Business Psychology

Article No. 356
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.


Researcher discovers one emotion employees can't conceal.

When customers encounter our employees, we want our people to display emotions that help customers feel comfortable. Emotions such as happy, cheerful, welcoming, understanding, and interested, come to mind. Trouble is, our employees often don't feel this way. Miserable and grumpy may be more likely. Not to worry, we say to ourselves. We'll just tell our people to fake it. "Fake it or else" sums it up correctly. It's that important.

Emotions communicate more effectively than words, and if asked to recall an encounter with a new person, most people will describe the emotions they recognized and the way those emotions made them feel. They will only remember spoken words that support the emotions they recall. When our customers have satisfying emotional experiences with our people, they buy our products, recommend our stores to friends, and return to buy again.

Researchers have a name for the work we expect our people to carry out to display helpful emotions: "emotional labor," and Karyn Wang from the University of New South Wales in Australia recently published an examination of the efficacy of two specific emotional labors: faking happy and suppressing negative emotions, like anger. Wang wanted to know if employees can successfully fake these emotions.

Wang examined 243 customer/employee contacts, and she measured both the degree of faking and the reactions of customers to the service encounter. She also noted the setting and the strength of the relationship. Settings varied from intensely personal (doctor's visit) to standardized (fast food restaurant). The strength of relationship varied from established friendship to complete strangers.

Faking happy worked. Suppressing negative emotions like anger did not work. Employees who faked happy had customers who left the encounter feeling satisfied, and neither the setting or the strength of the relationship mattered. It was a different story with suppressing negative emotions.

Employees who suppressed negative emotions during the service encounter had customers who sensed both the deception and the underlying negative emotions, brooding just beneath the surface like a smoldering volcano. They noticed, and they reacted negatively, rating the service encounter as troubling. The setting did matter. The more intensely personal the encounter, the more likely customers noticed the underlying negative emotions. Strength of relationship also mattered. The weaker this relationship, the worse the reaction. Apparently, strong relationships enable customers to look beyond suppressed negative emotions. Perhaps the strength of relationship allows customers to excuse the negative vibes from people they know. The worst combination would be an unfamiliar nurse in a doctor's office suppressing negative emotions as he/she cared for a patient. These customers will leave feeling unsatisfied.

Wang has three recommendations for business owners. First, beware employees trying to suppress negative emotions. They won't be successful, and your business will suffer. Don't hire them if you can avoid it, and keep them away from customers if they show up for work with negativity dominating their affect. Second, if possible, try to standardize the service encounter. When the setting was standardized, customers were much less likely to notice employees suppressing negative emotions, or if they did, it didn't matter to them. Finally, encourage employees to establish comfortable relationships with customers. Incentives might help. Also, since customers often follow predictable routines, schedule employees to match typical customer routines. This will bring people into repeated contacts.

Reference: Wang, Karyn L. and Markus Groth (2014) Buffering the Negative Effects of Employee Surface Acting: The Moderating Role of Employee / Customer Relationship Strength and Personalized Services. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(2), 341-350.

© Management Resources

Keywords: attitude, emotional labor, customer service, faking happy, and suppressing negative emotions. Consult Subject Index for related research.

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