Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: It’s embarrassing!

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

when faced with uncomfortable retail or service situations

Have you heard the joke about the young man who went into a pharmacy to buy condoms? Okay, so the pharmacist shows him the options available, the number per packs, the differences between brands, etc. The pharmacist then asks the young man how many packs he wants. This young man then begins to run is mouth about the lady he was going to use the condoms on. He tells the pharmacist that he was sure he will be using a lot of the condoms so he went for a pack of dozen condoms. He even told the pharmacist that he was having dinner with the lady’s parents that evening and that right after the dinner, things were going to happen.

The story goes that when he was done purchasing the condoms, he left. Later that evening, this young lover boy went to the lady’s house to go meet her parents. Lo and behold, when the door was opened, his girlfriend’s dad turned out to be the pharmacist!

You can only imagine how the rest of that evening would go. I am sure the young man would instantly lose his appetite. I personally believe that young man was either a very brave young man or a very foolish one. The reason is that buying of condoms is not the kind of service encounter you go about talking to strangers.

As a matter of fact, it is one of those embarrassing service encounters that customers would rather not go into at all, especially when it involves another human. Buying condoms falls into the same category as buying Viagra. There is very little ambiguity about what the customer is going to use the item for—and that usage is not something people openly discuss in public. Embarrassing situations could also include services involving certain embarrassing medical conditions. For instance, seeking medical attention for a condition that requires one to put on one’s birthday suit can be quite uncomfortable. This would include seeking medical treatment for a vaginal infection or erectile dysfunction.

In an interesting study whose results were published in the September 2022 edition of the Journal of Marketing Research, researchers confirmed that indeed customers had problems when faced with those embarrassing service situations. According to the study titled “How Consumers Respond to Embarrassing Service Encounters: A Dehumanization Perspective,” customers would rather prefer self-service first when it comes to these kinds of purchases.

It is based on this kind of understanding that brands that retail these products have found a more innovative way of selling their products. For instance, when it comes to condoms, some retail giants have developed dispensing machines. Just as with any vending machines, these condom dispensers are stacked with varieties of brands and customers pay for what they prefer, press the right button and the condom drops into a receptacle underneath the machine. To even make the purchase of condoms even less uncomfortable and less awkward, these condom dispensing machines are actually mounted in male washrooms.

An alternative to the dispensing machine is to get your embarrassing product from a retail outlet that has an automated checkout, where you scan your purchases and bag them yourself. In that case, you avoid talking to anyone about what you have purchased. In some instances, the customer can be made to shop in privacy so as to minimise the potential embarrassment of being seen by other customers.

A second finding of the aforementioned study was that it is only when self-service is not available that customers would prefer to deal with a service provider. Even with that option, the researchers found that customer preferred to deal with a mechanistic service provider than a human frontline employee. In other words, this is one of those occasions when people will prefer to deal with a robot rather than another human being.

There is another interesting study that specifically sought to find out how customers respond to service robots in the context of embarrassing service encounters. The study was published in the February 2022 edition of the Journal of Service Management and was titled “Service robots, agency and embarrassing service encounters”. According to the study, one of the main reasons why customers prefer to deal with robots rather than people when it comes to embarrassing service situations is because robots do not make moral judgments.

Because robots are unable to act with intentions, form opinions and make moral and social judgements, they are perceived as being less judgmental than their human counterparts. The robot will not look at the customer buying Viagra with that judgmental look. The robot will not make any judgments on a young man coming in to buy a condom. In addition to the lack of moral or social judgments, robots also do not have feelings. This means their emotions will not come to play when they encounter a customer making an uncomfortable purchase.

The third finding of the Journal of Marketing Research study referred to earlier was even more interesting. According to that study, if people have no other choice than to deal with a human being in the course of making an embarrassing purchase, they do something quite interesting. The study claimed that in those situations, the customer will “dehumanise” the service provider. Dehumanisation refers to the phenomenon whereby customers deny a person’s emotional ability. Dehumanising means likening the customer service professional to a robot.

When faced with embarrassing retail or service situations, customers prefer service providers who show a mechanistic demeanour over those who are warm and looking to build rapport. In other words, when a customer comes in to buy a condom or a Viagra, the last thing the customer wants is a talkative frontline employee. This is why the young man from the opening vignette had to be very brave or very silly. According to the studies, it is far preferable for customers for the environment to be cold when the product being purchased brings embarrassment.

Worse than talking to the customer in an embarrassing service situation is one in which the service provider cracks a joke or makes fun about the purchase. That would be a most unprofessional thing to do. A pharmacist who will go ahead to crack a joke about Viagra or a condom when the customer is already embarrassed is being very unprofessional.

It is important to note that customers will only dehumanise front line professionals when the product in question is embarrassing. However, when the service encounter is not embarrassing, customers will consider the customer service professional as human. It seems thinking of the person as a robot helps the customer to make the embarrassing purchase without feeling bad. This is the extent to which customers will go when dealing with uncomfortable service situations.

It is entirely possible that the customer-facing professional might not have any judgmental intentions in mind while serving a customer in an uncomfortable situation. It is possible the pharmacist might see the purchase just like any other. However, because the customer cannot read the one’s mind, the customer might think the one might be having negative thoughts about the customer and the purchase. This could be far from the truth. It might just be a perception. But you know what they say about the customer’s perception. It becomes the customer’s reality.

Research has shown that the mere perceptions of being watched by an employee during an embarrassing purchase could result in purchase abandonment because of the feeling of being judged. There are several stories about individuals who went into a drug store to purchase a condom who left with Paracetamol just because of someone they saw at the pharmacy. A young man who meets his mother’s friend at the pharmacy might change his mind and buy Vitamin C tablets.

It is true that the ongoing discussion will not affect certain businesses. Businesses that offer products or services that carry no extent of embarrassment can be excused from this piece. However, for healthcare providers, pharmacies, and other such businesses, it is important that they consider their offerings and put in place structures and adopt strategies that will ensure that customers are saved from any potential embarrassment. If there is other option than for the customer to deal with a human being, then that human being must be well trained. The customer-facing professional must understand that there are certain items that can cause embarrassment and so they should not be too much banter with the customer.

When it comes to dealing with customers, it is important to remember that seemingly little things can make or break a customer’s experience. Because the customer’s experience is predominantly emotions-based, it is critical that the business protects its customers from anything that will adversely affect the customer emotionally. If something is potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable, it is the duty of the business to do something about it.

Time and time again, it has been proven that embarrassment can affect a customer in a sense that it can lead to an avoidance of purchase. A customer might still go ahead and make the purchase, enduring the embarrassing experience, but that the customer might walk away with the worst feeling ever, never to return again.

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