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Blurred lines: when customers want to be friends

I remember when I first spoke to Frank. While the details of his particular issue are foggy to me, I recall that he called support, didn’t like the answer from one of our frontline agents, and got escalated to me. Frank was upset and frustrated but we worked through the issue and got everything working again without too much of a hassle.

That took all of fifteen minutes. The next twenty minutes or so was a conversation laced with Spock references, but in Frank’s likable southern drawl, where he talked about plans to sell everything, retire, and leave the country in search of warmer weather. Interspersed in there were rants about everything that’s wrong with America—yeah that sort of conversation.

From there on, I was Frank’s “guy”—his resident expert on our product and sounding board for the mysteries of life. And that was all well and good. That was until the day he sent me a friend request on Facebook.

Facebook? Really? That’s where I post pictures of my kids, and brag about how far I ran last Saturday, and tell everyone what I ate for breakfast. Actually, not that last one. I’m not THAT guy. The point is, Facebook is personal and Frank belongs in the professional, right?

What is it about working in customer service that summons these sorts of folks and makes them think we want to be friends? And is it ever acceptable to have customers as friends?

Blurred lines happen more than you realize

If you haven’t worked in a contact center or in customer service for any length of time, my story might seem farfetched, but it’s actually more common than you think. I’ve seen agents receive everything from job offers to marriage proposals. Others have been serenaded, and some have received pizza for everyone in the office—all thanks to great customer service.

Just for fun, I asked my colleagues at FCR to recall stories where customers pushed that boundary between professional and personal. Some stories are sweet, some uncomfortable, but all are memorable—for both the customer and the customer service professional.

Is it ok to dance with customers?

My colleague Bryan wrote:

“I once worked as a retail sales representative at an airport. A woman came into our store and I asked, ‘How can I spoil you today?’ She asked me not to spoil her. I began pointing out products we sell, such as a Bluetooth speaker, and we struck up a dialogue. Toward the end of our interaction we were dancing in the store together and laughing.

The customer then thanked me for ignoring her and spoiling her anyway. As it turned out she was traveling across the country to get her son's car after he passed away. She expressed that I had taken her out of her head for a little while. She did not believe she would ever be able to laugh again and was grateful I had proved that she could.”

Should customers name their children after their agent?

LynDel shared this story:

“I once worked with a family, helping them find house rentals. The husband had accepted a position on a three-month trial period in Florida. While they were there they moved weekly (the wife was pregnant!) to find the community where they’d eventually want to live permanently.

After three months of speaking with the guy weekly, a friendship developed. At that time I happened to be using a pseudonym [Editor note: this is pretty common in customer service] and mine was Hope. As it turns out, there’s now a beautiful little girl in Florida named Hope. They named their daughter after me as they were grateful for the personalized service I provided for them!”

Can customers double as pen pals?

This one comes from Katie:

“I once spoke with a customer—a man in his sixties named Mr. Sticker. His wife was in hospice so he spent a large majority of his time alone. After our initial contact, I received a call from him every week around the same time, for a persistent ‘service issue.’

During our conversations, he related to me details involving his wife's care and gradual decline and how much he looked forward to our weekly conversations. He even gave me the address of the hospice his wife was staying at, requesting that I write to him. When I told him that was against company policy, he replied, ‘To whoever is listening to this phone call, please understand that this young woman is providing me the only light in my life right now. I give explicit permission for her to write down the address so that we no longer have to speak on company time.’

After discussing this with my manager, I was approved to take down the address of the hospice, with the stipulation that Mr. Sticker could no longer request my assistance on company time for reasons of conflict of interest. Instead of calling every week, Mr. Sticker took to writing me a letter a week from that point forward.

Mrs. Sticker eventually passed away and Mr. Sticker followed five months later. I received his final letter three days after his death, where he commented, ‘At the lowest point in my life, I never expected to be so uplifted by a young woman on the other side of the continent that I never officially met.’”

Why does this happen?

I love these stories, but I’m guessing they make some folks a wee bit uncomfortable. Regardless of your feelings, I have a theory about why this happens and it requires a glimpse into the past.

When I was growing up we had a mechanic named Albert. He was our “car guy.” We liked him, trusted him, knew his family, and saw him around town on occasion. He didn’t just work on our cars, he took care of them. When an issue came up that he couldn’t handle, he’d refer us to his “upholstery guy” or his “paint guy.” There was great comfort in having a person to take care of these needs for us.

As business is increasingly done online and more and more customer service work is either automated or moved into the contact center, you’d think we no longer have need for a “person”—save for a few key people like our mechanic. That assumption, however, denies our fundamental human need for connection and community. You see, our “person” is as much about being a human face to a brand and building a trusting relationship as it is about providing the actual service.

You just never know when a customer is going to come along who happens to be in real need of a “person” in their life. Work in customer service long enough and you’ll most certainly encounter your fair share—and just maybe things will click and you’ll be able to uniquely empathize with their particular situation.

It can still be awkward when that unexpected Facebook friend request comes through. Here are some practical tips to deal with a customer who wants to take your relationship to the next level:

1. Remember that it’s normal. In a profession where you deal with people all day and actually help them solve problems, a deeper connection is often a side effect. Don’t be surprised when customers want to show gratitude or become BFFs.

2. Be careful. You were born with certain instincts for a reason—and while I don’t suspect any of these folks I’ve mentioned of being creepers, those people absolutely exist. Get a second opinion from a manager and if you have any seed of doubt whatsoever, decline and keep it professional.

3. Balance it with company goals. Like any friendship, it’s important to have clear boundaries between work and personal—you know—so you can get work done. If a customer continues to call but doesn’t need help with anything in particular, it’s probably best to curtail that conversation.

4. Consider a more professional connection. Rather than jumping straight to Facebook, slow things down and connect professionally on LinkedIn. This still gives you plenty of ability to connect with a customer without letting them into your personal life.

So what happened with Frank? I actually accepted his friend request. He wished me all the best when I switched jobs a while back, and other than a handful of likes and comments here and there, he’s like most of my Facebook friends—in my network but not necessarily BFFs.

Jeremy Watkin made the move from Southern California to Eugene, Oregon in 2015 to join FCR, a provider of outsourcing services, as their Head of Quality. He sort of defaulted into a customer service role nearly 17 years ago and has chronicled much of his journey toward finding real meaning in serving others without totally losing it on his blog: Customer Service Life. Jeremy loves his wife and three boys and routinely enjoys getting lost somewhere in the trees in his new home state. Follow him on Twitter: @jtwatkin.

Original illustration by Violeta Noy.