Business Psychology

Article No. 376
Customer Psychology, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Happy: Vivid or Authentic?

New research reveals differences in customer reactions to happy clerks.

Customers arrive at our businesses with a mix of emotions, some positive and some negative. When they leave, we want them to leave feeling better. We want them to feel happy. This can happen in two ways. First, we want them to be happy with their purchase. Second, we want them to be happy with the interpersonal encounter they had with our customer contact people.

With product delivery, we establish standards at milestones and we monitor them. Interpersonal encounter delivery is emotional labor that is accomplished by a single individual, the employee who waits on the customer.

Once standards for product quality are satisfied, important decisions about future purchases in this category of product or service rests entirely on the interpersonal encounter delivered by the customer contact employee. Success or failure of the business rests on this foundation.

Interpersonal encounters in business settings are of interest to Ze Wang of the University of Central Florida. In a recent study, he focused on happy, and he narrowed his investigation to happy vivid and happy authentic.

Happy vivid is happiness displayed unmistakably by smiling a lot, smiling broadly, making eye contact, listening, greeting the customer, and so on. Happy authentic is displayed when there is agreement between inwardly held emotions and outward expressions of emotion. Eyes often betray a person trying to fake being happy, and when they do, customers feel uneasy and worry they're being misled.

One would think that both would be equally important, but Professor Wang learned that this isn't true. Happy vivid is more important in some settings with some customers while happy authentic is more important in other settings with different customers. Trust seems to be the key.

In some settings, service delivery is quick and routine. When you place an order in a fast food restaurant, you want a clerk who is fast, precise, and in a good mood. A smile and a greeting along with precise, rapid delivery of your food doesn't require trust. The encounter lasts only as long as it takes to list the items you want to buy. In this setting, with these customers, happy vivid is sufficient, and it is easily monitored by supervisory staff. Customers leave happier than when they arrive.

In other settings, customers arrive with questions and a need to rely on the knowledge and judgments of sales staff. "Here's my problem, what do I need?" "Does this outfit compliment my appearance?" Here, the customer is pondering what to do. He's evaluating inputs and making decisions, and one of the inputs he's evaluating is the trustworthiness of the clerk waiting on him. Authenticity leads customers to trust the clerk and have confidence that he/she is offering suggestions that really are in the customer's best interests. Here, happy authentic enhances trust, leads to purchase decisions, and leads to intentions to return in the future. Customers leave happier than when they arrive.

Business owners need to assess the interpersonal encounter needs likely to be present in their settings and then, staff, train, and supervise customer contact employees appropriately. Where happy vivid is adequate, performance can be delivered more reliably. Where trust needs require happy authentic, performance delivery is less certain, and careful staffing and professional development become wise investments.

Customer contact employees can also make predictions of their own by sensing the needs of customers who approach them. Based on their assessment, they can deliver happy vivid or happy authentic depending upon the customer's needs. For business owners, this is the goal, to have customer contact employees who can sense and adapt successfully to the needs our customers present. The least we can do is pay them well.

Reference: Wang, Ze, Surendra Singh, Yexin Jessica Li, Sanjay Mishra, Maureen Ambrose, and Monica Biernat (2017) Effects of Employees' Positive Affective Displays on Customer Loyalty Intentions: An Emotions-as-Social-Information Perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 60(1), 109 129. www.businesspsych.org

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Keywords: trust, sales, employee affect
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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