Customer Experience Excellence – The Science and the Craft


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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!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


  1. Interesting – thanks for sharing! I hadn’t seen Dr. Esmark’s study yet, but am anxious to look at it. I must say, though, that intuitively the 37% number seems incredibly high – and perhaps it has to do with the definition of ‘eye-contact’ used in the study.

    As you pointed out, however, it is critical that service providers don’t take a template approach to customer service. In our training programs, we illustrate this by pointing out that customer expectations of service levels can be broken down into three broad categories:

    1. Support: Self-serve. Be there when I need you for questions and information, but that’s it.

    2. Resource: Provide me with information and options so that I can make an autonomous informed decision.

    3. Expert: Guide me, and tell me what is best for me.

    Each of us can fall into different categories depending on the circumstance. For example, when buying a high-end suit, I prefer to have an expert who knows current fashions, and will tell me what looks best on me. When deciding what kind of fancy coffee to order, I might want someone to explain the differences to help me make a decision. When selecting a shampoo, just leave me alone.

    I would argue that initial contact – including eye-contact – is essential for identifying what the best approach might be. It’s what happens after this that will determine customer comfort.

  2. When you are focused on your client, truly reading their needs, listening to their “body talk” it becomes more easy to moderate whether approach him or not…

  3. Michelli always hits the nail on the head when it comes to practical customer service tips. Great speaker for your organization if you haven’t already had him present.

  4. In Plato’s Gorgias, written in 465 BCE, he has Socrates moderate a debate between two students. The subject is whether rhetoric is an art or a science. Socrates believes that what are claimed to be arts, such as cooking and beautification, are actually “knacks”, the blending of art and science. That’s where Plato nets out in Gorgias.

    From my experience, stakeholder-centricity, or customer-centricity if you like, is much like that. Your post addresses the necessary cultural and service ingredients of situations and people, the employee ambassadorship and flexible processes so necessary to have an effective stakeholder-centric culture. Employees and transactional circumstances represent both the art and the scientific tools of stakeholder-centricity, and Dr. Esmark’s work illustrates why they must be included in any discussion of this topic..

  5. Shaun, I had the same reaction. There is a difference between eye contact and staring. It appears longer eye contact is unwanted; particularly when the item connects with a customer’s identity. The research is simply suggestive that one-size does not fit all even in the most seemingly ubiquitous behaviors. Thanks for your amazingly thought provoking comment!

  6. Elizabeth, you are so kind and you happen to be an important part in creating one of the best workplaces in America. Fortune magazine may say Acuity is #2 but I know who really is number #1 (particularly, given your budget versus Google’s)

  7. The key word is “context!” I am preparing to keynote an association meeting of owners of funeral homes, crematoriums, and cemeteries. Smiles and eye contact have a completely different standard than might be found at a J-Mart store or on Mayday Airlines. It might be always wise to do a bit of customer intelligence on what the target market values in an ideal customer experience. We all know about the word “assume.”

  8. Michael, I learn something from every comment of yours. I love the Socrates moderated debate example. Service is a profession and professionals should be artisan/scientists! In our case social scientists adept in the art of experience creation.

  9. Chip, I can’t think of a better example of contextual factors affecting service delivery than the funeral director segment. What a huge distinction!


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