Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Friendliness pays


Courting customer empathy for good customer behaviour

First, she was your customer. Then, she became a friend. Today, you will say she is more like a sister. Over the years, your relationship has so evolved that sometimes, you even forget how you first met. You have become so close that anyone who does not the genesis of your friendship will think it might have started out from your childhood.

I believe, many, who have ever worked at the front line of their organisations, would identify with the above scenario. I do. Some of the very best friends I have made over the years, first came into my life in the line of business. I have friends who I first met as customers more than two decades ago. Truly, in business, as in life, it pays to be friendly.

When customer-facing professionals are asked to be friendly, it is not just a customer service gimmick. Making friends of customers should be seen as a real business strategy, specifically a customer service strategy. Out of the friendship develops empathy and when customers are empathetic to a frontline employee, good things happen. This was one of the findings of a recent study published in the February 2023 edition of the Journal of Service Theory and Practice.

The interesting title the researchers gave to the study was “I know you, you know me: the effects of customer empathy and employee self-disclosure on customer citizenship behavior.”  Using the results from customers of a restaurant, the study found that when customers have a higher level of empathy for frontline employees, there is an increased likelihood that customers will exhibit certain behaviours. These are referred to as Customer Citizenship Behaviours.

One of the interesting concepts in the field of service experience is this concept of Customer Citizenship Behaviour. The term has been defined by academic publisher of international scientific research, IGI Global, as “a bundle of customers’ positive, voluntary, helpful, and constructive behaviours that are beneficial for the organization overall.” Others have defined Customer Citizenship Behaviour as a customer’s “self-willingness to interact in unsolicited, helpful, and positive behaviours in the direction of other customers and a company.”

The above-mentioned study found that the more rapport that exists in the relationship between customer and the frontline employee, the more empathy the customer has for the employee and the more citizenship behaviours the customer exhibited. Additionally, the greater the rapport that existed in the relationship, the greater the incidence of employee self-disclosure and by extension, the greater the possibility of the customer behaving beneficially to the organisation.

It is instructive to note that the study found that a customer’s empathy for a frontline employee did not depend on the employee’s self-disclosure as far as the customer’s citizenship behaviour was concerned. In other words, employees disclosing personal information to customers will lead to customer citizenship behaviour. In the same vein, the customer’s empathy for a frontline employee can also lead to citizenship behaviour. The value of employee self-disclosure does not depend on the value of the customer’s empathy towards a frontline employee before the customer exhibits citizenship behaviour.

It is in the interest of every organisation that its customer exhibit the best of behaviours, but not just any behaviours but behaviours which benefit the organisation. For instance, one of such behaviours is the customer’s willingness to go out of his or her way to tell others about the organisation’s products or services. That simple act alone is enough to bring in so much business to the organisation. An army of customers using positive word-of-mouth to market an organisation’s offerings can drastically reduce the marketing budget of the organisation.

In addition, customers going out of their way to defend the company’s reputation can also reduce the budget that might be meant for public relations and corporate affairs units. In effect, citizenship behaviour has serious implications for the bottom-line of any business. That is how important citizenship behaviour is to the fortunes of every business.

When customer exhibit citizenship behaviour, it is not unusual for the customer to willingly help another customer. A customer who has already accessed a service can help another customer go through the process to access the same service, by helping the new customer fill whatever forms might be available or helping the new customer provide whatever information may be needed. Such good customers have no problem using their own resources to help other customers out. The customer who helps another customer is actually doing the job of the organisation’s frontline employees, without being paid for it.

The importance of customer citizenship behaviour cannot be overstated. As a matter of fact, one study boldly claimed that it was “an important means of promoting the survival of firms in a rapidly increasing competitive environment.” However, citizenship behaviours of customers does not just happen. Good customer behaviour emanates from somewhere. It comes from a place of empathy. When a customer can put himself in the shoes of a frontline employee, there is a greater possibility of that customer becoming an asset to the organisation.

As alluded to earlier, in addition to the empathy customers have for frontline employees, the earlier-referred study also found that when frontline employees opened up their personal lives to customers, there was a greater advantage in fostering customer citizenship behaviour. The thing about employee self-disclosure is that it tells the customer that he or she can be trusted with the customer’s personal information. Trust inevitably leads to long-term relationships.

It is not easy to open up to others about your private life. Self-disclosure makes one vulnerable. There are certain pieces of information that can ruin the image of the one revealing the sensitive information. It is advisable therefore for any employee, who wants to self-disclose, to be wary of the information being shared. The employee’s childhood, education, favourite food, religious beliefs, political stance, and major life changing points are all pieces of information that an employee can safely share with a customer.

In my experience, it is important to first “test the waters” before giving out some of these details. In this country, an employee must be sensitive to some of the information the one shares. The religious and political persuasions of individuals are areas I would gravely warn against. A customer who might not have any issues with the employee prior might begin to see the one differently when the customer realises that the employee supports a different political party.

However, regardless of the information that an employee decides to share, it has been proven that shared personal information tends to bring the employee and the customer closer. It is that closeness that leads customers to be willing to do things for the organisation as a whole, and the frontline employee, in particular.

It is true that two people can meet each other for the first time and hit it off like they have known each other for years. Kindred spirits, they call them. It is also true that individuals who spend time regularly together can become friends in due course. Those might be unplanned and might be a result of nature taking its course. However, what we are talking about in this piece goes beyond just chance. We are talking about employees seeing the benefits of being open and friendly to customers and making it a conscious attempt to befriend their customers. Customer citizenship behaviour and the benefits therefore are too important to left to chance. Every organisation must see the pursuit of customer empathy as important enough to warrant a different approach and strategy.

Some might say that courting customer empathy through friendliness sounds corny and might not be genuine. That might be a valid concern. There are those who use people and will therefore fake friendliness to get close to people. That is not what we are talking about. Making friends of customers must be genuine. But it only becomes genuine when employees see customers for who they really are.

Employees must see customers as being very important to the survival of the business. Employees must see customers are being responsible for the ability of employees to maintain a certain socio-economic standard. Employees must see customers as the very reason why they, the employees, are able to feed their families and put a roof over their heads. With such outlook about customers, it is easy for the frontline to go out of her way to befriend a customer. When you see the one you are to befriend as important to your way of life, you would be genuinely interested in making the one your friend.

It used to be that business was seen as an arena strictly reserved for logical reason, with no place for emotions. However, day after day, it is being proven that emotions actually have a very important role to play in the success of a business. Regardless of what many would say, human beings are still very emotional beings that love to believe they are logical beings.

What this particular discussion has made abundantly clear is that it is very logical to be emotional when it comes to building a good business. The customers who will make the business good money are emotional beings, therefore it makes sense for those dealing with them to also use emotions. And when all your competitors are going emotional and making it, you do not want to be the last one who will.

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