The ability to interpret facial expressions and body language is an important interpersonal skill. However, relatively little is known about how it affects people’s perceptions and experiences of retailers. New research suggests that sales assistants sensitive to ‘non-verbal cues’ are viewed positively by customers but negatively by third-party observers. This has important implications for the way ‘customer-facing’ staff are recruited, trained and evaluated — and for the way shops are designed.
Imagine rushing into a store to grab a bottle of wine on your way to a dinner party and encountering a salesperson who wants to share their extensive knowledge of wine with you. Although the salesperson is very friendly and very keen to be helpful, he is clearly unaware of your need for rapid service as he makes you increasingly late for your dinner party.
As a result, you grow irritated with the salesperson and the service provided, and you vow never to return to the store. Had this salesperson detected that you were anxious to be served quickly, the store might have exceeded your expectations by providing fast, efficient service and — potentially, at least — turned you into a loyal customer.
This hypothetical example points to the link between ‘personalised’ service and a salesperson’s ability to read non-verbal and behavioural cues of customer affect (or mood). This link has long been suggested by research. A 1995 study, for example, found that that the ability to read affect enhances rapport between a salesperson and a client. More recently, it’s been shown that a salesperson’s ability to read the mood of others moderates the effect of their efforts to engage in adaptive selling and customer-oriented selling on performance.
In general, though, relatively little is known about social environmental cues in retail — and what they mean for the customer ‘experience’. How does the ability to read mood influence people’s perceptions of the quality of service?
Two recent in-class studies addressed this question.
Based on simulations of retail environments, they examined the effects not only of facial expressions, which often belie someone’s true feelings and are ‘scripted’ for social norms, but also for more ‘leaky’ (i.e. less voluntary) cues such as gestures and body language and tone of voice.
They found that salespeople able to read both face and body cues are perceived as offering higher-quality service — but only by consumers interacting with them directly. Third-party observers tend to view sensitivity to non-verbal cues far less positively.
What explains this difference? Previous research suggests that the way we experience a situation often diverges from how we judge that someone else experiences the same situation. Perhaps, in the observer context, the salesperson’s non-normative interactions with the customer — e.g. “I can see you’re in a hurry” — seem impolite or obtrusive, whereas, in the ‘self’ context, they’re experienced as a response to personal needs.
Given increasing emphasis on the customer experience and increasing evidence that characteristics of the retail environment have a dramatic impact on customer behaviour, these findings could have important implications for retail businesses.
The researchers conclude that:
More generally, perhaps, the research suggests that extraversion might not be the most important attribute for sales assistants. (Many successful retail businesses have been based on the idea of the soft-sell — for example, Carphone Warehouse in the UK.)
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