Service&Experience: Looks matter—the effect of employee appearance on customer experience

J. N. Halm

Servicescape. That is the physical environment within which service delivery takes place. For all intents and purposes, the servicescape is very important to the experience a customer has when interacting with any organisation. The servicescape is enough to create a poor experience for customers. In the same vein, the right servicescape can provide just the right environment for customers to have a great experience.

The servicescape is so central to the customer’s experience that it sits right in the middle of the RATER Model. It is the embodiment of the “T”—the TANGIBLES. Anything a customer can see, touch, feel, smell and sense will, in one way or another, have an effect on the one’s experience. This is a fact very few will debate.

However, the reason why this fact is not a common observation is because there are certain things we see which are not so important. Therefore, we easily ignore them and continue with our business. It is nature’s way of ensuring that we do not go crazy as a species. If we were to seriously take time to consider every little thing we see, we would not be a very successful species. Analysing every minutia in our experience will slow us down and that will mean our ancestors would have been easy prey for predators. It is therefore for our survival as a species that are able to ignore many things as we go about our daily lives. However, there are those things that we cannot just brush aside.

One of such not-easily-ignored aspects of the customer’s experience is the look of the customer-facing professional. Looks matter in service experience because they form part of the servicescape. You cannot look at a person and ignore what the one is wearing (or not wearing). It is next to impossible, especially if what the one has on is quite conspicuous.

As a matter of fact, a classic definition of customer experience talks about a takeaway impression formed by a customer after an encounter. In other words, experience is generated by an impression and if there one thing that leaves an impression it has to be the way an individual looks. It leaves quite an impression.

Every organisation worth its salt therefore has an interest in the looks of its employees, especially those who interface with customers on a regular basis. In deciding the looks of front liners, there are certain factors that must be taken into consideration. One of these is the mission and vision of the organisation. The way front liners are attired must leave customers with no doubt about what the organisation stands for and where the organisation is headed to. There must be no ambiguity created in the customer’s mind as regards the business’ corporate objectives.

An organisation that wants to project wealth and prosperity cannot have front line staff looking anything but that. It would be a counter effort to the organisation’s raison d’être. A business that wants to be seen as a serious brand cannot afford to have front line employees looking like beach bums. The looks of front line employees must necessarily support the brand image of the organisation. Anything else and the appearances of those in front will begin to take away from the image of the organisation.

The look and general appearance of the one serving the customer is of such importance that many studies have been carried out on that very subject. A 2021 original research article published in Cornell Hospitality Quarterly made some interesting observations on the subject of looks and the customer’s experience. The said study was titled “Luxury Branding in the Hospitality Industry: The Impact of Employee’s Luxury Appearance and Elitism Attitude.” One important takeaway from this particular study was that businesses offering luxurious, high-end experiences must have front line employees looking the part.

It is not an untruth that customers encounter a brand with a certain expectation. In the said encounter, the customer tends to look for certain cues that would either add to or take away from the original expectation. Incidentally, the attire and the general appearance of the front line professional are some of the first things the customer will see. And if those two components do not spell luxury, there will be an issue.

Some luxury brands really understand the power of looks. Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto, in 2013, collaborated with luxury women’s wear designer, Sunny Fong, to design the attire for the Hotel’s front line female employees. In 2014, luxury five-star hotel in New York, Park Hyatt New York contracted Cuban-born American fashion designer, Narciso Rodriguez to design the attire for the hotel’s female front line staff. For those who are not into high-end fashion, Narciso Rodriguez was the designer who designed the wedding dress for the wife of JFK Jnr in 1996. More recently, Narciso Rodriguez was chosen by Michelle Obama as her “favourite” designer. This was how seriously Park Hyatt New York takes the challenge to ensure that its front line employees look exactly like professionals working for a luxury five-star hotel.

JW Marriott Houston Downtown, a four-star hotel in Houston, Texas also made use of a designer in clothing its front line professionals. The hotel brought in fashion designer David Peck to design for its front line staff. Another five-star hotel uses the same approach. Rosewood London is a luxury hotel in the UK capital that is renowned for its aristocratic heritage. In 2015, the hotel contacted fashion designer Nicholas Oakwell to design the uniforms of its staff. The mandate was for the designer to create something that was in line with the hotel’s prestigious heritage.

The list of hotels that put good money into the attire of its front line employees could on. There is definitely all these top hotel brands know that we might not be aware of. Why spend all this money for designer staff uniform? It might be expensive but it works. You can imagine the way the employees of these luxurious hotels will feel when they don these designer wears to work every day. The attire alone can do wonders for their confidence which will affect the way they treat customers.

A study published in the July 2011 edition of the Services Marketing Quarterly further stressed on the importance of looks to the customer’s experience. Titled, The Effects of a Service Provider’s Messy Appearance on Customer Reactions,” the study proved that customers “expressed more interest in approaching and in doing business with a service provider whose attire was clean and neat (as opposed to messy and dirty).”

The effect of employee looks on the customer’s experience can never be discounted. The fact is that the customer’s experience starts right from the gate or door. But it is also a fact that the appearance of those serving customers can be such a turn-off that customers might not even enter the establishment to enjoy whatever service there is. Who would want to fly on an airline whose pilots and flight attendants look like they do not belong in there? How can these individuals pilot a highly-sophisticated aeroplane if they have stains in their attire and some are missing a few buttons on their shirts?

Another reason why looks matter for front line employees is that the appearance of employees is an indication of their level of professionalism. It is expected of certain professionals to be attired in certain ways. Failure on the part of the front line employees to meet this expectation can have a significant effect on the customer’s experience.

Every patient has an image of what a physician should look like. You do not expect your doctor to come to work looking like an auto mechanic who just finished working on a car. If a patient is ushered into a consulting room and the appearance of the doctor does not meet that expectation, the patient’s experience might be greatly affected. As a matter of fact, the patient’s experience can be so affected that whatever remedy is recommended by the physician might not even have the desired effect. That is how something as seemingly unimportant as a physician’s attire can have on a patient’s health and recovery.

There is another way appearances can affect the customer’s experience. The way a front line employee dresses can be seen as a show of respect for customers. It is a mark of respect to customers when customer-facing employees takes time to take care of their personal hygiene, groom themselves appropriately and finally put on the right attire to work.

All the efforts put into looking good is an indication that the customer service professional thinks highly of her customers. If the one does not think her customers are that important, she could well come to work in the same clothes she went to bed in. What this means is that if customers were to come into contact with front line employees who look like they just woke up from sleep, those customers will feel disrespected and even insulted. And since no one enjoys being insulted, the customer’s experience would definitely be negatively impacted.

From the on-going discussion, it is clear that a business cannot just ignore the way its customer-facing front line employees appear before customers. The aesthetics of the employee is a very important means of communicating what the organisation stands for. There must necessarily be a strategic alignment of the looks of staff with the positioning of the corporate brand.

The looks of those at the front line is a clear and visible extension of the organisation’s brand statement. If the business intends to ensure that customers form, and take away, positive impressions from each encounter, then the business must put some effort into the looks of its staff. It is commonplace to hear people pontificate that looks do not matter and that what matters is what is inside of a person. That might be true to an extent. However, many times, looks alone could ensure that no one gets close enough to see what is on the inside.

Leave a Reply