Archive for ‘Emotion and Customer Service’

February 5, 2013

Be Kind. The Simple Answer to the Costly Epidemic of Workplace Rudeness

Be kind.

According to my children’s head teacher, these two words cover everything he requires of pupil behaviour.

That’s all well and good you might be thinking, but is it really relevant to our understanding of the complexities of adult workplace behaviour and performance?  Most definitely it is.  It turns out that this head teacher is wise beyond his institution and that being kind is far more than an easy standard for school children to understand.

In fact, years of research shows that being rude to our colleagues has immediate and long term detrimental effects on employee engagement, commitment and performance, quite apart from its negative impact on workplace relationships and job and life satisfaction.

An article in HBR’s online magazine summarises two American academics’ long term findings on the impact of rudeness at work.  Here are a few “highlights” of Christine Porath’s and Christine Pearson’s work.

  • Half of people surveyed in 2011 said they were on the receiving end of rudeness at least once a week.  This is twice as many people as said this in 1998.
  • Large numbers of us decrease our effort, our time at work and the quality of our performance as a result of being on the receiving end of rudeness at work (48%, 47% and 38% respectively of those experiencing incivility).
  • 12% of people who experience rudeness at work say they have left a job because of it.

 Rudeness filters through to customers – who walk away

Rudeness within a workforce has an impact on customers too.  Pearson and Porath’s surveys and experimental research with other colleagues indicates that:

  • 25% of people who experience rudeness at work say that they have taken their frustration out on customers
  • customers witnessing rudeness amongst employees are significantly less likely to want to use the company’s service in the future and most will generalize their feelings about the rudeness they witness to all employees of that organisation.

Add to this the costs of managing incidents of incivility and the negative impact on creativity, accuracy, performance and willingness to help others revealed by a number of researchers in the field, and I think we can all agree that rudeness at work is officially a Really Bad Thing.

How to encourage a good-mannered workplace

So what to do to turn back the rising tide of workplace incivility and unkindness?  How can customer service organisation encourage and increase the sum total of  courtesy and positive interactions in order to improve the experience of both workers and customers?

We all know that rudeness makes us feel bad and ignoring its power to affect our work is a case of putting our heads in the sand.   However, the good news is that evidence suggests it is easy to create a virtuous circle of niceness and positive feeling.  Work by Kim and Yoon in the service sector suggests that positive behavior initiated by employees towards customers leads to more positive behaviour in return and a positive mood in the employee as a result.

The neuro-economist Paul J Zak believes that civility is part of what he terms the Golden Rule – ie, you be nice to me and I will be nice to you  – and is rooted in our body chemistry.  Studies show that when someone is nice to us our brains release the hormone oxytocin which not only makes us feel good but leads us to be nicer to others.

Conversely, it is easy to see how vicious circles of rudeness bad feeling and unkindness can also be created.

So we should acknowledge the power of courtesy and kindness at work and make it an explicit value for the department or organisation.  Amongst other thing, Porath and Pearson suggest making sure that leaders understand the impact their own behaviour has on others behaviour and that they role model positive, courteous and appreciative behavior towards their staff.    This will start the virtuous circle of civility and the ripple effect will pass this on right down the line to customers and even further.

 Another suggestion by researchers in the field is to make civility an explicit part of the recruitment process which embeds courtesy and kindness into the psychological contract.   And at a more local level, department or team leaders can discuss and agree with their staff what behaviour is expected and what is unacceptable, along with possible rewards or sanctions down the line.

 Making a difference

Rudeness is often regarded as something that we just have to put up with from time to time and consistently rude people often get away with this type of corrosive behaviour without direct challenge.  Yet we now know that it has a huge impact on both employee and customer experience and ultimately on the performance and bottom line of the organisation.

 So I see my children’s head teacher’s emphasis on being kind as a lesson for grown ups too.  It really is worth making the effort to treat others with kindness because if every one of us is just a little bit more civil and little more kind, the virtuous circle and ripple effect will ensure that it takes on a life of its own.  And who knows, it might well make its way back round to you.

