Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 266
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Negative Customers

Research demonstrates the impact of negative customers on service delivery.

If customer service is important in your business, then you'll be interested to know the findings of research conducted by Hwee Hoon Tan, from National University of Singapore, and a good introduction to this work is to imagine two customer service settings.

The first is an ice cream store where people buy ice cream and related items in a wide variety of flavors. They come after a meal as a desert treat or midday to reward a modest accomplishment. They come to socialize with friends. They come with positive moods expecting to enjoy a favorite food item in a comfortable setting.

The second is an airline ticket check-in counter. Long lines and long waits precede these customer service encounters. Just a glimpse of the line stirs panic. Couples begin to argue about the proper time they should have left for the airport. Feet and legs begin to ache and people glance at their watches and sound alerts to their families on cell phones. Maybe they'll complete their travel today, and maybe they won't. These customers who arrive at the service counter are far different from the customers who place their orders for ice cream.

In an effort to control service quality, managers often decide exactly what they want their people to say and do. They write scripts that include greetings, making eye contact, smiling, being attentive and pleasant, and thanking customers. Usually, these scripts are one-size-fits-all, meaning that the basic script doesn't change as customers change. The cheerful, ice cream type of customer would hear the same speech as the snarly airline ticket customer.

Professor Tan had doubts about this strategy. He doubted that widely varying customers would react positively to the same speech, and he doubted that customer service personnel would be able to consistently follow their scripts and be unaffected by the customers they encountered.

Tan sent trained observers into fast food restaurants. They carefully watched customer service clerks and recorded both verbal and non-verbal aspects of their behavior. Other researchers waited outside and caught customers as they emerged. They asked them to complete surveys that would reveal their mood and their satisfaction with customer service. Then they matched the two sets of data - their observations of the service provider, and the results of their survey which revealed qualities of the customer and the customer's satisfaction with service.

Tan found that the behavior of the clerks varied widely and was strongly influenced by the mood of the customer. If the customer was in a good mood, then the counter clerk often gave friendly, prompt service. But the satisfaction of these good-mood customers didn't depend upon it. Even if a clerk failed to give good service, these customers were still happy with the service they received.

The situation was very different with negative customers.

Clerks generally gave much poorer service without realizing it to customers who displayed negative affect, and their service ratings reflected it. But when customer service clerks displayed positive behaviors, smiling, greeting, making eye contact, being attentive and pleasant, and thanking people, then these customers' ratings of service were much higher. Their service ratings were entirely dependent upon the friendly, positive quality of service they received.

Tan lists several implications from his work. He recommends that we develop three kinds of scripts that match customer moods: happy, neutral, and negative. He recommends that service personnel be trained to recognize customer moods and to match prepared scripts with these moods. Finally, he recommends that customer service clerks be trained to recognize the impact of customer emotions and to control themselves so that they are not "infected" by customers' negative moods.

Tan's findings also suggest the value of preparing customers to interact with our employees. A large percentage of T.V. ads incorporate humor into the message. If displays at business sites could trigger memories of these humorous moments, then there may be a carry over influence on customers' moods.

Managers could also identify places where customers wait and install bulletin boards that display jokes. Imagine for a moment a long partition at an airport with the comic panels from an entire Calvin and Hobbes book, or a Peanuts book, cut out and posted along the length of the line. As people progressed through the line, they would read the entire collection (and be smiling when they reached the clerk).

Reference: Tan, Hwee Hoon, Maw Der Foo, and Min Hui Kwek (2004) The Effects of Customer Personality Traits on the Display of Positive Emotions. Academy of Management Journal, 47 (2), 287-296.

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