Every time I develop a customized customer service training tool for a client of mine, I caution that the tool is a “guidebook” for customer service behavior and that no tool can fit every application. As such, a customer service toolkit is only as good as the judgment and skill of the person using it. Additionally, tools often get elevated to “laws of human behavior” even in the absence of empirical data or evidence.
Let’s take two of the most commonly accepted tenants of good customer service – eye contact and being physically present. It is generally accepted that customers want to be welcomed and have service providers smile and make eye contact upon arrival at a business. However, a recent field experiment conducted by Carol Esmark, Ph.D. and referenced in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Your In-Store Customers Want More Privacy” showed that those behaviors don’t always have the desired effect on sales. Specifically, her findings from one study suggest, “If eye contact is made, the shopper is 37% less likely to purchase their intended product during that trip. Similarly, in line with a second field experiment where shoppers’ personal space was invaded, shoppers are 25% less likely to purchase the item in question if they feel another person is too close to them.”
Additional studies conducted by Dr. Esmark and her team seem to suggest that the nature of items being purchased has an impact on the “desired eye contact” from service providers. Dr. Esmark notes:
“Control over privacy becomes even more important when the product expresses a great deal about a person. Items such as nail polish or hair dye are more expressive in comparison to non-expressive products like face wash or cotton balls…Getting close to shoppers when they are eyeing less expressive products can actually increase sales because the product isn’t as telling of their personality. However, if the product says a lot about the shopper, they prefer some distance while they browse. Overall, when you invade someone’s privacy, the abandonment of a purchase is much more likely to occur when the product is expressive.”
Not only are field experiments like those conducted by Dr. Esmark helpful to fine-tune customer experience behaviors, but they also remind us that customer service is both art and science. Evidence-based principles of desired service behaviors must be delivered with great finesse and nuance. Eye contact may be a generally desirable customer service behavior, but that behavior has to be tempered in the context of the need of the person in front of you at the moment.
I once heard a chess master responding to a question about what it takes to be one of the best players in the world, he said, “Greatness comes from knowing the rules and when those rules need to be bent or abandoned to achieve victory.”
The same may be said for delivering transformational service experiences that resonate with each person you serve – know the “guiding principles” and when they should NOT be applied!