Good luck.  And if it helps to get the ball rolling even just a little, I want to say that I really do appreciate you reading this blog today: thank you 🙂

References and further information

Porath, C., & Erez, A. (2009). Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (1), 29-44

Porath and Pearson, HBR Rudeness article :

Kim E, and Yoon DJ (2012). Why Does Service With a Smile Make Employees Happy? A Social Interaction Model. The Journal of Applied Psychology 97(5) 758 – 775

C. Porath, D. MacInnis, V. S. Folkes. It’s Unfair: Why Customers Who Merely Observe an Uncivil Employee Abandon the CompanyJournal of Service Research, 2011

Flin, R, Rudeness at Work Causes Mistakes BMI British Medical Journal ,2010, July 7

August 10, 2012

No Really, These are Laughter Lines…..

Do we really need more reasons to convince us that increasing the average age of call centre employees would be a good thing?

Probably not.  But just in case you encounter someone who is still adamant that customer service is a young person’s game, here is a little more information from the world of academic psychology.

It turns out that older people have learnt the key to keeping cheerful: look the other way, and quickly.

Emotional resilience, old-style

We already understand that positive emotions enhance customer experience and are transferable.  And plenty of research suggests that older people show more positive emotions than younger people and can cheer themselves up quicker that younger people.  Now US psychologist Derek Isaacowitz has shown that this may well be because  they switch attention from negative stimuli to positive more quickly than younger people.

His studies using eye tracking show that older people tend to have more “positive looking patterns” than young people, and do most of it when they are in a bad mood.


Out of the lab, this suggests that older workers are more adept at turning their attention to positive information than younger people, helping them to remain positive and snap out of bad moods more quickly than their younger colleagues.

Clearly this an important resource for workers in front-line customer service positions where the emotions and complaints of customers can generate significant emotional labour requirements and be an emotional drain on service providers.  Older workers, who are more inclined to refocus on the positives, may well have better staying power in these positions and help to reinforce the emotional resilience of teams.

So, customer service recruiters: it’s time to throw out any remaining Victor Meldrew stereoptypes of grumpy old men and replace them with a more accurate picture of older people who have learned how to bounce back and hold on to a sunnier disposition.  It seems that those wrinkles really are laughter lines.


 D. M. Isaacowitz. Mood Regulation in Real Time: Age Differences in the Role of LookingCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, 2012; 21 (4): 237 DOI : 10.1177/0963721412448651

Derek M. Isaacowitz and Fredda Blanchard-Fields. Linking Process and Outcome in the Study of Emotion and AgingPerspectives on Psychological Science, January 2012 vol. 7 no. 1 3-17

Donna R. Addis, Christina M. Leclerc, Keely A. Muscatell, Elizabeth A. Kensinger. There are age-related changes in neural connectivity during the encoding of positive, but not negative, informationCortex, 2010; 46 (4): 425


January 27, 2012

Listen Carefully: You Might Make Someone Smile

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

                                    Stephen R Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It goes without saying that listening to customers is central to successful and sustainable business.   The new focus on the “voice of the customer” requires organisations to use all sorts of methods to hear what customers are saying about them and their services and products.  A myriad of new technology offers to help capture these conversations and issues from call centres, social media, email correspondence and anywhere that customers are talking.

Current technology is semantics-led: it captures words and phrases used by customers and categorises them for analysis.  How many people are talking about delivery failure for example, could indicate that a company needs to investigate whether there are service improvements that should be made. But in the previous post I argue that the easiets place to start hearing the customers’ voice is from the people employed to be in contact with them. The sensitivity and sophistication of these data collection and analysis units is second to none.  However, these listening capabilities have the portential to be used in an even more sophisticated and engaging way, though it is not perhaps as easy as it looks.

It is entirely correct that organisations  should be making efforts to listen to customers.

But it’s a different thing entirely to say that customers need to be listened to.

It is more than data collection: it’s an emotional experience.  When we are listened to, someone else stays quiet and attentive and demonstrates through their occasional linguistic contributions that they have heard us, understood us and empathised with us.

