Last week, in a workshop, an attendee said that his company is ‘reactive.’ The word didn’t sound right, so I asked him to explain. I quickly realized that he meant that his company is ‘responsive,’ not ‘reactive.’

I forgot about this exchange until last night, while I was having dinner with my friend Gene Hensley in Seattle, as Gene coincidentally mentioned the contrast between the meanings of these two words. “‘React’ is to re-act,” Gene said, “meaning that you act in a way you have acted before in the past. ‘Respond’ is to act in a way that is based on what’s going on right now, in this 60 seconds.”

Imagine that you complain about the way your meal is cooked in a restaurant. A server who ‘reacts’ to your complaint will pull a canned rejoinder from his inventory of past experiences, treating your situation in a routine, recycled way. A server who ‘responds’ to your complaint will not base his response on past customer interactions, but will respond directly to what is happening to you at this moment.

I don’t think this is a subtle distinction. Your customers can easily tell if someone in your company ‘reacts’ to their situation, treating them in a routine, rehashed way. They can also tell if someone in your company ‘responds’ to their situation, treating them in a genuine, personalized, unique way.

What is better for your business, reactions or responses?


  • Gary Jensen
    Jun 19, 2008 - 09:48 am

    Thank you for sharing Steve. This hits on an area that I teach in my “phone skills” workshops.

    You know the scenario…a customer calls in upset, confused, etc. and they are greeted with the same scripted verbatim that the previous customer received.

    Customers can sense “reactive replies” (i.e., scripted replies) and in my experience they only make matters worse. Today’s customer wants a “response” tailored to their specific situation, regardless of how common it may be. This is the difference between the waiter using a canned rejoinder or responding to the moment as you point out.

    So to answer your question, I think “responses” work best; however, there are many reasons why scripts are so popular in call centers (compliance, training, etc.). My thoughts are that if scripts are going to be used, then a company should spend time training agents on how to use them without making the customer feel like just another number. Customers want to matter…and rightfully so.

    Gary Jensen

    • Steve Yastrow
      Jun 22, 2008 - 22:40 pm

      Thanks Gary. Can an employee learn to sound genuine with a script? Any luck with this? I’ve found the best luck teaching people to respond naturally, not with a script, but buy learning the principles that make for a good customer encounter.

  • Larry Kaufman
    Jun 21, 2008 - 16:30 pm

    This distinction between reactive and responsive is a quibble. I prefer to contrast reactive with pro-active — taking the initiative to move the relationship forward rather than just returning the other guy’s serve.

    I react to your blog post by responding. I am pro-active if I create my own blog post about anticipating customers’ needs and beating them to the punch.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Jun 22, 2008 - 22:43 pm

      I guess you could call this distinction only semantic, but I loved Gene’s point that re-acting is just rehashing an previous script, and responding is more natural. Of course, you are right that being pro-active is something different … I think being responsive, as opposed to reactive (according to Gene’s definition) puts you in a better place to be proactive.

Leave A Reply