SERVICE&EXPERIENCE: Inauthentic—the effect of fake emotional displays on customer experience

J. N. Halm

By nature, humans are very emotional beings; although, we love to think of ourselves as rational, logical beings. A chunk of our daily decisions emanate from a place of emotions rather than from any logical standpoint. From the colour of shirt we choose to wear and even to the make of car we are driving, emotions sit at the centre of most, if not all, of decisions we take in life.

Studies after studies have shown that one aspect of life where our emotions really come to the fore is in the area of business, especially in our purchasing decisions. The role of emotions in the area of business goes beyond just making a purchase. In interactions between business and customer, emotions play an even greater role. As customers are emotional beings, it is important that those who handle them do so with the right emotions. For instance, it is almost globally accepted that service must always be accompanied with a smile. That is a call for adopting the right emotion to go with the service.

The importance of displaying the right emotions when interacting with customers cannot be overstated. If a customer walks in with a bad mood, it is an expectation of the frontline employee to try and change that bad mood. It is NOT expected that the customer-serving employee will also respond with a terrible mood. When a customer is evidently sad, it is the job of the one serving that particular customer to try and cheer the customer up. By exhibiting the right emotion, a customer-facing professional is able to totally change the mood of a customer.

All too often, it seems that the “We Care about Our Customers” Refrain used by many businesses is nothing more than an empty corporate mantra. A display of the appropriate emotion therefore is an indication to the customer that the frontline employee has the customer in mind.

To show customers that the business really cares about them, it is important that those whose job it is to interface with customers show that the business really means business. The best way to do to that is to genuinely show to customers that the organisation truly cares. What better way to show that you really care than to emotionally walk in the customer’s shoes?

The employment of the right emotional displays by customer-facing professionals is not just mere talk. There are tangible benefits for the organisation. Businesses that have endeared themselves to customers are those that are able to show to customers that it is not all about their money. The business that truly cares about the needs of its customers is the one that will always last longer on the market. Why? Because its customers will go to war for it. Customers will become strong advocates for the business whose employees a genuine love for their customers.

But every customer-handling professional knows that there are those days when it seems like a walk in the park when displaying the right emotion to a customer. However, there are also those days, when displaying the right emotion is like walking barefooted among broken bottles on a thorny field. Changing one’s emotion is especially tortuous when the emotion required to identify with the customer has to be a pleasurable emotion. It seems the positive emotions—those that bring about the genuine smile on our face—do not come naturally. Displaying those positive emotions therefore requires more effort—effort that can leave the employee exhausted at the end of the day.

The expenditure of emotions or the control over one’s emotions to generate the desired facial and bodily display is what is referred to as Emotional Labour. Experts say that Emotional Labour is exhibited in two main ways—Surface Acting and Deep Acting. The former is the situation where the individual displays the right emotion but that emotion is not really experienced by the individual. The latter, on the other hand, is a situation where the individual places himself or herself in the situation and therefore experiences the right emotions.

There is a however a third option. This option requires no acting. It is the spontaneous and genuine display of emotions. In this case, the individual naturally expresses the exact emotions as required by the situation at hand. When emotional labour is genuine, there are very few problems. The customer is able to instantly realize the genuineness and the customer appreciates it.

There are however those times, when the right emotion does not come naturally. Try as much as the frontline employee would, the right emotions would not surface. For some customer-facing professionals, the solution is to fake those emotions needed at the point in time. Faking requires less effort compared to forcing oneself to be happy, especially when the one is genuinely not in the best of moods. On some occasions, the faker can get away with it.

However, it is a known fact that, customers are able to spot a fake emotion a mile away. A study found that there is a role that emotional intelligence plays in detecting when a display of emotion is inauthentic. The more emotionally intelligent the customer is, the higher the probability that the customer will be able to read the facial expressions of the frontline employee.

The same study found that customers were able to make even more accurate determination of the authenticity or otherwise. This can be achieved when the customer combines emotional intelligence with rational and experiential thinking. The study was titled, “Caught out! The role of customer emotional intelligence and dual thinking processes in perceptions of frontline service employees’ inauthentic positive displays”. This study was published in the August 2021 edition of the Psychology & Marketing journal.

From the on-going discussion, it seems by and large, customers know when the individual serving is genuinely as excited as she seems to be. The question therefore is this: if customers truly know when the emotion being displayed is not authentic, how does that “lie” affect the customer’s experience?

Studies show that people tend to mimic or mirror the behaviours of those they interact with. And as they do, the corresponding emotion is generated in the mimic. However, research has found that when the observed behaviour turns out to be inauthentic, the emotions that are generated do not tend to be as strong as when the observed behaviour is genuine. In other words, when customer-facing professionals fake their emotions, customers do not fall for it. Practically, what this means is that a fake smile from a customer-facing employee will not induce a genuine smile from the customer.

There are a number of reactions that researchers have discovered regarding customer reactions to displays of emotions by customer-handling customers. For instance, it has been found that when customers have very low expectations of the quality of service, any fake displays or surface acting tends to have very little effect on the customer’s experience. As a matter of fact, the fake displays only go to confirm the customer’s expectations.

When the emotional display is of the authentic type, it has been found that there is an increase in customer trust. Customers are more likely to be comfortable with a customer service professional who is genuine in his or her displays. Customers are more likely to open up to such an individual—and would have no problems doing more business with the one. In dealing with such an individual, customers would always look forward to that experience. The product of such increased trust is increased loyalty to the organisation.

The August 2021 Psychology & Marketing study referred to in the preceding chapters provided some deep insights on how authentic and inauthentic displays of emotions affect customer experiences. According to the study, one factor that affects customer’s appreciation of the displays of emotions is the level of the customer’s involvement in purchase. For high-priced and high-risk products which demand a lot of involvement from customers, the display of emotions must be genuine.

This means that if the employee is unable to find the genuine emotions, then it is better of the one adopts deep acting, rather than surface acting. When the purchase is a routine, less costly product or service, the customer might not be too bothered about any fake emotions. However, if the customer is going to spend a lot of money, the last thing you want is to let the customer see you exhibit inauthentic emotions. It could turn the customer away.

It is important for organisations to come to the realisation that the customer’s experience is now the new frontier to conquer. The organisations that are going to last on the market are those that are able to give customers the kind of experiences these customers will not find elsewhere.

But experiences by their very definition have to do with emotions. This is why the emotional output of those who handle customers cannot be taken lightly. The organisation cannot just take it for granted that its frontline employees will know what to do every time.

Emotional displays must be treated as seriously as the products or services that the organisation puts on offer. Why? Because what the customer buys is not just a product or service. What the customer buys is a product (or service) plus an appropriate emotion.


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