Customer Service as a Contact Sport

By Steve Curtin Founder, Steve Curtin LLC | March 27, 2016

Twenty years ago, I read a story in a book by Peter Glen titled, It's Not My Department! The story made such an impression on me in 1996 that I can still recall it vividly today: A customer became frustrated when he was unable to locate a salesperson at a hardware store and decided to resolve the situation by, at the top of his lungs, yelling a single word – "Help!" – just once. Suddenly people appeared from remote corners of the store: salespeople, managers, maintenance workers, and even customers responded.

Glen's story exposes the frustration that we, as customers, feel whenever we can't locate an employee to assist us in some way – often to sell us something that the company paid a lot of money to convince us to come in and buy. Although this story is over 20 years old, customers experience similar frustrations in department stores, home improvement stores, sporting goods stores, restaurants, hotels, airports, and a variety of other businesses today.

While it's true that on-demand and self-service options are mitigating consumers' frustrations by reducing wait times and limiting their need to locate and interact with a human being, there are still plenty of situations that rely on face-to-face interactions between a customer and service provider. In these situations, customer service quality and sales benefit when employees choose to invite interactions with their customers by being approachable, intentional, and available.

Approachable

I recently completed a consulting project for a network of county libraries. One of the objectives was to identify ways to incorporate exceptional customer service into the day-to-day processes at the libraries. As a part of my preparation, I read a research paper by Jennifer Bonnet and Benjamin McAlexander titled, "How Do You Like Me Now?: An Image-rating Study of Librarian Approachability" (Apr 2013). Among the findings was the positive correlation between library staff approachability and whether or not they smiled or wore a nametag:

*"Smiling had a positive effect across rater groups, demonstrating that…participants tended to consider smiling librarians as having increased approachability versus (a neutral expression)…(S)miling made the most difference of all the treatments (e.g., expression, nametag, attire), which reveals the uniquely powerful effect that smiling might have on patron perceptions of librarians. As a result, our recommendation for librarians who wish to maximize their perceived approachability in public service settings is to smile when making eye contact with patrons.

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