Sitting there listening in, I was inwardly begging Sam to mention that he was a Newcastle fan, and to ask Bob if he was planning to watch the match that evening. To banter for a few moments about Newcastle’s cruel 1-0 defeat to Swansea the week before, and the three Premier League points they’d picked up against Southampton the match before that. But no, Sam just did his job, did what he thought he was meant to do, suppressing that most human of instincts – to find common ground with another person and make a connection, however fleeting.

How do you think the customer would have felt if Sam had mentioned the game?

I think he’d have been thrilled. Expecting to speak to an overseas call centre, to someone with little knowledge of his way of life, instead he’d have made a connection with a fellow fan. And his way of thinking of his phone company would have changed forever.

Just a few minutes of conversation would have convinced Bob that this previously faceless organization had real human beings behind it. Real people with real passions and ordinary concerns about making ends meet. People like him.

The importance of sounding human

Whether you work in a big company or small, in the public sector or for a social enterprise, there’s probably something holding you back. Something stopping you from really being yourself at work.

Do you find yourself slipping into formal language when you write in the office? Do you stop yourself from sharing things that mean something to you with other people? Do you feel you have to slip into a different ‘business’ persona that’s colder and more distant in order to come across as professional?

If you stop yourself from making personal connections with your customers and colleagues, you’re not alone. But we think companies that turn this on its head – the ones that actually encourage their employees to be real human beings with each other and with their colleagues – are on to something.

Because it’s those connections that lead to greater satisfaction at work and better work for those organisations. It’s the little moments of real connection we have as we go through our days that are the most memorable, and that make each day that little bit richer.

And that’s why we help companies sound more human.