Service with a smile? The role of employee emotions in CX

Employees are critical to delivering branded customer experiences. But how many organisations regularly take employee emotions into account?
28 July 2020
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Dr Susanne O'Gorman
Dr Susanne

Global Head of Customer Experience, Insights Division

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“Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” (Henry Ford)

Emotions matter. CX researchers and practitioners have known for many years that positive customer emotions are instrumental in creating loyalty, increasing share of spend with a brand and encouraging word-of-mouth. It is also no secret that employees are key to delivering these experiences. Much has been written about the relevance especially of frontline staff in service interactions, but yet we have gaps in understanding: Henry Ford’s “pair of hands” comes with a human being that has aspirations, dreams, conflicts, needs, good days and bad days. To successfully activate and manage customer experiences, brands need to take into account not only customers’ but also employees’ emotions.

“The managed heart”

In her seminal 1983 study of Delta Airlines flight attendants, the US sociologist Arlie Hochschild has drawn attention to the concept of emotional labour: “The workers I talked to often spoke of their smiles as being on them but not of them. They were seen as an extension of the make-up, the uniform, the recorded music, the soothing pastel colours of the airplane decor, and the daytime drinks, which taken together orchestrate the mood of the passengers… For the flight attendant, the smiles are a part of her work, a part that requires her to coordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless. To show that the enjoyment takes effort is to do the job poorly. Similarly, part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labour would show in an unseemly way, and the product — passenger contentment — would be damaged.”

The transition from an industrial to a service society resulted in a different ask from employees: the need to understand and respond to customer’s feelings in service interactions and to display the right emotions at the right time. The result is constant and hard “emotion work”: adjusting and reconciling your own emotions to customer needs, seeking to come across as authentic and sincere as possible even in challenging situations. The shift from service to experience economy is likely to have increased this demand on employees even further. According to Kantar's CX+ 2020, 59% of millennials say they would prefer spending money on experiences rather than material things. More and more brands are conscious about including the delivery of a WOW element in moments of truth, something that makes them stand out from the crowds. In a world where the abundance of product and service offerings is overwhelming it is vital to deliver experiences that are not only consistent, but also branded and ultimately memorable – each comes with a demand on the “emotional labour” of employees that is important for brands to understand and manage.

Three steps to achieving memorable, branded experiences and the role of employees

Step 1: consistency

Consistency is the starting point in delivering service experiences. Without consistency, positive experiences are one-off encounters whose random nature is instantly recognised by customers. The difference in speed and quality of service when the staff at your favourite restaurant changes, conversations with call-centre agents that can be great or leaving you feeling desperate with frustration. Consumers need to be able to trust brands that products and services meet their expectations. Consistency is all about the quality of the experience and while we can standardise processes, it is neither possible nor advisable to standardise employee behaviour. Customers recognise if service interactions come across as scripted, we all want to feel a human touch and yet brands need to ensure that this human touch does not result in unpredictable experiences.

The “emotional labour” in delivering a consistent, yet human experience is thus a huge task for brands. Bringing the voice of the customer into the organisation and giving employees access to relevant customer data is a critical first step to provide employees with the necessary tools for understanding customer needs. The ability to close the loop with individual customers is not only a means for addressing customer issues, but also as an opportunity for employees to experience the impact they have on the customer relationship. We often see that well managed complaints result in strong customer loyalty – often stronger than those customers who never had a complaint in the first place. Regular “huddles” to review and discuss where customer interactions have gone awry or where a customer was successfully retained are therefore important tools in ensuring quality and consistency in journeys and touchpoint.

Step 2: consistent and branded experiences

Improving on consistency will turn a random experience into a predictable one, but it will not help a brand achieve a differentiating position in an overly crowded marketplace. Customers perceive less value if products and services are viewed as interchangeable, translating into limited financial return for the brand. The next crucial step is therefore to advance the experience into a branded one that clearly represents what the brand stands for and delivers to this promise in every customer journey and every touchpoint. 25 Hours Hotels is a great example of this. The German boutique chain is set on delivering unconventional experiences. Every hotel has their own, individual story themed to align with the local environment. The “Hafencity” in Hamburg tells stories about the sea; in Berlin where they are located across the zoo, they are “open for monkey business”. Old-fashioned type-writers, Polaroid cameras and vinyl record players are available, breaking the scripts of a standard hotel experience. The theme of being an unconventional brand is consequently developed at each of their sites, visible in the smallest details and thus offering a consistent but strongly branded experience. The role of employees is increasingly not only to deliver high quality consistent experiences, but also to be an ambassador for the brand.

Brand values need to transcend all layers of the organisation and employees should not only rationally understand what the brand promises to customers, but truly believe in this. Failing to do so will cause conflicting emotions in the best case: the need to outwardly align with what is seen as “corporate messaging”. Worst case it will lead to a damaging style of organisational cynicism that the customer will notice consciously or subconsciously in interactions.

Step 3: consistent, branded and memorable experiences

When you have managed to ensure that experiences are consistent and branded, the third step is then all about memorability – an area where Behavioural Economics and Neuroscience have greatly enhanced our understanding. Daniel Kahnemann stated “we don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences”, implying that not everything we experience is equally relevant for us. Memorability is created through emotions. We can all recall experiences where we have been treated badly in a service interaction, but we also remember the good stuff, exceptional moments that positively impressed us.

Pre-requisite for memorability is to empower employees to do the right thing for the customer at the right time. The most famous example is Ritz-Carlton who provide $2,000 of discretionary spend for all employees at all levels to solve an incident for a customer. And while the amount might seem a barrier for many brands to adopt this principle, it is less about the money, but more about the trust placed in employees to make the right decision. This approach requires a distinct cultural mindset within the organisation: Authority for employees to make their own decisions, clarity of the boundaries within employees can operate and a culture of allowing for mistakes to happen. While the opportunities for employees to thrive in such an environment are huge, it can also be challenging and cause feelings of uncertainty, even anxiety. For employee empowerment to be successful it needs a culture of openness and trust where these emotions are allowed to be shared, where “vulnerability” is not seen as a weakness but a part of successful leadership.

What are the implications for brands?

First of all, it is crucial to recognise the importance of emotions in the Experience Economy – for customers and employees. Understand what is asked from staff in terms of “emotional labour”, and providing the right feedback, systems and processes that help employees to succeed. The alignment of HR processes is vital: From recruitment to communicating and training values and behaviours, leadership, to rewarding the right behaviours and ensuring that barriers (e.g. in the form of conflicting objectives) are removed. Over a hundred years have passed since Henry Ford’s recognition that the pair of hands comes with a human being, and yet we still need to better understand that customer-centricity at its core means people-centricity.

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