Service and Experience: Customers of a feather—the influence of customers on customer experience

J. N. Halm

If there is one thing every business must give full attention to, it must be the experience of customers. In the world of business, nothing is more important. Whether the business fails or succeed, thrives or crashes, would all be dependent on how customers feel about the business, its products and services. A good experience turns customers into brand evangelists; a poor one turns them into brand saboteurs.

The act of giving full attention to the customer’s experience is, however, no mean task. There is one thing that accounts for why the customer’s experience is so difficult to handle. The customer’s experience includes everything the customer comes into contact with during the entire service encounter. If the customer’s experience involved just a couple of factors, then it would be more manageable. However, the customer’s experience is influenced by everything. Every single thing.

Everything the customer’s eye can see, everything the customer’s hands can touch, everything that impacts on the customer’s sense, will form a part of the customer’s overall experience. The furniture. The lighting. The ambience. Employees. Their attire. A piece of paper on the floor. A stain on the wall. A stain on an employee’s attire. A laughter. An odour. All these, and their interconnectedness, strongly influence the experience of the customer. This is what makes managing customer experience so, so difficult.

The delivery of the service is greatly influenced by the customer’s interaction with all the other factors within the servicescape. The customer does not just pay for and receive the service and the story ends there. Many of the factors mentioned in the preceding paragraph play a role in the experience. That is just the way it is.

Unfortunately, there is one component of the encounter that can also be very impactful on the customer’s experience but many people fail to recognise. This is the presence of other customers. Because a customer mostly spends time within the service space with other customers, whatever those other customers do will definitely have an impact on the customer’s experience.

A most obvious example is, if two customers were to get involved in a fight. That altercation would definitely affect the experience of both customers. That experience could be so negative that the business in question can easily lose one customer, or both, for good. The thought of that fight, and all the negative emotions it generates in the customers, could end up pushing both customers away. In much the same way, if a customer meets another customer who is very friendly and the two turn out to become very good friends, the positive emotions of that experience could well be transferred on to the business in question. The customer will have very fond memories of the business and that will easily translate into repeat business and increased loyalty from the customer.

Some customers have stopped doing business with a particular entity just because of other customers. The reasons for this are varied. From those not appreciating the way they were spoken to by other customers to those who did not like the body odour of others, there are several ways by which other customers influence the experience of other customers negatively.

As a matter of fact, studies have found that the presence of other customers can actually influence the experience and subsequently, the behaviour of customers. A study published in the February 2022 edition of the Journal of Business Research found that demographic similarities had an effect on the way customers behave. Titled: The Impact of Demographic Similarity on Customers in a Service Setting’, the study involved more than 200,000 customers who had visited more than 230 restaurants in the United States and Canada.

The study found that when a customer had an experience at a business setting which had other customers of similar age, gender and income status, there is increased likelihood of that customer returning for repeat business. This makes sense since the customer experiences some kind of positive peer pressure. It was also found that when a customer shopped with other customers of the same age and income status, there is generally an increase in the amount the customer spends. This, once again, is peer pressure at its finest.

It was, however, interesting that the study found that when customers were of the same race and gender, the amount of money spent decreases. This baffled researchers. However, it is unexpected findings like this that make the study of human behaviour all the more interesting.

It is true that no two customers think and act the same way—not even if they are identical twins. However, if the findings of the aforementioned study are anything to go by, then businesses should take a second look at the way they design customer experiences. Businesses should know that although customers might have walked in as individuals, there is still the potential for a ‘herd mentality’ within the group. Even without the effect of their similarities on each other’s behaviour, customers – just because they are customers – can still influence each other. One customer’s actions can greatly influence every other customer, whether they be of the same age, race, or income status.

On a practical level, customer-facing employees should know that when they are dealing with a particular customer, they are dealing with more than just that one customer. Any actions frontline professionals take against that one customer will have a ripple-effect on other customers within the same age, gender and income brackets. Let me try and put it more bluntly. If a frontline employee insults or is particularly rude to a certain customer – in the full hearing and view of other customers – those customers of the same age, gender and income bracket are the ones that are going to identify more with the insulted customer.

It is also important to recognise that when customers are waiting for service, they tend to interact with each other. Enquiries and responses shared among customers also have an effect on the behaviour of other customers. The truth is that customers tend to believe what other customers would say more than what the business would say about itself. Customers know that the organisation has a vested interest in what it says about itself. Therefore, customers take what is said in ads and promotions with a pinch of salt. They would, however, take what another customer says as the gospel.

In short, what other customers say and do does have an effect on the experience and behaviour of other customers. In many cases, the word-of-mouth advertisement happens right within the service setting. These are the times when those customers who have been with the business for longer periods become the go-to people for newer customers. What those with “experience” will say will go a long way to affect the perception of the customer and subsequently, the behaviour of newer customers.

Sometimes, the customer does not even have to talk to another customer to be influenced. Just by observing what is going on around, the behaviour of other customers and their interactions with the employees, the customer can make up his or her mind about the service. If a customer walks into a service space what he or she sees other customers doing will have an effect on what he or she will also experience and, consequently, do.

Non-verbal customer-on-customer influence can be as powerful as verbal influence. This is another of the factors that further complicates the work of those at the front line. Because not only are customer-facing employees working to please a particular customer but they are having to do so with their eyes on the other customers who are watching what is happening.

This also means that the customer service employee cannot pick and choose who to be nice to. A frown directed at one customer can be seen by another customer and that might put the customer off. An insult, an unintended slight, a careless remark, a disparaging comment, directed at one customer could affect more than that particular customer. Other customers who identify with that customer will take whatever negative remark as being directed to them and they will react accordingly.

There are numerous times when customers have stood up for other customers who were being taken advantage of by customer service employees. Customers will identify with the plight of a fellow customer and they will not stand by to see the one being abused. Then there are those instances when customers become frustrated with another customer.

There is a story of a customer who approached a particular bank cashier and accused her of having stolen from him a day earlier. According to the gentleman, it was when he got home that he discovered that a couple of notes were missing from the bundle of cash the cashier had paid him. He had therefore come back the next day to confront the customer. According to the story, his vituperations and invectives became so bad that tears began to well up in the cashier’s eyes. This was what really got to the other customers and they really took on the rude customer. In that particular case, customers successfully turned the tables on another customer.

As can be seen, within the servicescape, one cannot discount the importance of the influence of customers on the experience of other customers. This is a fact that should not be lost on any business leader, manager or supervisor. Front line employees should be trained to appreciate the fact that whenever they are on the service floor, they are always on stage—with more than one pair of eyes on them. Front line employees should not think they are dealing with just one customer at a time. They must know that they are dealing with all others within the service space. The customer’s experience is not in the hands of only the employee but also in the hands of other customers. That is just the way it is. Just like the birds, customers of a feather also flock together.

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