No Joke! The Role of Humor in Customer Experience

Isn’t it remarkable how things we learn at one point in our life come back to us as welcome gifts later?

Early in my career, I wrote a book about helping children develop humor skills (Humor, Play and Laughter – Stress-proofing life with your kids). I became a student on the topic because I wanted my children to learn how to constructively use humor to take themselves and the world around them less seriously. More importantly, I wanted them to develop an ability to manage frustration and diffuse conflict.

Humor and Customer Experience

Recently, while consulting for a customer experience client, I had someone ask me how to coach a front-line service professional not to use humor as a weapon against customers.

That request came days after the television comedienne, Rosanne Barr, had her recent show canceled after posting a racially charged tweet which she later defended by saying “I’m not a racist, just an idiot who made a bad joke.

If those signs from the universe weren’t enough to spark this blog, I subsequently watched a customer experience professional at another business masterfully use humor to de-escalate a customer complaint.

The topic for this week, thus, became irrepressible.

How and when should we use humor to engage customers?

My answer is essentially the same as the one I offered to fellow parents when it came to helping children master the complexities of humor and social interaction. Please understand I am not comparing service professionals to children. I am simply saying that all of us must continue to learn humor skills.

Tips for the Journey

Here are a few distinctions and tips, that I hope you will find helpful as it relates to the use of humor in customer care:

  • Unlike the phrase “a sense of humor.” I don’t view humor to be a sense (it is not akin to taste, touch, smell, or sight).  Humor is a way of viewing a situation and a toolkit for shifting perspective.
  • Like any tool, humor can be used constructively or destructively. It can create or destroy.
  • From a constructive perspective humor can:
    1. Minimize distorted perceptions of danger
    2. Help manage anger, thereby reducing conflict
    3. Provide breathing room for constructive decision-making
    4. Assist in communicating difficult feelings
    5. Enhance feelings of well-being
    6. Augment creativity
    7. Strengthen social relationships
    8. Abate the physical impact of stress
    9. Create an engage work environment
  • Humor skills can be learned. Comedians study the art of humor and use techniques which I outlined in Humor, Play, and Laughter (such as the set-up, exaggeration, and good news/bad news).
  • Stress activates the immune system. Humor requires us to activate our “amuse system” by asking “how might I find amusement in this situation?”.  Put differently, Mark Twain once noted: “Humor is tragedy plus time.”   For me, the opportunity comes in finding the naturally occurring humor of reality and enjoying it now.
  • Context and limits are required to be effective in the use of humor. Here are a few guidelines to consider:
    1. Use self-accepting humor (not self-effacing humor or “jokes” directed AT others).
    2. Situation and timing matter (when in doubt “keep the amusement” inside your head).

Humor, Customer Experience, and EQ

I have come to believe that the effective use of humor is a sign of emotional intelligence.  It reflects the ability to connect with others, add levity, and redirect interactions in a positive way. Ineffective humor, by contrast, has the potential to exclude and injure others.

Customer interactions can be highly stressful, and humor can be a way to cope with negative thoughts internally. Moreover, it can be a nuanced competency to partner with the customers and move them in the direction of a more productive interaction.

If your goal is to deliver extraordinary experiences, you should welcome and develop the humor skills of your team members so they can get your customer to laugh with them, as opposed to having either your customers or your team members be laughed at.

Sharing and Giveaway

We welcome your stories of effective humor use (either by your team or in situations where you were the customer).  Please send those stories to and we’ll pass them along and send a copy of Humor, Play, and Laughter randomly to some of those contributors.

Smoke over black background

Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

Leave a Comment


The Starbucks Experience: Leadership Tips eBook
Elevating Care in Healthcare: Lessons from the UCLA Health System eBook
How to Win Every Customer, Every Time, No Excuses! Article