In Customer Service, Being Nice Only Goes So Far

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Contrary to popular belief, when customer service representatives smile, apologize, empathize, and repeat positive phrases during interactions with customers, the results are not always positive, according to research conducted at the Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business at the University of Missouri.

Activities like smiling and apologizing, which are considered relational behaviors, actually had a negative impact on customer satisfaction, the research found. These activities do nothing to help customers resolve the issues at hand, and, in fact, when agents engage in them repeatedly, customers begin to question their focus and ability to solve the problem. 

Such activities are OK at the beginning of the conversation, when agents need to find out about and understand customers’ concerns, but at some point the agents’ efforts need to shift toward actually solving the problem. “Customers penalize front-line agents who engage in continued relational work during the middle and end of the interaction by discounting their perceived competence,” explains Detelina Marinova, a marketing professor at the University of Missouri and the primary researcher.

Even at the beginning of the conversation, expressing empathy and apologizing should be kept to a minimum; listening to comprehend the individual nature of the customer problem should be prioritized, she says.

“Our research shows that front-line employees’ overreliance on relational work and positive affect backfires and diminishes the efficacy of solving work during problem-solving interactions,” Marinova says. “Front-line employees are better served by focusing on solving work as the problem-solving interaction unfolds, even if recovery is not feasible.”

And even when agents do get to work on solving customer issues, the positive influence of those efforts on overall customer satisfaction are lessened when agents spend more time than necessary on relational work, the research also finds.

In conducting the research, Marinova and her team first looked at video footage from about 100 customer interactions filmed for the reality television series Airline. The researchers examined the words, phrases, behaviors, and nonverbal gestures used by airport employees and measured the customer responses based on their facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. 

“We examined front-line problem solving in real time during ongoing, face-to-face interactions, in which solutions get developed and negotiated under time pressure—not business as usual [or] straightfoward customer service,” Marinova points out. 

According to the professor, most of the prior research into this subject did not examine the dynamic nature of customer interactions but instead evaluated consumer responses before and after the interaction through surveys. That prior research led many to conclude that the use of relational behaviors during interactions was a good thing, and thus agents were trained to engage in such behaviors during their interactions with customers.

Today’s agents would be better served by being trained in creative problem-solving skills, including the ability to produce multiple solution options, according to Marinova. The “competent and creative” production of multiple solution options that are “meaningful and relevant” to the customer should be prioritized, she says.

As an added bonus, when given a choice of solutions, customers reward problem-solving competence because it “gives them a sense of control over a difficult situation,” Marinova points out. For this reason, she advises that companies give customers control in the final phase of the interaction so that they can choose from different solution options and avoid providing a false sense of choice by offering poor solution options. 

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