The real listener brings no agenda.  They don’t say “I know, I know”. 

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December 23, 2011

Boxing Day: A Festive Experiment in Gratitude

I realise that the proverbial partying, frenzied gift buying or making and stocking up on traditional food items to mark the occasion is still going on in anticipation of Christmas day.  But in the last post before Christmas I wanted to take a moment to mention the following day, Boxing Day: because it offers a unique opportunity to anyone interested in the dynamics of service.

Boxing day is traditionally the day when householders give small gifts or money called a christmas box to people who provide a service to them during the year.  In days of old that might have been housemaids, stable boys and coachmen.  Nowadays it is more likely to be given to the people who provide a service to us during the year but often are not paid by us directly, including the lads and lasses who empty our bins, deliver our mail and bring the Sunday papers.  And it is generally given before Christmas since not many of these services operate on Boxing Day itself.

A Christmas box  is a small gift that recognises and acknowledges the service  these people provide throughout the year and is often given to people we rarely see but whose labour is a valued service and whom we fund through our local or central taxes.  

If it isn’t something you normally do, perhaps because you so rarely see these people, I wonder if you might give it a try this year?

Here’s why.  And let’s take the bin-men as an example.

1.  It communicates appreciation  

The bin-men may be paid by the taxes collected from us for all the services needed to keep our environment safe and clean, but the relationship between us is somewhat remote.  Despite benefiting from the services they provide, we are not their direct employers and I would hazard a guess that we don’t all rush out to give feedback on the quality of the job and a personal thank you each time we put out our bins.   

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December 8, 2011

Why Aren’t You Helping Me, You Half-Witted, Time-Wasting, Rip-Off Merchant?

Speaking on the BBC this week, Guy Winch, psychologist and complaining expert, (or rather, expert on complaining) talked about the contradiction between our need to let off steam when we have experienced poor service, and our drive to resolve the problem.

Guy Winch points out that although we really want to vent our feelings when we have been let down by an organisation, if we do this vociferously to an innocent call centre representative, and then expect them to pull out all the stops to rectify the problem, we are simply barking up the wrong tree.

A recurrent theme here on Customer Service Psychology is how the failure to appreciate the emotions involved in customer service underlies and explains many of the problems that both organisations and customers have with service relationships and outcomes.   ( etc.).

Once we lose sight of the fact that our own responses to disappointment in both personal and business relationships are emotional, as are the responses of any customer service employee, we are much less likely to get a satisfactory result.   Of course, that is not to say that by understanding and acting on this knowledge we will definitely secure what we want, but simply that it will give us the best chance of achieving it.  

Guy Winch suggests that we think clearly about what we want to achieve with a complaint.  We should pick our battles carefully, complaining when and only when it is important and using a technique he calls the “complaint sandwich”.  In other words, we should sandwich the meat of the complaint between two pieces of positive bread.  An example might go something like:

“I was really pleased to receive a delivery from you this morning as I love your products, but when I opened it I was really disappointed to see that there were 2 items missing.  This hasn’t happened before and I know that you work really hard to deliver everything to time and specification.  I wonder if you can resolve this issue for me?”

This “sandwich” metaphor will be familiar to many HR and line managers who have had training in how to deliver performance feedback to their staff where it is often known as the “feedback sandwich”.  Tell someone what they are really good at, tell them something they could improve and then feed back something else you have noticed that they are great at. This makes the point but lowers defensiveness by making it clear that strengths and effort have been recognised too.  Importantly, the conversation covers more good than bad.

Simply put, we find criticism difficult, but if it is wrapped up in an extolment of our many virtues and presented as a tiny little improvement that could make a huge difference, we can usually accept it. 

The principle stands in every relationship we have in life: with our children, our partners, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, our bosses and our employees.  People will try harder if we are mostly positive, and at some level we probably all know that this is the case.

So why is it that we don’t use the complaint sandwich every time? 

