Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: I’m also embarrassed!

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

vicarious embarrassment and customer experience

Imagine sitting in a conference hall, waiting for a well renowned speaker to mount the stage. After a few minutes, you spy the speaker entering the hall through a side door. However, you noticed something amiss. The flap of the man’s pair of trousers were unzipped. Your first attempt was to alert the man but before you could do so, an usher approached the man and directed him to his seat. You realized you had to do something quick before the man was introduced to go up to the stage. You became overly anxious.

Just then, your worst fears became reality as the man is introduced. You watched in sheer horror as the honourable speaker walked up stage with his flap opened. You wish the earth would open up and swallow you. You felt hot under the collar, although you were in an air-conditioned auditorium. For a few minutes, as the man stood up the stage, you could not bear to look in his direction. Luckily, someone else noticed. The speaker was alerted and the situation was quickly resolved.

But why did you feel so bad? After all, it was not the flap of your trousers. You were not the one on stage. You were also not related to the man? What then was it that made you so embarrassed? There is an explanation for what you felt at the moment and it has serious implications for customer experience.

On Monday, 3rd April, 2023, I published an article on this page titled “It’s Embarrassing! When Faced With Uncomfortable Retail or Service Situations.” The crux of that piece was that there were certain purchases that made customers uncomfortable or embarrassed. Regardless of whether the frontline employee who happens to be serving the customer says something or not, the customer making that purchase still feels embarrassed. The embarrassment is even made the more pronounced when there were other customers viewing the said purchase. Therefore, it was the duty of the business that offers these products to know this so that they are able to manage the experiences of their customers.

In the said article, I gave examples of such embarrassing purchases as buying a condom, Viagra or medication that is known to cure sexually-transmitted diseases. I gave some suggestions about how business that deal in such goods can help better the experiences of their customers when making such purchases. I stated that businesses had a responsibility to help protect their customers from situations that causes embarrassment.

Interestingly, there is another angle of that discussion that we cannot help but bring to the fore. That is the purpose of this week’s piece and it is directly related to the opening vignette. True, there are certain purchases that makes customers uncomfortable. However, the embarrassment does not only start and end with the customer making the purchase. If the results of a study published in a December 2022 edition of the Journal of Business Research are anything to go by, then there is more to the embarrassment customers have to deal with when they make purchases that carry some air of embarrassment.

According to the said study, titled “The nature of vicarious embarrassment,” other customers who witness a customer making an uncomfortable purchase also begin to feel uncomfortable. This is sometimes referred to as second-hand embarrassment. It has been defined as “an interpersonal and painful emotion experienced on behalf of others’ blunders and pratfalls.”

That was the exact embarrassment you felt when you watched the speaker with his trousers’ zip opened. It is the kind of embarrassment you feel when you watch contestants on talent shows on TV “embarrass” themselves. Vicarious embarrassment is what you feel when your friend slips and falls down in public. Although, you were still on your two feet, you still feel as if you were the one who had fallen. That is vicarious embarrassment.

In customer service, it is explained that a customer who is a witness to an uncomfortable purchase experiences a parallel embarrassment similar to that of the one making the purchase. The earlier-mentioned report intimated that when other customers witness an embarrassing purchase, they tend to put themselves in the shoes of the one making the purchase. Those who look on tend to imagine themselves as the ones making the purchase. This is as true for acquainted customers as it is for unacquainted customers.

The idea of vicarious embarrassment is not a far-fetched idea because it is true that as human beings, the actions of one person has an effect on the way others feel. If this holds true, then businesses that sell products whose purchases make customers uncomfortable have a lot of work to do, in order for the experiences of their customers to be enhanced.

Just as it was important for businesses to do something to totally eliminate or, at best, minimize the embarrassment of their customers, it is also important that something is done about the embarrassment of on-looking customers. This is because vicarious embarrassment can have the same effect as first-hand embarrassment. Customers who witness another customer making an uncomfortable purchase might be so embarrassed themselves that they walk away from making any purchase. This is something that should worry every business that is into the sales of products such as adult magazines, female hygiene products, etc. One customer making an embarrassing purchase in the presence of many customers can cause the business to lose all those customers if the situation is not managed well.

It has also been proven that third party embarrassed customers might also badmouth the establishment where they witness that embarrassing situation. When a particular outlet or business becomes associated with a particular embarrassing situation in a customer’s mind, there is a problem. If anytime a customer recalls a particularly terrible service situation, that customer cannot help but think of the location where it happens, that business is in real trouble. The reputation of that business is at stake.

Businesses such as pharmacies, clinics and others cannot afford to treat this topic lightly. The effects of vicarious embarrassment might be doing the business some harm which might be going unnoticed. Customers might have stopped doing business with an establishment simply because their last experiences there might have been quite embarrassing. Customers do not enjoy going back to places that have made them uncomfortable in the past.

To better manage the experiences of customers, it is important that these businesses find ways of ensuring that such purchases are not made in plain view of other customers. Buying a pack of condoms is definitely not the same as buying a pack of chewing gums. Purchasing genital wart removal cream is totally different from buying face cream. So the way and manner both items are sold and bought cannot be the same.

Items whose purchase makes customers uncomfortable can be placed in areas where there are no or very few prying eyes. Placement of condom dispensers in male washrooms is one of such actions. Where possible, customers making such purchases can be given a separate checkout process.  This is to ensure that they do not have to deal with anyone when making such purchases.

In the April 2023 article I alluded to at the onset of this week’s piece, I stated that studies have shown that when making such purchases, customers prefer to deal with robots as compared to other human beings. Evidently, the use of robots at the front line is out of the reach of many of the businesses that peddle these products. However, what this should tell all business managers and supervisors is that when it comes to making embarrassing purchases, the human touch should be as minimal as possible.

It is important to note that vicarious embarrassment goes beyond customers making uncomfortable purchases. There are times when the vicarious embarrassment comes from customers behaving in ways that make other customers uncomfortable. For instance, when customers behave in rude, uncouth ways, it causes other customers to experience vicarious embarrassment.

In a research report published in the January 2018 edition of the Psychology and Marketing journal, researchers found that when customers witness other customers breaking social norms, vicarious embarrassment occurs. The title of that report was “Oh my gosh, I got to get out of this place! A qualitative study of vicarious embarrassment in service encounters”.

Vicarious embarrassment is so serious that it has even been shown to affect customers physically. There is a whole neuroscience behind vicarious embarrassment. Studies done using Skin Conductance Response showed that when people felt embarrassed, it showed on their fingertips or hands. There is evidence of increased blood flow and increased cardiovascular activity in the embarrassed individual. It has been found that embarrassment comes with increased hyperhidrosis—excessive sweating that is not always related to heat or exercise.

Something that is this strong—so strong that it is able to cause people to react in a real, physical sense—cannot be treated lightly. Businesses have a duty to protect their customers and to ensure that nothing untoward mars the customer’s experience. If it will take putting embarrassing products someplace else, then so be it. Better to win the customer than to watch the one feeling embarrassed. After all, embarrassed customers do not spend a lot of money where the embarrassment occurs.

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