Service&Experience: The power of “Thank You”….when customer gratitude affects employee output

J. N. Halm

“The sentiment which most immediately and directly prompts us to reward, is gratitude.” Adam Smith

Ask a number of business owners, leaders, managers, and supervisors what they wish they had more of and I am pretty sure a great percentage of them will say “more hardworking employees”. The need for hard work in any business setting is almost always pressing. That hard work is a virtue is something few will debate. Through hard work, a business is able to achieve its target. By dint of hard work, employees are able to beat the competition. A company that is staffed with smart hard working employees will not only survive, but even excel, on the market. That is how important hard work is to the success of any business.

The importance of hard work accounts for why there is plethora of initiatives, schemes and activities aimed at motivating employees to put in a lot of hard work. Bonus schemes, awards schemes and promotions schemes are all attempts at getting staff to keep putting in the work needed to get the business running. However, if the findings of recent studies are anything to go by, then there is one very powerful way to get employees to work hard—something that many businesses are yet to tap into.

According to researchers, in a study published in the May 2022 edition of Journal of Business Research, one way to get employees to increase their effort at work is to get customers to thank them. Yes! Gratitude, the emotional appreciation for benefits received, has been found to be very potent when you need to get employees to work hard. Not just any gratitude—but gratitude from customers. Titled, “Your Thanks Make Me Work Harder: A Multiple Identification Perspective”, the report stated that when customers thanked employees for offering some sort of assistance, those employees tend to put in more effort.

Reasons were postulated by the researchers for this phenomenon. One of the things said was that when employees receive gratitude from customers, it contributes to the employee’s sense of identification in two broad ways. First of all, the customer’s gratitude builds up the employee’s sense of what he or she does on the job or the role the one plays on the job. Secondly, a customer’s gratitude also contributes to how the employee’s identity is woven into that of the organisation the employee works for. It is therefore this sense of identity that causes employees to want to put in more work when they receive expressions of gratitude from customers. A customer’s gratitude is therefore more than just a display of courtesy. It is a powerful motivating factor.

There are a number of other reasons why gratitude is such a powerful motivator. According to Jon Picoult, author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” gratitude helps in creating fond memories. It is the good feelings from those memories that act as a fuel to keep customer-facing employees giving more and more. Picoult gave three important reasons why gratitude is good at creating wonderful memories for the one being appreciated.

The first of these reasons is the fact that genuine gratitude happens to be a very scarce resource. We might hear a lot of “Thank Yous” but how many really mean those words? Due to the dearth of genuine gratitude, when a customer says a Thank You and really means it, it leaves a good memory in the mind of the employee. There is a surprise element in receiving genuine gratitude and surprise is very good in creating fond memories. The desire to keep experiencing that good feeling is what keeps the customer-handling employee working harder.

The second reason given by Picoult is that gratitude, by its very nature, elicits an emotional response. This is a very important point because human beings, by nature, are very emotional beings. Therefore, anything that touches on the emotions of people tends to be quite impactful on them. The emotions that are attached to receiving gratitude further helps the recipient of the gratitude form fond memories of the encounter.

Lastly, Picoult attributes gratitude’s power to it being a very personal way of reaching out to someone. If there is one thing that people value a lot it has to be that sense of personalisation and individuality. Human beings appreciated being recognised as individuals and not just as part of a huge mass. A Thank You is way of telling a customer that he or she is recognised and accepted as an individual.

The subject of gratitude in the business setting is one that has been widely studied. However, in most cases, the concentration has been on customer-facing employees showing gratitude to customers for bringing in business. Front line employees are always taught to show appreciation to customers because it helps in creating a more pleasurable customer experience. It is also common courtesy for customer service professionals to just say Thank You to a customer when the transaction is done.

If it is businesses that are mainly giving thanks to customers, under what conditions do customers express gratitude to those serving them? Where does customer gratitude emanate from? What causes customer to also be grateful to businesses? According to researchers, customers express gratitude when they believe that the organisation has actually invested in the relationship. When customers believe that the organisation values their business, the sense of gratitude comes out naturally

However, it is interesting to note that gratitude is reciprocal. When employees express gratitude to customers, customers, in turn, will do same. One of the ways therefore by which more gratitude can be elicited from customers is for front line employees to be more thankful to customers. Those who give gratitude tend to get more in return.

It is important to realise that the kind of gratitude that would elicit more gratitude from customers must be genuine to be effective. Customers will not reciprocate gratitude that is fake—gratitude given as a cosmetic, cooked and canned response to an interaction. The gratitude meant to bring out more gratitude must be meant, otherwise, it might not only be futile but it might even irritate the customer. This could lead to the customer taking his or her business elsewhere.

The implications of the ongoing discussions can be quite intriguing. For instance, business leaders and managers must put in extra effort to ensure that gratitude from customers can become a part and parcel of the business set up. Saying Thank You to customers must even be instituted as an official corporate policy. This was exactly the recommendation of a study that was published in the September 2014 edition of the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services. Titled, “The Role of Customer Gratitude in Making Relationship Marketing Investments Successful”, the study found that by stimulating customer gratitude, businesses could strengthen their bonds with customers.

Beyond just expressing gratitude verbally, there are other ways by which organisations can show that they appreciate a customer’s business. Writing Thank You notes can be very effective. Although, it seems to be a dying art. Thankfully, the Internet provides an opportunity for these notes to still be written and sent to customers. Events can also be organised to show appreciation to customers, such as those done in the first week of October, each year around the world. Gifts and awards are also ways of expressing gratitude to a customer for bringing business. Loyalty programs, exclusive discounts, service upgrades and customised special offers are all tangible ways of showing gratitude to customers.

One advantage of using the good old “Thank You” to get more “Thank Yous” out of customers is that it costs next to nothing. The gifts, awards, rewards and programs—all cost money, even if not too significant. However, to just say Thank You to a customer for bringing business comes at no cost to the business or the customer-facing professional. This is why front line professional must make use of this simple method to get their customers to show more gratitude.

It must be stated that the ongoing discussions also has implications for customers. Customers should know that if they expect those charged with serving them to put in more effort, then gratitude must go both ways. Customers must be made aware that by expressing their appreciation to front line employees, they will bring out the best in these employees.

Customers come into a transaction or relationship with an objective of ensuring that they maximise their benefits and minimise their losses. As can be seen from the ongoing discussion, one way to ensure that the customer gets more benefits is to show gratitude to the one doing the serving. In reality, when a customer shows gratitude, it is that customer who ends up benefitting. The gratitude given returns to the customer in more ways than one.

The thing about gratitude, though, is that it cannot be forced. It must come out naturally. Customers will show gratitude when they are given the kind of service that naturally calls for gratitude. It will not work if the organisation just shows appreciation without giving customers a wonderful experience. Gratitude just for the sake of eliciting gratitude is a sham. The best way to show appreciation to customers therefore is to give them an experience of a lifetime. That will be the best Thank You of all!

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