Laughing at work …adding a little humour to customer service

Malcolm Kushner is not your average business consultant. His speciality is not in an area that readily comes to mind when you think of business—humour. Yes. You read right. Humour. Malcolm Kushner is a humour consultant. His job is to help corporate bodies and individuals inculcate humour into their lives. He is of the view that the use of humour can give one a competitive advantage in business and in life.

Every year, lawyer-turned humour consultant, Mr. Kushner releases what he calls the Cost of Laughing Index. He has actually been doing this since 1986—more than 30 years ago. For obvious reasons, Mr. Kushner times the release of the Index to coincide with April Fools’ Day each year.

The Cost of Laughing Index is really no laughing matter since it is a very scientific study that looks at how price of some things that makes us laugh have changed from the previous year. The compilation includes things such as the cost of a rubber chickens, Groucho glasses, ticket to a comedy club, the price for a copy of the humour magazine, MAD magazine as well as the fee for writing a sitcom. The Index from 2017 indicated that the cost of laughing was actually rising.

I am yet to come across the 2018 Index but I hope the cost has not continue to escalate. As a people, we cannot afford that. Laughter is so essential to life in general and business in particular that it must not be expensive. As far as I am concerned, if human beings were endowed by the Creator with the ability to laugh, then it must be important for our existence, or even survival, as a species.

I want to believe that this is why laughter does not need to cost anything. Things that make us laugh are all around us and they do not have to cost a pesewa. Sometimes, the stress of everyday life blinds us to the many funny things around us. In fact, the amount of money that moves about in the humour industry—including sitcoms, stand-up comedy shows, etc.—is proof that we are not laughing as much as we should. If we have to spend all that money to do something that should come naturally to us, then there is a problem.

One area in which the effect of laughter has not been so widely utilised is in the area of Customer Service. Because customer service involves dealings between individuals, the issue of laughter is bound to be important. At the end of every interaction, a customer should walk away feeling good about the individual he or she dealt with and the organisation and brand they represent.

Humour, when appropriate and put to good use, is one of the powerful tools that can be used to lubricate the interaction with customers. In an era where professionals are made to skate on thin ice when dealing with customers, the interaction can easily become stiff and lifeless. In an effort not to get into trouble with customers, business professionals are ‘forced’ to do the barest minimum, say as little as possible and tread cautiously when dealing with customers.

There is even an assumption that the workplace is not a place to make use of humour. Even among colleagues, there is very little laughter shared, all in the name of trying to act “corporate.” In fact, there are workplaces were laughter during work is strictly prohibited since it signifies that individuals do not have much to do or are not doing much. Customer service ends up suffering when this happens.

Laughter is a great way of breaking the ice when dealing with someone for the first time. Therefore when interacting with new customers, it helps if the interaction is carried out with some humour. For those in sales and marketing, this particular should carry an added weight. If you can get a total stranger to share laughter with you, you are on your way to winning not only a customer but a friend.

Laughter is also helpful in building relationships. Professor Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, who has done a lot of work on the subject of laughter, says “Laughter is the quintessential human social signal. Laughter is about relationships.” Provine’s studies showed that human beings tend to laugh thirty times more when they are with other people than when they are alone. In other words, laughter is meant to be shared. It is a way of bringing people together.

Internally, laughter can help improve teamwork. When colleagues are able to bond well, they are in a better position to serve customers. Teams in which there is a lot of in-fighting and tension are not very good at serving external customers. It is true that the internal state of the organisation tends to reflect in the way the organisation treats its customers.

Laughter can also help in bonding with customers. If you can share laughter with your customer, you have got the one on your side. The role of humour in solving problems is one that is well-documented. Anyone who knows anything about customer service knows that occasionally things go wrong. But in the midst of it all, if you can manage to employ appropriate humour, you could be on your way to an amicable solution. An aggrieved customer would not stay so for long, especially after a good laugh. The good news is that no matter how serious a matter is, there is always some appropriate humour that can be employed at the appropriate time.

Laughter has also been known to release the creative juices. Therefore, if there is a thorny issue that needs some imaginative thinking, a good laugh will be most helpful. There are studies that even prove that laughing has a way of helping to reinforce taught messages. So if something new is being taught at work, whether to customers or to colleague employees, it pays if the one doing the teaching embeds some humour in the lesson.

A study by John Kounios at Drexel University and Mark Beeman from Northwestern University showed that individuals who had just been shown a comedy routine increased their ability to solve puzzles by as much as 20%. Maybe British actor and film producer, John Cleese was on to something when he said, “He who laughs most, learns best.”

Laughter is good medicine—the kind that is needed in many organisations around the country. We are told that when we laugh, our muscles tend to contract which, in turn, increases the flow of oxygen into the blood stream. The normal day of those who directly deal with customers involves a lot of pressure and tension. The emotional labour alone exerted by many customer-handling professionals is enough to cause them to break down. When the tension builds up after a while, chances of the individual losing his or her cool becomes very high.

Laughter releases pleasant hormones into the body that relaxes the muscles. The antibodies that are released into the blood stream after a good laugh can solve a lot of medical problems. They help boost the body’s resistance to disease. A good laugh can do what many drugs will struggle to do. We are all well aware that life at the front line serving customers can be very depressing at times—all the more reason why those at the frontline need increased doses of laughter.

In an age when technology is taking the place of greater human-to-human interaction, when robots are taking the place of humans and mobile apps are taking the place of our thoughts, laughter is most needed to keep things “human”. With an increase in adoption of technology also comes an increase in technology-mediated interactions. We are texting each other more than talking face to face to each other. If we do not make a conscious effort to add some humour to our conversations, we might end up losing all our humanness.

With all that said about the importance of laughter for customer service, it is important that businesses find ways of inculcating some humour into their operations. Managers owe it a responsibility to ensure that appropriate humour is encouraged throughout the unit, department or organisation. Staff should be encouraged to share funny short clips which are decent. Early morning staff meetings and briefings can also be a great time to share something funny with the team.

The staff noticeboard can also be another place where humour can be encouraged. Funny images, pictures, cartoons, quotes, sayings, etc. can be used to lighten the mood in the office. If the company has a newsletter, then that also offers an opportunity to add some humour into the organisation. At the end of year or on special anniversaries of the organisation, I would recommend a stand-up comedy show.

It must however be emphasised that in all this, decency and appropriate timing be the watchwords. Trying to make the workplace light-hearted should be done at the expense of the work itself.  The situation must be managed so that they do not go out of hand. There are people who will go overboard if care is not taken. Those must be managed well before they share things that might get everyone in trouble.

As long we remain human, we will continue to laugh at and with each other. Laughter will continue its important role as a binding agent that holds us together. Business people who appreciate the importance of laughter will take advantage and utilise its power as they interact with customers. Those who are able to do this, and do it well, are those who will end up laughing all the way to the bank.