The Advantage of inexperience: customer forgiveness of inexperienced staff

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

Years of experience have always been an advantage when applying for a job. There are job openings where even a specific number of years is required. Without those number of years of experience, candidates would not even be invited for an interview.

Interestingly, just this past week, after the embarrassing elimination of the Black Stars from AFCON 2023, the Ghana Football Association (GFA) announced that the next coach of the senior national football team must have fifteen years of experience. That is how important years of experience are to getting a job.

But there are times when not having much experience or even being very inexperienced on the job can be an advantage. The one thing that makes the advantage of inexperience most interesting is that this advantage comes in during one of the most important moments in a business-customer interaction. This advantage occurs during an attempt to recover from a poor service experience.

There are times when things sometimes do not go according to plan, leaving customers angry, disappointed, or both. The moment things do not occur as expected and a customer is disappointed is one of the most pivotal times in the business-customer relationship. It can be a make or break for the relationship. Studies have shown that the results of poor service performance can go beyond just negative customer emotions and reactions. Poor performance can also lead to negative word-of-mouth campaigns against the business in question. This could end up affecting even the business’ chances of winning new customers. It can even lead to revenge intentions from very aggrieved customers.

Anyone who has managed any interaction with a customer knows that it is of critical importance that service is recovered as quickly and as pain-free for the customer as possible. When these unfortunate incidents occur, it is expected that the business rectifies the situation quickly and ensures that the customer is made happy.

When the customer is offended because of poor performance, the customer’s forgiveness is an important step before the relationship can go ahead. Knowing the importance of ensuring that customers are made happy when things do not go well, businesses invest a lot into ways and means of preventing undesirable service situations. Pre-empting poor service situations is a smart business move.

However, despite the best efforts of businesses, there are those times when things just do not according to plan. Sometimes, the mishap could be caused by things beyond the control of the business. When these things occur, the business must ensure that there are systems in place to ensure that the customer is not left disappointed for too long. It is natural for a customer to be upset but it is the job of the business to turn that upset customer into one that walks away from the experience in a happier mood.

In many cases, when customers are left disappointed, the blame is laid at the door of the entire organisation. It is the business’ fault—and rightly so. Even if the problem is caused by a third party, for so long as it occurs in line with a particular organisation’s offering, it must be that organisation’s fault. However, there are those times when the fault can be narrowed down to the actions of individuals tasked with serving customers. The organisation might not want to throw the staff under the bus and so would take responsibility. This, however, does not take away from the fact that the error was caused by a particular individual. In many of these instances, customers are aware of the particular staff who caused the problem.

But if the results of a recent study are anything to go by, then it might not be a bad thing for a customer to know the particular staff who might have been responsible for the lower-than-expected performance. Identifying the front-line employee responsible for the mishap might actually be the way out of the situation.

This is according to a particularly interesting study whose results were published in the September 2023 edition of Psychology & Marketing Journal. The study was titled “When and why signaling frontline employee inexperience can prove to be an asset: Effects on consumer forgiveness for service failure”. According to the study, the best strategy to ensure that customers are more forgiving when an employee makes a mistake is to signal the employee’s inexperience even before the mistake happens. By telling customers upfront that the staff is inexperienced, the customer’s expectations about the one’s performance are lowered.

Disappointments are indeed a function of prior expectations. When expectations are low, disappointments lose their sting. Customers are better able to manage their disappointments when they have very low expectations to begin with. For instance, customers at a restaurant might forgive the business for having to wait unduly if they are being served by inexperienced waiters. Customers would be less forgiving of an experienced employee committing those same mistakes that their inexperienced colleagues would get away with.

The study found that when these inexperienced employees serve customers, the customers tend to be more forgiving. Thus, a blunder by such an employee does not lead to many of the negative reactions associated with angry or disappointed customers such as the customer taking his or her business elsewhere, badmouthing the business to other customers, or even planning revenge actions against the business.

It is not uncommon to find customers even helping the inexperienced employee out. Customers will invest their time and effort into helping the newbie gain the necessary experience. When this happens, the customer becomes invested in the business in general and in that employee in particular. It is therefore little wonder that such an invested customer would keep patronising the business.

According to the researchers, the signalling could be done informally through a conversation. Or it can be a more formal approach such as giving new employees an “in-training badge”. Signalling a customer service professional’s inexperience is akin to the “L” SIGN we see hanging behind and in front of vehicles being driven by new drivers or learners. The expectation behind that action is that older and more experienced drivers would be more accepting and more accommodating of the new driver on the road.

It must however be noted that there is a limit to which customers would be accommodating of service failures caused by inexperienced customer service professionals. Customers might be very forgiving of inexperienced employees for the first few encounters. But after that, customers would have expected the inexperienced staff to have gained the necessary experience. There would be very little room for customer forgiveness after that.

It is also important to note that the advantage of inexperience only applies to just a few job schedules. Even in a restaurant, customers might accommodate the use of inexperienced waiters but will not accept the use of an inexperienced chef. Knowing that the food to be consumed can have dire consequences for their health, customers would refuse to consume food cooked by an inexperienced cook. In that case, signalling the inexperience of the cook might actually have the opposite effect.

It is a fact that in certain industries, such as retail and even hospitality, there are higher than average rates of customer-handling staff turnover. The low wages and low entry requirements mean that there are always individuals going in as others walk out. What this effectively means is that there are always going to be new staff manning the front line. This leads to a greater propensity for mistakes from the newbies as they have yet to gain the necessary experience. Businesses with these low-paying and high-turnover jobs must understand the dynamics of the situation and take advantage of the disadvantages. Letting customers in on the fact of the inexperience of new frontline employees could be a smart move, after all.

Granted, it takes lots of guts for a business to open up to its customers that it is putting inexperienced employees in front of customers. It takes a lot of bravery. It is common knowledge that customer service professionals are the face of the company. To say customer service employees are one of the most important individuals within the business would not be far from the truth. It is through interactions with customer service employees that customers form their impressions of the quality of service being offered by a particular business.

Due to the importance of their work to the fortunes of any business, it makes perfect sense for the business to put its most experienced at the front. Every business that is interested in leading its market would always ensure that they put their best at the front of the business. It is therefore perfectly normal for a business to second-guess a decision to tell customers about the inexperience of those who are supposed to be the face of the company.

Knowing that such a move could backfire puts businesses in a difficult position. The advice is for businesses to do a lot of deep analysis about the potential reactions of their customers before taking such a course of action. However, it is a risk that a business should take if all it has at its disposal are lots of inexperienced hands. In that case, the business can truly take advantage of their inexperience.

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