Why do we often rant and rave?  Why do we launch into a vehement catalogue of complaints when we have been let down by a company, taken time away from other things we should be doing, kept on hold for 20 minutes and then put through to a call centre representative whose command of English means we have little chance of a productive conversation.  Well naturally because we are human:  an emotional, irrational and currently fuming human.  And, arguably, sometimes what we actually need most is to let off steam.  The effort involved in containing a basic emotional response to injustice and betrayal (which as previous posts have explored are often the emotions we are feeling, however much of a rational, sophisticated gloss we put on them) is just too much.  The need to restore balance and be heard is top of the list, and resolving the issue has to take second place.

A really intelligent company will understand this, and its representatives will be trained and supported in understanding and dealing with the emotions customers bring to their interactions with a company representative.  But most don’t, and crucially don’t invest in the recruitment, training, management and reward processes which enable front line customer-facing employees to cope with this.  So unfortunately, bubbling frustrations, obvious and unhelpful scripts, raised voices and terminations of calls are standard fare in the hubbub of service conversations around the world.

In fact, it became clear to me that there is a line of training provided to customer service staff that actively encourages customer service representatives to find reasons to terminate a customer interaction specifically as a result of the expression of emotions.  A snippet from the middle of a conversation I overheard between an irritated customer and a very uncomfortable car parts front desk clerk will demonstrate I hope.

Customer  “…so it just isn’t good enough to say you won’t provide a courtesy car while you repair my brand new car for the fourth time since I bought it two months ago.  I will need a courtesy car.”

Desk Clerk “If you raise your voice, Mrs Parker, I will terminate this conversation”

Customer  “I am not raising my voice, I am asking you to find me a car.”

Desk Clerk  “Right, OK.  Well I can’t do that, we don’t have one available.”

Customer “Yes you can.  It is utterly unacceptable to sell me a car that is falling apart when I made it clear I wanted a reliable car and then to leave me carless for a week. Do you think that is acceptable?

Desk Clerk (backing off)  “If you are insulting I am entitled to end this conversation right now”

Customer “ Fine.  Tell me where I have been insulting and we can agree to end it”  Pause  “Good, now you can try to find me a courtesy car.”

The front desk clerk was searching for the “legitimate reason” given to him in training that would enable him to walk away from the customer’s problem and associated emotion.  How much better it would have been to train him in listening to, acknowledging and sympathising with the customer’s perspective whilst not taking the emotions personally.   No additional investment required – just a simple change of approach which would demonstrate customer-centricity and result in improved customer loyalty. 

Guy Winch has teamed up with a call centre to experimentally examine the effect of training call centre employees in improved “emotional validation” behaviour.  Do call centre agents who listen and acknowledge emotions leave customers more satisfied with the service they have received?  It seems obvious when you think about it – people who are genuinely heard and acknowledged will feel better about the situation.  Yet there is little hard evidence out there from real life customer interactions and so Guy Winch’s results, whatever they show, will be welcome.   

Organisations work hard to deliver excellent products and services to their customers.  Perhaps they could work a little harder to understand how problems with them can influence the emotions of their customers.   They already do a great job in appreciating how emotions influence decisions to purchase, so it would complete the circle.

You’ve got it.  Feedback sandwich anyone?



Guy Winch, author of “The Squeaky Wheel”.   More at

November 24, 2011

Anatomy of a Service Failure. How to Lose an Online Customer in 3 Easy Steps

Like a great many working parents, I do as much shopping as I can online.  It saves time and effort and reduces my carbon footprint.  Ok, I admit the last point is a happy coincidence and poor relation to the first two motivations, but I am working on it.

The point is that I and people like me are core customers of all the retailers who sell their wares in what everyone knows is a highly competitive marketplace.  However, I seem to have made the basic school-girl error of thinking that retailers understand that and more importantly that this makes me valuable to them and so every once in a while I am brought down to earth with an eye-opening bump. 

A bump that shocks me out of the inertia effect or “loyalty” so depended upon by banks, utility providers and others to keep us unthinkingly buying our services from the same organisations, despite increasing costs and the quiet downward creep of interest rates and value.  A bump which means I vow never to buy from that company again.  Service failure and no more chance of recovery.

