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Exceptional Customer Service and The Art of Mindful Marathoning

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

Patrick Sandefur approaching finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Author, #11709, approaching finish line of the Boston Marathon!

Is consistently delivering exceptional customer service experiences “like running a marathon”? How many times have you heard this cliche to describe almost anything that is difficult and takes patience? Try Googling it and see for yourself. The comparison has been attributed to so many different activities! How can you possibly relate to running a marathon unless you have actually done it? Why not, “it’s like swimming across the English Channel” or “it’s like watching all 99 episodes of The Bachelorette”? Doing either one of these activities would be exceedingly difficult and would take incredible patience. Some of you may relate to my two alternative examples, but I sure can’t!

Having completed 28 marathons and ultras, I can relate to, “is like running a marathon.”

And yes, delivering exceptional customer service experiences can be “like running a marathon”. So, what does marathoning and mindfulness have to do with customer service?

Running a marathon is viewed by many as a test of willpower, inner strength, discipline, and patience. While running a half marathon (13.1 miles) is a monumental accomplishment for many, running a full marathon (26.2 miles) can seem beyond comprehension. To run a full marathon does take the forementioned attributes, but it also takes specialized training, a well-thought-out race day strategy, near perfect execution, and the courage to make changes during the race when things do not go as planned. It also takes mindfulness.

So why mindfulness? Let’s start with a definition from Oxford Languages.



1) The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.

2) A mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

To run a full marathon well, mindfulness, as described in definition #2, is an important ingredient. Mindful running is running in the present moment, with a keen awareness of your thoughts, your body, breathing, cadence, foot strike and arm motion. It includes being in touch with your surroundings, other runners, appreciative groups of cheering supporters and aid station volunteers. Living in the moment, ever-present, undistracted, exhilarated by the journey ahead of you. The marathoner feeds off crowd energy, their belief in you, doing this thing that inspires. Energy also comes from the other runners, each with their own motivation and story of why they are running a marathon. Total focus on the here, the now, and how to achieve your goal.

Effective and empathetic customer service requires this same level of focus. Focus on the present moment, on what the customer is communicating over the phone, in an email, on live chat or chatbot. A total commitment to the here and now is required, regardless of other distractions, how the last customer interaction went, or what challenges and stress may come from the next customer in the queue.

“Mindfulness…focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings and thoughts…”

The customer’s emotional response to a customer service experience is a key component of customer satisfaction, loyalty, and their perception of your brand. How a customer perceives they are treated is as or more important than how quickly their issue is resolved. This is not to diminish customer effort (CE) in any way. The time and effort it requires for a customer to get an answer to their question, or to get resolution to an issue is paramount to their experience.

Practicing mindfulness, whether it be through formal meditation or through mindful walking or running, will pay big dividends when you are engaged with challenging customer service situations, or when you are running a marathon!

Facing the adversity that is encountered after mile 20 in a marathon can be daunting. As the saying goes, the second half of the marathon starts at mile 20. Tiredness, sore muscles, dehydration, burning quadriceps, stressed hamstrings and mental fatigue are just a few challenges that present themselves in the last 6.2 miles. The possibility of running out of a finite resource, glycogen, a carbohydrate stored in our muscles and liver that our body burns as fuel, leads to the most dreaded part of a marathon, “hitting the wall”. The body can store 1,800 to 2,000 calories of glycogen. It burns on average 100 calories per mile. Marathoners who hit the wall (not all do because of specialized training, pre-race carbohydrate loading, and fueling during the race) experience a rapid slowdown, mental fog, tired and heavy legs, and an intense desire to stop running.

Mindfulness is an enabler to working through the wall and continuing to the finish line by putting focus and awareness on the issues at hand, while acknowledging and accepting the pain as part of the process. Allowing the mind to calmly assess the situation reduces the power that pain has over us, providing perspective, a positive attitude, and even joy, while pushing through the pain and on to the finish.

Practicing mindfulness while servicing your customers can have the same powerful effect. A serious customer issue or request can feel overwhelming to the customer service agent handling it, especially when the customer is upset. Focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting the customer’s complaint or request is the start of a successful resolution. Showing empathy for the customer’s situation while simultaneously using emotional intelligence (EQ) to understand, interpret and respond to what the customer is experiencing is a critical next step. Demonstrating good judgement and self-control, (control quotient or CQ) especially in a high-pressure situation, gives the customer a chance to fully express themselves.

“Allowing the mind to calmly assess the situation reduces

the power that pain has over us, providing perspective, a positive attitude, and even joy, while pushing through the pain and on to the finish.”

Patrick Sandefur running in 50 mile ultramarathon race.
Author running final miles of Beast of Burden 50 mile ultra

In order to realize the full benefit of mindful customer service, a working environment that empowers the customer service agent to take responsibility and do the right thing for the customer needs to be created. To make agents feel accountable for their actions they must first be empowered and have more control over their world. This has the knock-on effect of giving the customer confidence that the agent they are working with will see their issue or request to resolution. Present moment awareness and the customer service agent’s ability to assess, acknowledge and resolve the customer’s issue calmly, positively, and even joyfully can result in creating a satisfied and loyal customer.

Issue resolution training and role playing, focused on the needs of customer personas created by you, is essential to prepare customer service agents for the dynamic situation that an unhappy customer can create. Just as training for a marathon is essential for a successful outcome, customer service training and role playing is essential for preparing agents to effectively deal with customers who have issues.

So, there you have it. Resolving tough customer issues and requests “is like running a marathon”! It takes training, willpower, inner strength, discipline, patience, and mindfulness to turn adversity into advantage and create satisfied and loyal customers.

“If you train your mind for running, everything else will be easy.”

- Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston Marathon winner

To learn more about delivering positive customer service experiences, please visit Bass


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Patrick Sandefur is the Founder and Managing Director of Bass Harbor Group / Customer Experience Solutions. His 30+ year career in Customer Service, Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Business Development has given him a unique perspective of what customers want and expect when interacting with a brand.

Read more from Patrick Sandefur by clicking on recent posts below.


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