Customer Service Lessons from Toddler Parenting

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As adults, we regulate the expression of our emotions. Toddlers, on the other hand, express their emotions without a filter. Although emotions do mature with age, many of the things that upset toddlers upset adults too, we just hide it better. As a result, how to avoid toddler meltdowns can teach us a lot about how to help clients have positive experiences amidst challenges. Here are seven lessons from toddler parenting:

Set expectations.

One moment you are in the doctor’s office waiting room. The next moment you being closed in a room and handed a paper thin gown by a nurse saying she will “give you a moment.” A toddler would cry here.

To provide good customer service, we need to tell people what to expect. What is going to happen during a visit, phone call, or professional relationship should not be a mystery.

In our own firm, we made our Getting Started page so that the new client process would not be a mystery, made Our Services page so that what we do will not be a mystery, do “market downturn practice” with clients so that the volatility of the markets will not be a mystery, and come to client meetings with clear agendas.

Allow time to transition.

“Okay, thank you, bye bye,” our friend interrupts the flow of the conversation to say just as the minute hand finds the 12. We are not so subtly encouraged to leave. These sorts of abrupt transitions make toddlers meltdown.

A simple “I see it is almost noon. Is there anything else you want to make sure we do before you go?” allows them to have as much transition as they need.

Couple the known with the unknown.

When a toddler is asked to journey past the receptionist (a stranger) into a part of the building she has never been to a room with unfamiliar equipment, she is likely to be paralyzed with fear.

However, introducing something familiar and known can ease the journey. For toddlers, this is a stuffed animal, mom or dad carrying you, or a beloved snack. For adults, this might be a cup of coffee, water from the waiting room, or a familiar staff member who comes with you. The welcoming known can make the unknown less scary.

Validate feelings.

Strong feelings in others often produce strong feelings in you. This is especially true when you feel like you might have caused the feelings in others. Almost instinctively, we jump to defensiveness in response to the disappointment of others. When a toddler cries over the sharpie you took away from her, you want to explain that sharpies are not for babies, but the lecture makes the tears worse. Instead, strong feelings need validation — “I understand how you are feeling. It is sad to have something taken away from you when you are playing with it.” — before you explain yourself.

In the financial planning world, acknowledging emotions can help clients overcome them. Fear of losing money is understandable; we all have loss aversion. Wanting to do something when the markets are volatile is understandable; that instinct to action helps in many other scenarios. And worrying that you’re missing something that everyone else knows is understandable; it helps animals survive in the wild.

That being said, sometimes the best advice is when a competent advisor tells you that you are wrong. The best customer service is when she tells you she understands how you are feeling first.

Respect autonomy.

For months, I picked out my daughter’s outfits, dressed her, and all were happy about it. Then one day, she had an opinion about what she wore, what order we donned her clothing, and who did which dressing jobs. It is faster when I do it all, but the experience is unpleasant for everyone. Respecting her autonomy whenever I can helps me during the times I can’t (like when I need to take the sharpie away).

In customer service, this is just as important.

A lot of our jobs as financial planners are determining the best plans that we can. Which Roth conversion plan has the highest after-tax net worth? Which filing schedule for Social Security produces the most benefit? Which asset allocation design has the best chance of meeting your goals? However, when a client is frugal enough, they can afford to deviate from the “best” plan. With enough margin in their finances, they can afford to choose a more conservative plan than the plan which is mathematical “best.”

Although it is our job to help find the best plans and advise clients on which we would choose, respecting their autonomy whenever we can helps during the times we shouldn’t (like when a client is jeopardizing their retirement).

Don’t ask questions you know that answer to.

“Do you think the plane has people on it?” a fellow mom asks her two-year old.
“No,” the daughter says pleasantly.
“No?! You think the plane is empty?!” the mom responds as the daughter lowers her head and hides behind her hair.

Asking questions you know that answer to is risky business. Although there is a place for leading questions in the Socratic method, the average question of this manner is more like a test than helpful discourse. If they get the answer wrong, you are stuck either correcting them and potentially inspiring shame or letting them be wrong and potentially leading them astray.

It is important to be precise and empathetic with people. One way of doing that is to avoid questions you know the answers to. Instead, just share the answer.

Trust is paramount.

Losing the trust of anyone makes everything more difficult. Doubt of your intentions influences every interaction.

At Marotta, we believe in radical honesty. We try to put everything face up on the table so our clients can have confidence in us. We start this process on our website by openly and publicly publishing our strategies as articles on our website. We continue this into the client relationship by involving the client as deeply into the plan design process as they want to go.

We believe that lessons like these are a part of the fiduciary standard. Delicate, thoughtful customer service is part of being a fiduciary. The fiduciary standard is like the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. We cannot define a set of golden-rule-approved behavior and a set of golden-rule-rejected behavior. Each situation calls for a slightly different response and the high moral principle of the standard must guide you.

Photo of David John Marotta and his granddaughter by author.

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Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management since 2005. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. Her most popular post: The Complete Guide to Your Washing Machine