Want to improve customer service and satisfaction? Invest in the wellbeing of your employees.
It is becoming clear that employee wellbeing has moved into the mainstream of HR and people strategy and practice in many organisations. There are a number of drivers for this, including an increasingly compelling evidence base linking wellbeing to important health and performance outcomes. In the main the benefits emphasised have been reduced sickness absence and increased productivity. One area that has had less attention is the link between employee wellbeing and customer service and satisfaction.
Wellbeing is characterised by generally feeling good with a strong sense of purpose. When we engage as customers with the “shop front” staff in any organisation do we get a sense of how good they feel about interacting with us and the extent to which they seem to be driven to help and solve our problems? I’m sure most of us would agree that we do. But perhaps they are just faking it? It’s conceivable that having been exposed to customer service training many staff start to play a role defined by what they have learned are the required behaviours to deliver customer satisfaction. However, role playing requires considerable effort and what psychologists refer to as emotional labour. How do you sustain your best “customer face” if generally you are feeling anxious or depressed, or you don’t really believe in what you are doing? The emotional labour required to do so has been shown to be stressful in many cases. For example, in an interesting study of flight cabin crew, Williams (2003) discovered that 44% of them found the emotional labour of the role stressful. Interestingly though Williams also found some evidence that faking a happy face for customers often made the cabin crew feel better!
More recent very thorough research by Keh et al. (2013) shows that customer satisfaction is influenced by a number of factors related to the person providing the service, such as perceived helpfulness, displayed emotion, and even physical attractiveness. However, they found the first of these, helpfulness, to be the most import in determining customer satisfaction. Surely it is easier to be helpful when you have a strong sense of purpose connected to what you are trying to achieve. As the authors of this work note: “service organizations need to create meaning and clarity of purpose for employees…” (p.222). Keh and colleagues also note that the combination of helpfulness and displayed positive emotion provides a particularly powerful impact on customer service. No doubt customer service staff can be, and are, trained to display these qualities. However, sustaining them will be much easier with a strong underlying level of wellbeing.
Another relevant link is the impact on the wellbeing of service staff of stressful customer interactions (e.g. aggressive or hostile customers). Dudenhöffer and Dormann (2012) demonstrate how these have a short and medium term impact as well as highlighting the negative cycles that can ensue between customers and service providers. However, they also point out that positive customer interactions can compensate for these less desirable exchanges to replenish coping resources.
So what might be the best interventions to support the wellbeing of customer facing staff based on the kind of research findings highlighted above? As always these will be context dependent to some extent and influenced by the nature of the customer service interaction, but the following three types of intervention are likely to have a positive impact:
Keep customer facing staff connected to the purpose of the service they provide. It’s not all about ensuring they are up to date with the latest features and benefits of the product or service offering. There should be regular dialogue, ideally through team managers, about the service purpose – inviting the questioning of this to ensure understanding and commitment.
Encourage customer facing teams to share their emotional experiences, positive and negative, and create the space and time for them to do so. It is likely that peer support will be very useful when dealing with negative emotional experiences. Sharing positive emotional experiences will have a contagious uplifting affect. This can serve to counterbalance any negative experiences as well as creating positive spirals which will have further customer satisfaction benefits.
Ensure that the known barriers and enablers to wellbeing, such as a sense of being able to control and influence events and workload management, are regularly reviewed and addressed.
Ultimately improving the wellbeing of your people at the customer interface will have a positive impact on their health, engagement and performance, and there should be additional benefits in terms of improved customer satisfaction levels.
Dudenhöffer, S. and Dormann, C (2012) Customer‐related social stressors and service providers' affective reactions. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 34(4), 520-539.
Keh, H.T, Ren, R, Hill, S.R and Li,X (2013) The Beautiful, the Cheerful, and the Helpful: The Effects of Service Employee Attributes on Customer Satisfaction. Psychology & Marketing, 30(3), 211-226.
Williams, C. (2003) Sky Service: The Demands of Emotional Labour in the Airline Industry. Gender, Work & Organisation. 10(5), 513-550.