Flirting with customers: a necessary tactic or a blatant violation?


The world of the frontline employee can be quite interesting, especially as it relates to the one’s relationships with customers. It is expected of the frontline professional to cultivate close relationship with customers. It is even encouraged that the one gets to know each customer well, including the customer’s likes and dislikes. Some businesses even make use of the latest in consumer psychology to get to know their customers as intimately as possible.

Emotional labour and all expressions of it are meant to identify with and respond to the emotions of customers, much the same as two lovers do to and for each other. Customer-handling employees are expected to add the right emotions to whatever they put on offer. It has even been argued that because people tend to buy emotionally and justify logically, customer service professional must be emotionally connected to their customers. It has been proven that customer satisfaction was dependent on the emotional connection between the customer and the customer service employee.

On a personal note, I have even authored a book titled CUSTOMER ROMANCE: The New Feel of Customer Service. In the said book, I argued that the relationship between a business and its customers was not too different between two lovers. In fact, it seems when it comes to customer service employee-customer relationship, the closer the better. These commercial friendships are very much an expected and accepted part of the business world.

Actually, close relationships with customers are very instrumental to the survival of a business. Failure to get close to one’s customers could spell doom for the fortunes of the business. Therefore, encouraging close frontline employees to develop close relationships with customers makes business sense. But within the ambit of this close relationships lurks dangers that, if not checked, can lead to untold consequences.

One aspect of getting close to customers is in the display of affection between the frontline employee and the customer. Displays of affection are expected in every close relationship. It is a difficult job to come across someone you are close to and for you not to show outward signs of affection. It is additionally difficult to attempt to get close to someone without showing outward signs of affection. How is the one going to know you want to develop a close relationship without showing it? Interestingly, it is in displaying affection that the potential for trouble rears its head up.

How affectionate can a frontline employee get with a customer without appearing to move from mere commercial friendship into a more intimate relationship? Where are boundary lines? Is flirting—the display of an apparent sexual attraction without any serious sexual intention—just another means of getting close to a customer? Is it just part of “doing the job” to be very affectionate with one’s customers?

Are there particular business sectors or even industry categories where flirting is a must? Are there are other business sectors where any act of affection should be discouraged or even banned? In a day and age where the parameters for sexual harassment are ever so widening, should front line employees not be wary of any flirtatious acts?

These are questions that businesses must grapple with on a regular basis. There are questions whose answers will be essential to setting the right standards for employee-customer relationships in the organisation.

For starters, it is important to take note of some aspects of flirting. Firstly, flirting at the frontline, by its nature, is neither good nor bad. It is just another form of interpersonal communication. It is the motives of the flirter that makes flirting either an acceptable act or a detestable one. If the intention is merely to make a customer feel special and welcomed, then there is actually no problem.

However, if the employee flirts for the one’s own selfish gains, then there is a real problem. If the customer service employee has other plans in mind for the customer beyond the commercial friendship, then there is that potential for a disastrous outcome. For instance, if the employee has intentions of starting an amorous relationship with the customer, beyond working hours, then there could be a problem. This is especially true if the customer is not interested in the relationship.

It is however important to also understand that even the best of intentions can be misread. The flirter’s motives might be pure, but the one receiving the message might misconstrue the flirter’s actions. It is a known fact that there is always a possibility of miscommunication whenever any form of interaction takes place. Flirting, as has been said earlier, qualifies as a form of communication and therefore, even for those with the best of intentions, care must be taken to ensure that the motives are made clear from the very beginning.

Occasionally, on-the-job flirting can be seen as very much a part of the job requirements. The sole motive behind this category of flirting is to get the customer to do something that is beneficial to the business. It is a “selfish” kind of flirting. On-the-job flirting can be defined as whatever shows of affection that occur on the job, even including those that happen between work colleagues. This piece is however concerned with those that happen between customer-facing employees and their customers.

A research paper published in the February 2018 edition of the International Journal of Hospitality Management threw light on some interesting points on the matter of service employees flirting with customers. The study was titled “Hospitality service employees’ flirting displays: Emotional labor or commercial friendship?

The key objective of the study was to find out whether flirting by frontline employees was a result of genuine affection towards their customers. Or whether it was done simply to make more money from customers, which in this case will amount to an abuse of the business-customer relationship. According to the study, conducted by two researchers from two Israeli institutions, regardless of the motive behind the flirtatious act, the aim was always to create a special atmosphere for the customer.

However, according to the study, customers were well aware that some frontline employees flirt just to get customers to spend more. The researchers claimed that customers see flirting as a way employees use to make money for the business. In other words, customers can see through the on-the-job flirting for what it is—just another way businesses use to make more money.

The study further found that there were certain businesses where managers indirectly urge their frontline employees to flirt with customers. One of these sectors where flirting was openly encouraged was the hospitality industry, which incidentally was the setting for the study. It can be argued that the very nature of the hospitality makes flirting a necessary tactic. Hotels, restaurants, bars, beach resorts, nightclubs and the like are all supposed to provide some kind of leisure.

The truth is that the relaxed mood that is engendered by the environment in these places makes flirting almost natural. Customers who walk into a space like that are, in all likelihood, already in the mood, so servers, waiters and other frontline employees just follow suit. Throw in a few drinks and some good music in the background and the atmosphere will be just ripe for all kinds of flirtatious actions.

Studies have even shown that in such situations, customer service employees even become more of therapists and counsellors. As they offer customers emotional support by listening to issues and challenges going on in customers’ lives, customer service employees have to take on the role of psychotherapists and shrinks. It is however expected of professional frontline employees not to take advantage of a customer who is going through a tough time.

The ambience that is created in hospitality businesses cannot be the same as that of a financial institution like a bank or an investment firm. The atmosphere within these places themselves does not lend itself to any profuse displays of affection, with everybody taking on a serious approach to doing business. Under such conditions, even if flirting were to happen, it will be of the more covert kind.

It is important to note that regardless of the business sector or environment, frontline employees must be wary of any forms of affection they display when dealing with customers. Business leaders, managers and supervisors must be wary of the potential dangers of blatant flirting that might result in customer dissatisfaction of any kind. Rules and regulations must be put in place to ensure that decency reigns in the dealings of frontline employees with their customers.

Wrongful flirting could lead to all kinds of issues that might hurt the business. Customers might take their business elsewhere if they feel harassed by an employee. At worse, the customer might take the business on and this could turn into a legal tussle. Things might even be worse, if the customer takes the issue to the Online Court of Public Opinion, aka, Social Media. There, unknown savages behind keyboards will cannibalise on the business and drag its carcass through the mud.  That would be a flirter’s worst nightmare.

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