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Left-brain vs right-brain: why you can’t teach customer service

13 December 2017


We shouldn’t forget that it’s warmth, not competence, that helps businesses build lasting connections with their customers.

Over two decades, I’ve probably interviewed a few thousand people who have applied for roles at Octopus. The key thing I’m looking for is whether or not the candidates we’re hoping to hire share the Octopus values, specifically our approach to taking care of our customers. To help find this out, I ask everyone the same question: “which companies do you most like being a customer of?”

Most people find it really hard to think of companies to talk about. But of those that do, their answers ultimately fall into one of two camps. In the first camp are the “left-brainers”. These candidates think analytically and logically, because the left side of their brain is most dominant. They talk enthusiastically about companies like Google, Amazon or Uber, citing efficiency and zero customer friction as reasons for liking them. They’ve correctly identified that customers don’t have the time, patience or inclination to deal with businesses which make their lives any more complicated.  

In the second camp are the “right-brainers”, who tend to talk about companies like John Lewis or Nike. They believe customers want to feel part of something, so they gravitate towards companies which appeal to the emotional needs of their customers.

Now, there’s no right or wrong answer to my question. I’m not trying to trip the candidates up. But the answers do help me understand how each candidate instinctively thinks. As a rule, right-brainers tend to have more empathy and understanding, whereas left-brainers tend to be more organised and logical. But there’s no denying that left-brainers are currently getting more attention in the business world. And I’m not sure that this is right.

Sadly, as businesses grow, they’ll often go from serving their customers to serving themselves. There’s no better example of this than financial services, an industry that has conspicuously failed to build deep, meaningful relationships with its customers. And this is almost always down to a lack of right-brained empathy and understanding on the part of the employees of these organisations. Hiring decisions based on functional ability rather than emotional intelligence lead to companies spending more of their time and energy focused on what they do rather than how they do it. For them, it’s about product rather than experience.

Which is why I’m still unconvinced about the long-term viability of robo advice. Despite all the funding being poured into robo advice companies, I think they will struggle to gain traction. They’re essentially outsourcing their opportunity to build rapport with their customers to a computer. And computers – today at least – can’t do empathy. There will never be a substitute for how a company makes its customers feel.

The big company versus little company distinction is also worth highlighting. In the early days, companies listen brilliantly, they surprise their customers and, if something goes wrong, they’ll move heaven and earth to put it right. Success is essentially down to the can-do, customer-focused attitude of everyone working there. However, at some point in the growth process, it becomes all too tempting for companies to ‘load up’ on more left-brained people, in the hope that logic and analytical thinking will help drive results. But in the relentless pursuit of left-brained efficiencies, there’s a huge risk that the personality of a company becomes watered down and very quickly the business starts to behave just like all the rest.

Companies need to find the right balance of right-brained and left-brained employees, because they’ll each think about the customer in a totally different way. One leads from their head while the other from their heart. And if you’re one of the left-brained technology entrepreneurs, remember that great customer service can’t be taught. There’s no checklist you can tick off. It’s about empathy and understanding. Your people will either have it or they won’t. Which is why it might be worth asking them which type of companies they feel an affinity for yourself as soon as you get the opportunity.

Simon Rogerson is Chief Executive of Octopus Group.