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The Triple Threat of Odor

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Is a technician’s value deliverable based on technical skills only? The answer will depend on your experience and the pivotal events which helped to shape your career. Our industry emphasizes diagnostic and troubleshooting capability, whereas a customer’s perception of value may be something else altogether. 

What does the above paragraph have to do with odor? Keep reading. 

A few years ago, while serving Indiana clients, I had the pleasure to meet with a long-time ACCA member named Aaron York. During our meeting, Aaron shared a story from 1961 that helped to shape his career. Aaron admits that while he didn’t perceive himself as an expert technician in the 1960s, the customers certainly thought otherwise based on the value they received. 

“My boss sent me to a customer’s home to clean and service their oil furnace, and after loosening the metal canister which housed the filter, some oil spilled on the concrete floor,” says York. “After wiping up the oil with a rag, I looked around and noticed a laundry sink and detergent. So, I mixed a little laundry detergent and water and then scrubbed the oil spill with a stiff brush.” 

“When I returned to the shop, my boss told me the customer had just called, and I braced myself for a complaint. “What did you do at the customer’s home?”  he asked. I told him I vacuumed the heat exchanger, replaced the nozzle and filter, and scrubbed the floor. Then my boss made my day by saying that this customer demanded that only I be sent to their home from now on. Why? Because this customer had become accustomed to a pervasive oil odor whenever their furnace was serviced. But that day, the customer was thrilled due to the odor’s absence.” 

This event taught Aaron an important lesson in customer value perception and retention. The absence of oil odor validated Aaron’s technical expertise in the customer’s mind, regardless of Aaron’s technical skills assessment. In the world of customer service, the customer is always right. And if the customer believes you’re an expert – so be it.   

There are countless soft skill behaviors that involve little or no technical knowledge. A smile, common courtesy, wearing shoe covers, and cleaning up afterward are just a few. Service events involving odors hold a special place among service events because of how people react to what they smell. Odors run deeper into a customer’s emotional perception than sensory information, such as what is seen, heard, or touched. Why? Because our brain handles the sense of smell separately from our other senses. 

Our brain’s thalamus (Latin for “inner chamber,” referring to its position in the brain) manages input from all the senses – except for the sense of smell. What we hear, see, taste, and touch is handled in one place (the thalamus), and the sense of smell is handled in another – the prefrontal cortex. But why is this so important? The prefrontal cortex is also where our brain stores memories, along with our emotional response to what we sniff.  

There is a link between smells and memories and emotion – a rather explosive combination of entities. Perhaps that is why an odor can evoke such an emotional response.  It’s also why events that involve odors are hard to forget – our memory associates odors with events and people. For example, an adult who opens a can of Play-Doh and takes a sniff is almost immediately filled with a rush of childhood memories and emotions. The triple threat of smell, emotion, and memory elicits a response. Customers will never forget a technician with coffee breath or foul body odor. Let’s remember that a customer’s value perception has much to do with odors or the lack thereof.  



Steve Coscia, CSP

Posted In: ACCA Now, Training

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