The gratitude cycle and customer relationships

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HALM
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

A business advertises its offerings. Customers express interest in what is on offer. Customers pay. Business offers the product or services. Customers consume the product (or service). The end.

The preceding sounds simple and seems to carry along in a simple linear format. However, it is rarely so. This is because when the service (or product) is consumed, the relationship does not end there. If it ever did, then in all probability, the business might have failed on its part. Because the business-customer relationship ought to be cyclical—and the lubricant that greases that circle or wheel is gratitude.

Gratitude is an oft-overlooked human emotion when it comes to business but it is one of the most important for the success of any organisation. Just like a smile, it is one those beautiful things that makes both the giver and the receiver better for it. It is the kind of gift that keeps giving. It has been argued that the deepest craving of human nature is to be appreciated. Therefore, the expression of gratitude touches one at the very core of the one’s nature.

The truth is that when a business is able to satisfy a customer, that customer does not just walk away from the encounter believing that since he or she paid for the service, that should be it. The average customer does not do that. Gratitude is a natural human emotion that solicits a positive reaction from the grateful. Gratitude must be expressed for it to work. According to American writer and motivational speaker, William Arthur Ward, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” “Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone”. That is how American novelist, poet and playwright, Gertrude Stein puts it. The customer who receives great service, therefore, naturally feels like reciprocating in kind.

This reciprocity is normally of the direct kind. For instance, it has been proven that when customers are grateful for the quality of service they receive, they keep coming back for more. It is common knowledge that repurchasing is always a good indication of how grateful the customer is—and there are many studies to prove that. The role of gratitude as a critical factor in the relationship between a business and its customers is something that has been widely studied.

An October 2009 edition of the Journal of Marketing showed that there was a positive correlation between gratitude and the long-term commitment of the customer to the business. The study was titled “The Role of Customer Gratitude in Relationship Marketing” and it was undertaken with the help of 155 business undergraduate students at a Midwestern U.S. university. The study found that gratitude had a role to play in increase purchase intentions of customers. In other words, the more grateful a customer is, the greater the chances of the one coming back for more.

Another way a customer would express gratitude for good service received is that he would tell others about it. The positive emotion associated with the experience compels the customer to bring others along to enjoy the same experience. A grateful customer is an inexpensive billboard. If the experience is that good, customers have even been known to spend their own money just to get others to also enjoy that experience.

However, there is another way customers show gratefulness that has both direct and indirect benefits. This is the positive appraisal of the employee in question by the grateful customer. This can be done through verbal recommendation as in customer expressing their gratitude verbally right after the service. A simple and sincere “Thank You” right after being served is a customer’s way of directly giving back to the front line employee.

This kind of positive verbal appraisal is the most direct and effective means of measuring the performance of front line employees. For the customer-facing employee, it is like a shot of positivity in the arm, especially if it comes from a customer the employee holds in high regard. “Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness. It’s the spark that lights a fire of joy in your soul.” So says American Amy Collette, motivational speaker and author of The Gratitude Connection.

In my years of experience in the banking hall, grateful customers might even go further and attempt to offer monetary rewards to the deserving customer service employee. There are some customers who might even get offended if you refuse to take the gift they offer in return for the great service they had received.

Another way a customer can directly show appreciation is to provide a written review about the experience. A grateful customer will gladly go out of her way to let the world know how good a particular employee is. This is because the appreciative customer wants to be of help to that customer-facing employee specifically, and the business in general. This is mostly done without any form of coercion on the part of the business on the customer. This act on the part of the customer further strengthens the relationship she has with the business.

The importance of customer gratitude to the fortunes of businesses was also brought to the fore in a September 2014 edition of the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services. In a study titled, “The role of customer gratitude in making relationship marketing investments successful”, researchers from Australia surveyed 1,600 university students and drew the conclusion that gratitude was largely responsible for the relationship that existed between a customer and the business. The study was emphatic that there was a relationship between customer gratitude and overall satisfaction of the customer with the organisation.

What the study found was that when customers see the amount of investments a business makes into maintaining a relationship with its customers, these customers feel grateful and as a result feel a need to pay back to the organization in one way or the other. Also when customers feel that the business is doing a lot for customers, those customer becomes grateful and begin to view the business as genuine in its intentions and this would result in these customers behaving more positively towards the business.

If giving back directly to the business in the form of a display of helpful behaviours is all a grateful customer does, it would be enough. However, there is a more. A recent study published in a January 2021 edition of Psychology & Marketing journal showed that there are more benefits for the business from positive customer reviews.

Titled, “An extended reciprocity cycle of gratitude: How gratitude strengthens existing and initiates new customer relationships,” the study showed that not only is there a strengthening of the relationship between a satisfied customer and the business but there is a positive effect between the business and other potential customers. The study revealed that when potential customers get to know of the positive experience of other customers, when they read the reviews of other customers, the potential customers become so impressed that their attitudes improve towards the business in question.

The findings of the study should encourage every customer-handling employee to put in his or her best when dealing with customers. That single interaction with one customer definitely has far-reaching implications—beyond the relationship with that individual customer. If an employee is convinced that a single interaction can affect a lot of other customers, that employee will take every single interaction more seriously.

Also it is important, for the purposes of garnering positive reactions from potential customers, to encourage customers to publicly appreciate the actions of well-performing employees. Whenever it is possible, the customer should be encouraged to put their appreciation in writing, even if it is just a single sentence. It is not about the length of the appreciation. So long as it is a genuine expression of appreciation, it should be obtained from the customer—and displayed prominently.

These words of appreciation should be seen by the business as something precious to be cherished. Positive written reviews should be treated like gold—treasured and kept well. These reviews should be strategically placed on the organisation’s website and social media platforms for other customers, potential or already existing, to read.

As was confirmed in the aforementioned Psychology & Marketing journal study, written reviews can work wonders on the attitudes on new customers. For instance, a positive review from a grateful customer helps new customers to try out what the organisation is offering. And if the experience of the new customers is as that of the earlier customers, then these new customers would also express their gratitude and the virtuous cycle continues.

Being a natural reaction to being happy with something, gratitude is mostly taken for granted. Even when used in business, it is just used by employees to win the hearts of their customers. However, from the ongoing discussion, it is clear that gratitude can be a whole strategy adopted by an organisation to make it stand out in the market. A business that goes out of its way to make its customers happy and not only happy but grateful is sure to stand out from the competition.

When that business collects the appreciations of those grateful customers and strategically uses those appreciations to win other customers, then that business is being smart. And smart businesses are those that continue to stay in business and continue to give us the great products and services that make our lives a little bit easier—and for those, we are grateful.

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