For all the PR huff and puff about providing online ordering and delivery to make life easier and cheaper for us “valued” customers, the reality on the ground is rather different.  And it is pretty easy to lose a customer forever.  A recent experience with a big-name value retailer reminded me that there are 3 simple steps to making sure you don’t get another chance with the customer.

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July 5, 2011

Are We Being Short-Changed by the Idea of Emotional Labour?

Is the way that we think about the “emotional labour” involved in customer service jobs, helping to keep the real value of it hidden and do we as customers end up getting worse service as a result?  And are businesses struggling to keep our customer and our loyalty at least partly because they don’t fully understand the concept of, or properly appreciate the value of, emotional labour?

Arguably, yes.

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March 16, 2011

Is Staying Calm and Unemotional Exactly the Wrong Thing to do for Customer Service Employees?

Well yes, very probably, implies a new study.

This new paper by two Canadian psychologists reviews the academic literature on emotional intelligence and suggests that the ability to influence others as a result of one’s own displays of emotion is a distinct emotional ability with consequences in the workplace. 

Stephane Cote and Ivona Hideg argue that some people are better than others at showing appropriate emotions which influence the feelings, behaviour and attitudes of those around them.  

They propose that this ability to influence others through displays of emotions sits alongside other aspects of emotional intelligence that are currently better understood, such as the ability to perceive emotions or the ability to manage emotions.

Much is written about the contribution that emotional intelligence makes to the quality of customer service and academic studies show evidence of a link between various features of emotional intelligence and objectively measured job performance in customer service roles.  For example, research indicates that people who are more emotionally intelligent in terms of understanding and managing emotions, are rated higher in terms of customer service provision by senior managers (1).

However, there has been little attention focused on the role that expression of emotion plays in job performance and the authors contend that not only is it a genuine and measurable ability that is present to differing degrees in different people, but also that it is highly likely to have a direct effect, albeit moderated by other factors, on job performance.

So What Does this Mean for Customer Service Providers?

It means that customers like people who come across as positive about, and genuinely engaged in, the interaction and who seem to reflect appropriately the emotions they are experiencing.  And that because they like them, customers are likely to communicate more clearly, more warmly and more informatively, thereby making the customer service employee’s job easier. 

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February 12, 2011

Emotion at the Heart of the Customer Experience

The Emotional Decision Maker

The way we feel underlies almost all our decisions and actions, even ones that we think are rational and logical.  Social psychological research continues to reveal the emotional and seemingly irrational underpinnings of our choices, from the smallest purchase to the most major life change.  It is inevitable that the same emotional responses will lie at the heart of how we choose to interact with organisations.

The emotional basis for decision making allows us to understand why an organisation’s front-line service providers are key to influencing our decisions to become and remain customers of any organisation.  Our interaction with them creates an emotional response and sets a pattern for our interaction with the organisation.  It is the way that the people of an organisation make us feel that determines our most strongly held opinions about it.

Person to Person

Of course there are other factors in forming our opinions as customers – the organisation’s advertising and materials, what we hear about them in the media, our experience of their product and other people’s views to name a few.  But at its heart, every contact an individual has with an organisation, in whatever form, is a personal interaction.

No matter in what medium of communication ia, what we infer about the meaning behind the communication and the emotional response it creates in us, is largely the same as would occur in a conversation in person between two people.

As social animals we are continually interpreting and responding to the way that other people interact with us, even if that is only through some text on a website or a set of instructions.

We are able to detect nuances of tone and subtle inferences in any type of communication and our deepest emotional reaction shapes our behaviour without conscious awareness.  In fact, we can impute meaning to a complete lack of communication – for example, think what meanings we draw from an organisation’s repeated failure to answer the phone when we have a problem to discuss.

Although we are interacting with an organisation, to our social brain that only makes sense as a group of individuals: along with the product itself,  our interactions with the person we are speaking to is the foundation of almost all that we will come to feel about an organisation.

Above and Beyond Simple Emotional Response to Experience

Psychological research consistently finds that our emotions about someone or something create the conditions for their own existence, through cognitive processes called attentional and confirmation biases. 

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