Everybody’s friend. Very few individuals can lay claim to this designation but Kwame came real close. He was just about everyone’s darling. He just had that thing about him that made people fall in love with him wherever he went. It was rare to see his face without a smile. Always ready to offer help when someone needed it, Kwame found it so easy to go out of his way to be of service to someone. He was always the first to say Hello. He was quick to express gratitude. He exuded such warmth and positivity. The beauty of all this was that Kwame was not faking this. That was just who he was—a great guy.
But that was not all. Kwame’s good nature was also useful for the job he did—sales, marketing and customer. In the sense of using who he was to do what he did, Kwame knew something many of us did not know, at the time. It is now generally accepted that friendliness is an important weapon in the arsenal of every front line employee (FLE). Friendliness is no more just something a person is or has; it is a whole new strategy.
Customers expect those who serve them do so in the friendliest of manner. Customers do not come into a service interaction expecting to be served by a grouch. I have stated on so many occasions that customers expect these things from those serving them because customers pay for them. Yes. The warmth and the smile are part of what the customer is paying for. Service is by nature intangible. That is common knowledge. However, human beings are visual beings, believing what they see. A smile can be seen. Warmth can be felt. Therefore, in every service encounter, customers expect to be given these things as well as whatever they are paying for.
In other words, the waiter must serve the food and also smile at the same time. Serving the food with a frown will spoil the experience for the customer. The cleaner is expected to clean the hotel room but he must make sure he does it with a friendly smile. No matter what the one’s role, it is generally expected that the one remains friendly during the encounter. So a friendly customer-facing employee is a must.
Because businesses exist to serve customers, it makes business sense that what those customers expect should become a whole strategy. Many forward-looking businesses are coming to terms with this fact and thus are re-orienting their FLEs to become friendlier. What these companies have realised is that it is one thing to be friendly and it is another thing to use friendliness as a deliberate customer service strategy.
Not surprisingly, there has been renewed interest in academia on the importance of friendliness to business success. Many studies have found friendliness as a crucial determinant of the quality of relationship between a business and its customers. Customers rate a service much more satisfactorily when there is greater friendliness from FLEs. Customers have also been found to be more committed to the organisation when FLEs exhibited more friendliness.
A July 2020 edition of the Journal of Service Management contained an article titled “Dimensionality of Frontline Employee Friendliness in Service Encounters” which stressed on the importance of friendliness to customer relationship. The study defined FLE friendliness as
“personal characteristics associated with an enjoyable customer–employee interaction. It refers to nice, personable, and affective behaviors of the frontline employee that help the customer feel comfortable, at ease, and welcome during the encounter.”
The study also went further to break down friendly behaviour into four main dimensions. These are humorous, informal, conversational, and approachable behaviours. Humour behaviours are those statements or actions of the FLE that are meant to elicit laughter and fun during the interaction between the FLE and the customer. This is key because humour has been found to be a good determinant of the satisfaction level of customers.
It is however important to note that this, in no way, gives FLEs the liberty to crack obscene jokes to customers. FLEs are into customer service, not stand-up comedy. In my experience, the best humour generators are not even jokes per se. Sometimes, a decent comment with a touch of humour can induce laughter from the customer.
Informal behaviours occur when FLEs resort to casual actions such as calling customers by first name or using language that is not too formal. It is important that FLEs know their customer well before attempting to “go informal”. There are customers who would not want to be referred to by their first names and would not want to speak in an unofficial manner. In our part of the world, it might even be regarded as an insult or a show of disrespect to refer to an elderly person by the first name. But there are also those customers who do not mind. Knowing Your Customer (KYCing) is the sure bet to traverse this delicate ground.
Another behaviour that has been found to be very effective when establishing friendliness is to converse with the customer. Conversation that is outside of the business interaction has a way of establishing rapport with the customer. The conversation can be about anything from archaeology to zoology. So long the customer is interested, no subject matter is off-limit—of course, except those things that would offend human sensitivities and is an affront to societal norms.
One of the other behaviours that leads to friendliness is approachability. Everyone who has ever walked into a service area where there are more than one FLE knows the importance of approachability. It is the customer-facing employee with the welcoming smile who will more likely attract customers. Customer service employee with their heads deep in their work or their attention directed elsewhere repel customers.
Sometimes it is just the pressure of the front-line work that makes FLEs behave in ways that are considerably unapproachable. But there are other times, when FLEs intentionally act in such ways just to turn customers away. Approachability has a lot to do with the body language of the FLE. There are ways of employing eye contact, sitting and standing arrangement, use of arms, spatial distancing as well as several other non-verbal communication modes that send a signal to customers to either approach or to go elsewhere.
It is however important to state that when it comes to establishing friendly relationship with customers, FLEs must tread cautiously. This is because there are customers who come to do business and that is all. These customers are not interested in being friendly. Their wishes must be granted. However, it goes without saying that the majority of customers would want to be served by the friendliest FLEs any organisation can offer.
One sure way in which organisations can get friendly FLEs to front for the business is to start by employing people who are, by nature, friendly. During interviews, it is not difficult to spot these individuals. They just light up the room when they walk in. It is a walk in the park to get these people to be friendly. They will be friendly all on their own, without any form of coercion. Theirs would be a genuine expression of emotions.
Even for FLEs who might not be naturally “friendly”, it is still possible to get the friendliness out of them. These individuals will have to resort to the use of Deep Acting techniques. This involves a deliberate attempt to change any emotions one might be feeling by focusing one’s mind on a positive past experience.
Using Deep Acting to act friendly is very useful because any attempt to act friendly in only a superficial manner can backfire big time. Nothing is more irritating than someone who is trying to be nice without actually meaning it. Without a corresponding change in one’s emotions, any act would be seen for what it actually is—fake. The concept of Deep Acting takes away the excuse of those who act in unfriendly ways and defend themselves by saying that is just the way they are.
The benefits of having friendly FLEs are too important to be ignored by any business that is meant on staying and thriving in business. The quality of the relationship between the business and the customer can be positively influenced by the level of friendliness from the FLE. The value the customer believes she receives from the organisation is also enhanced when the customer has a lot of “friends” in the organisation. The friendliness of FLEs has a way of positively clouding the judgment of the customer. When you have people you believe are your friends, you will find it hard to believe that they would do something bad to you.
There is even evidence that customers tend to come back for more when they know they have friendly faces to do business with. We love to be around friends so customers will love to visit businesses where they know they will be welcomed by friendly faces. When customers shop in an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness, it will not be too surprising that they will find it easier to spend more. People find it easy to do things for those they consider friends.
Come to think of it, friendliness deserves to be elevated to a strategy by any business that is desirous of winning the hearts of customers and dominating the market. Because evidently, when it comes to establishing excellent customer relationships, the friendlier, the better.