Your frustrations feed a lot of families. In America alone, there are about 2.7 million call-center employees who are standing by ready to soothe you. That's roughly the population of Kansas. But what if you've got joy in your heart? Good luck finding someone who cares. In essence, there's a state full of people who exist to handle our complaints and, at best, a canoe full of people to handle our compliments. Why do companies make it so hard for us to say thank you?
Imagine you're in a Tex-Mex restaurant, eating an awe-inspiring quesadilla. You may rave about it to the waiter, but chances are, your praise will never make it to the person who counts: the cook. Or maybe you appreciate the extra-deep cup holder in your Toyota, which holds your venti latte snugly. Where do you send the thank-you note? If you're lucky, it'll be read by corporate communications, who'll write a soulless acknowledgment. But the engineer who designed it — and the product manager who fought for it — will never know how you feel.
That's a tragedy on multiple levels, first for the employees who never receive your warm fuzzies. Pick any non-customer-service employee at random from your company. When was the last time that person received positive feedback directly from a customer? If the answer is "never," that's as cruel as an unwatered plant. Or an ignored Madonna.
This is an economic issue as well as an emotional one: In a survey of 10,000 employees from the 1,000 largest companies, 40% of workers cited "lack of recognition" as a key reason for leaving a job.
This thank-you scarcity is, just as important, a tragedy for your customers. Because when a customer says thanks, they make you happy, but they make themselves even happier. In her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, describes a dozen scientifically proven strategies to make yourself happier. The first? Expressing gratitude.
In one study, researchers asked a group of people to make a list, once a week for 10 weeks, of five things they were thankful for. Other groups in the study wrote different kinds of weekly lists, such as "five major events" or "five hassles." The "thankful" group felt more happiness, excitement, and joy than the other groups. They even reported better physical health — fewer headaches and coughs.
Another study found that making a "gratitude visit" — writing and delivering a letter to someone who was kind to you but whom you had never thanked, such as the friend who suggested it was time to ditch the trucker hat — caused people's happiness to spike for a full month afterward.
A thank-you from a customer, then, creates a radiating halo of happiness — employees feel recognized, customers feel joyful, and there's less coughing. (Contrast this with AOL's beacon of hatred, which causes even people who've never used AOL to despise the company for its poor customer service.)
What is your company doing to let gratitude blossom? Yes, we know, you have surveys, but they're impersonal, and no one ever sees the results except the marketing department. And no, it doesn't count to say that your customers could call up your support hotline and offer some praise. That's like complimenting your wife's new haircut by leaving her uncle a voice mail.
Suppose there were some way to lower the transaction costs of a thank-you so much that praise became effortless. Think of those obnoxious engaged couples who skip around Macy's with UPC scanners, zapping waffle irons and cutlery for their registry. What if there were some way to zap the cup holder in your car, or the quesadilla on your plate, and instantly deliver a thank-you to the people who count?
American Airlines has taken a step in the right direction with a program called Applause. It gives frequent travelers who've reached "elite" status a set of preprinted cards — instant Hallmark moments — that can be handed to employees who provide exemplary service. Applause isn't ideal — who'll remember to carry the cards? — but it has the right spirit. (United has a similar program.)
For more inspiration, consider Kelmar Safety, which manages those How's My Driving? programs for trucking fleets. Ever wonder if the drivers hear the comments you make when you dial the 800-number? Absolutely, according to Kelmar's CEO and president Christina Kelly. Every single time. At least one company has figured out how to get the right comment to the right person.
We know you're thinking that gratitude may not be foremost among the sentiments expressed on those calls. But take heart, cynical one: 18% of the calls are compliments. (Actual compliment: "He was great. He blinked his lights at me to let me out.") Maybe one out of six isn't such a great hit ratio, but think how much better your organization might perform on this metric if it's in an industry not known for road rage.
Companies should pave the way to praise. If it works well enough, maybe someday we'll see call centers that receive as many thank-yous as complaints. And that will make the population of Kansas a lot more satisfied with their jobs.
Read more Made to Stick columns
Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.