Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 158
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Helping Customers "Get Along"

Research reveals damage to customer satisfaction inflicted by other customers and offers suggestions for improvement.

What do the following people have in common? A host pressing alcoholic drinks into guests' hands as they arrive, a couple arguing over the seating arrangement at a formal dinner, and a hostess agonizing over the guest list for a special celebration at her home.

The answer? Here's a hint. The host offering drinks hopes to relax inhibitions so conversations will be animated, and the couple and hostess hope to match people likely to be interesting and friendly to each other. These people want their guests to enjoy themselves, and they share in common a recognition of the importance guests play by contributing to the experience of other guests.

Retailers, are you paying attention? Service retailers, especially?

Stephen Grove, of Clemson University, thinks you should be more concerned about this influence than you are. He believes you're missing opportunities to mold customer behavior that would improve perceptions of your service.

Grove dispatched three teams of marketing students to theme parks in central Florida to interview a cross section of patrons. He wanted to know if these people had fresh memories of critical incidents with other guests that had a significant impact on their overall satisfaction. Over half said "yes," and they described a total of 330 critical incidents that fell into 3 categories: 1) rules of conduct, 2) sociability, and 3) crowding. Half of these were positive, and half were negative.

Positive experiences with the first group, rules of conduct, found people going beyond expectations to offer help, for example, assisting a handicapped person. Negative experiences involved violations, such as cutting in line. Sociability incidents involved friendly or unfriendly patrons. Positive crowding experiences included contagious enthusiasm that helped create a sense of excitement, while negative incidents created a sense of encumberment or malevolence.

Grove also noticed several tension points: waiting in lines, mixing people with wide age differences, and "out-of-towners."

Long waits in lines are difficult for many people, and the urge to "take it out" on nearby patrons is tempting. Wide age differences challenge customers' patience with young children or slow-moving elderly patrons. And "out-of-towners" attract negative attention by violating implicit rules of conduct, for example, conversing loudly in a foreign language, or rude conduct.

Business owners already take many steps to manage customer behavior: signs that say "No shirt no service;" reminders not to talk during movies; bouncers in bars; networks of reinforced railings that neatly fold long lines into small areas, prevent cutting into line, and offer modest seating for desperately tired feet; and so on. Grove applauds these efforts, but he thinks we can do more.

Grove found that customers' visits tended to be ruined by violations of rules of conduct, and enhanced by gregarious acts of kindness. So our guiding principle should be to discourage the former and encourage the latter. Inform customers of conduct that spoils others' visits. Encourage random acts of kindness at key locations, for example, a reminder near stairways to offer assistance to the unsteady, or seats to pregnant women. Encourage customers to help you enforce rules by promptly reporting unpleasant incidents. This allows you to prevent recurrences and to recover customers who report them.

Stimulate friendly conversations among patrons. Place small signs in locations where lines form that suggest open-ended questions such as "What are your favorite attractions in this city that I shouldn't miss?" and suggest people ask nearby patrons. Your signs might also tell a good joke customers could repeat with the promise that new jokes will come in reply. They could also point out ways customers can help each other, for example, foreign visitors usually welcome suggestions to improve their English. Finally, Grove suggests we entertain customers who are standing in lines, with videos or personnel assigned to the task.

Try thinking like a cruise ship social director. Customers need you to guide their experience by correcting violations of rules of conduct and by cooperatively engaging their efforts. If you do, they'll notice and appreciate your attempts, and they may even come back.

Reference: Grove, Stephen J., and Raymond P. Fisk (1997). The Impact of Other Customers on Service Experiences: A Critical Incident Examination of "Getting Along." Journal of Retailing, 73 (1), 63-85.

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