All of us have been on the receiving end of customer service experiences that left us angry and frustrated as well as experiences that left a far more positive impression. One important lesson to learn from these is that customer service is essentially an emotional process – it's how the customer feels about the interaction that matters in the long run.
But as new research published in the journal Human Relations shows, it isn't just customers who have this emotional response to good and bad experiences. Not only is positive emotion from sales staff contagious to customers, but a satisfied customer improves the salesperson's mood, too.
Sandra Kiffin-Petersen and Geoffrey Soutar from University of Western Australia and Steven Murphy from Carlton University, Canada studied 276 sales employees to shed light on the sales experience from the employees' perspective.
Data from employees' diary entries that outlined their daily interactions with customers recorded 874 positive events over a five day period. Helping customers to solve a problem - particularly where the employee felt that a good outcome was a result of his/her own initiative - was most likely to trigger positive emotions.
Staff who were thanked or recognised for delivering good service had enhanced feelings of self-esteem and a sense of pride, while a pleasant, positive interaction with a customer generated happiness and relaxation. Deal-making events where the employee felt the outcome was a result of his/her own actions elicited excitement and relief.
Differences in the perception of various events by the same individual also helped to explain why some initially negative events may ultimately become a positive experience for an employee. When employees believed they had the ability and authority to solve complex, and sometimes ambiguous, customer service needs, an initial negative feeling (usually emanating from the customer's mood, or complexity of the problem), was shown to potentially lead to a positive affective state (i.e. relief, satisfaction and excitement).
Emotions were also shown to be contagious – so as well as a great sales interaction making for a happy customer, it was also demonstrated that customer happiness can 'rub off' on the sales staff serving them.
"The customer interaction may need to be recast in the context of a dynamic interplay between salespersons and customers, where the affective state of each may influence the other," the authors of the study suggest.
Critically, they add, it is how much a person feels personally responsible for an event that determines how good they feel about it.
"For employees in our sample, taking personal responsibility for the customer's problem and using their skills and abilities allowed them to be more effective problem solvers," says Sandra Kiffin-Peterson.
"Solving a customer's problem may be a positive experience because it enhances an employee's sense of competence and achievement, as well as their self-esteem."
Organizational experts are increasingly accepting that positive affect has important implications for optimal health and well-being, with implications being shown for how organizations think about customer service and quality.