An Exercise in Non-complementary Behavior

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I’m totally hooked on NPR’s Invisibilia podcast lately. I just finished an episode called “Flipping the Script.” In it they introduce this concept called “non-complementary behavior” and the way Danish police successfully use it when dealing with suspected terrorists.

Let’s first look at complementary behavior. Imagine this morning that you woke up and your spouse was upset at you about something, a coworker was cold with you, or a driver on the way to work flipped you off when you cut into his lane. Complementary behavior means that you behave back to that person the way they first did to you.

Non-complementary behavior by contrast responds in a way that doesn’t come naturally. You instead respond to your spouse by doing extra work around the house or buying them flowers. You respond to your coworker by asking them about their day. You respond to the other driver apologetically— at least as much as you possibly can with faces and hand gestures.

As a customer service professional, I chuckled to myself because this is the exact behavior that we are expected to exhibit on every interaction with customers. Think about about how you respond to these customers:

  • A member calls and hurls expletives at you because their service isn’t working.
  • A customer emails in ALL CAPS because they can’t figure out how to update something.
  • We receive a Tweet about how our company should never exist.
  • A user can’t access their account because they can’t see that giant login link in the middle of their screen.

Take a moment to compare your natural response with a non-complementary one. The complementary response is to defend, hurl insults back, hang up, write in ALL CAPS, and get impatient.

The non-complementary response is to apologize, empathize, work constructively on a solution, call the customer, stay cool, and be patient. And more times than not, those methods actually work. Great customer service professionals are totally in their element when it comes to taking an angry customer and making them satisfied customers. They take problems and find solutions.

The ability to take a negative situation and give a non-complementary response is a skill, and a great one at that. It’s also not an easy or natural skill but can make a difference in relationships on and off the clock— with family, friends, customers, and perfect strangers. If you’re already great at this, which I suspect many of you are, at least you now have a name to go along with it. For the rest of us, let’s work at incorporating this into our everyday lives.


Jeremy Watkin
Head of Quality

Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional.  He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog.  Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership.  Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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