Service Encounter, Retail Employees, Emotional Labor and December 12, 2011

Service encounter is a moment when a customer comes in contact with a frontline employee. This constitutes the heart and soul of a service exchange. Customer sees and judges the service organization through this lens. Accordingly it is here a service firm’s entire marketing and operational planning and their execution is tested. A good service encounter satisfies customer, wins his loyalty and commitment. Except for fully automated services, a service encounter is generally a social encounter because it involves people interaction. Two important aspects at this moment of truth from a customer’s perspective are: operational efficiency and interactional quality. Customers expect the service staff to provide efficient service in the friendly manner. Operations and engineering aspects that work from the ‘backend’ determine efficiency but the ‘frontline’ employee is directly responsible for human aspects of service delivery.
Service encounter assume social and psychological dimensions in a face to face situation. Customers expect to be treated with warmth, friendliness, dignity and courtesy. All these aspects relate to the ‘how’ dimension of service. The ‘how’ aspect assumes critical importance because often the ‘outcome’ aspect of service is viewed through this angle. Accordingly service marketers focus attention on managing these encounters from customer perspective. Accordingly scripts, manuals, and training modules are developed to equip and enable the frontline staff in customer interaction skills. Top management wants the frontline staff to ‘live up to customer service expectations’. But this is not as easy as it may appear.
Frontline people who meander on the service floor perform psychologically and physically demanding job. These are often lowly paid bottom of the rung employees who are treated more like cost rather investments. On the floor an employee is a constant who deals with perpetually flowing customers. Although firms aim to create homogeneity yet customers differ significantly in the way they interact with frontline staff. This is what makes frontline jobs both physically and psychologically challenging. Hallmark of a satisfying encounter is that when employee are polite, knowledgeable, prompt, helpful and friendly. But what happens when the customer is impolite, ignorant, unsure, demanding, unfriendly, difficult, aggressive, unreasonable and uncooperative. This results in dissatisfying, frustrating and demeaning encounters for the employees.
Most firms have training programs for their customer care employees but rarely do they do anything to train their customers. The frontline employee operate on the line of fire, they are the targets of abuse from unreasonable customers. They are supposed to ‘serve with a simile’ even when customers cross norms of civility. The frontline jobs are emotionally taxing and therefore cause emotional exhaustion and burn out. The service staff is expected to keep themselves detached from an emotionally challenging situation and display an expected emotional façade. Service staff is expected to remain calm and polite even when faced with an unreasonable and abusive customer. This is what emotional labor all about but this kind of labor is difficult.
The retail industry celebrated December 12, 2011 as Retail Employees’ Day. A campaign was launched by TRRAIN (Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India) with the tag line ‘Thank you bola kya?’. This campaign celebrated the real heroes of retail industry (ads featured real retail employees in customer service situations) who we regularly interact without paying any attention. It is often ignored that the person on the other side is also a human being who needs to be understood and appreciated. The key idea promoted in this campaign was to appreciate the people who serve in retail industry by simply saying a ‘thank you’.
Retail encounter is a two sided coin. It is high time that retail firms also think of devising some innovative interventions to train their target customers into becoming good customers. This can be done subtly without overtly offending their sense and sensibilities. This would go a long way in spinning the virtuous cycle of happy employees creating even happier customers.

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4 thoughts on “Service Encounter, Retail Employees, Emotional Labor and December 12, 2011

  1. similar encounters are confronted by banks and financial institutions these days
    when government just dictates its policies of financial inclusions which these front office staff has to take care of……….dealing with semi-literate population residing in rural areas…..blaming continues by (both) the parties.

  2. To some extent luxury/semi luxury brands solve the issue by hiring talented front line staff. It helps that these brands are able to command enoungh premium to meet the extra costs involved in hiring “trainable” talent. However, most brands, especially those which compete on price are not so fortunate. Their business models do not afford them the luxury of hiring right talent for ensuring desired levels of customer experiance. They hire whatever they can get at the lowest possible price, the result is a low cost product but shoddy service experiance. It is interesting to see how some brands are now innovating and aided by technology removing frontline staff from the service equation (at varying degrees). This results not only in savings on employee cost but also enhances standardisation of service delivery. Present level of technology is advanced enough to replace a chunk of front line human staff in categories where such intervention is feasible. Its mindset of marketers or perhaps social compulsion or even short sighted economic calculations which is delaying the transition.

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