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Customers aren’t always red-faced because they’re angry

360 Magazine 
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Customers aren’t always red-faced because they’re angry

“Please be a lady, please be a lady, please be a lady . . .”

In the trailer for the new movie Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the title character is with her friend at the drug store. They are buying sanitary napkins for the first time. They are approaching the counter.

And as you may have guessed, the person serving them is not a lady but a dead-eyed teenage boy.

His expression – and then their mortified expression – tells you everything about the kind of customer experience that is taking place.

I was reminded of this trailer recently when I learned about a study by researchers at UBC’s Saunder School of Business with the wonderful title, How Consumers Respond to Embarrassing Service Encounters: A Dehumanization Perspective.

It may not be as funny as a Judy Blume novel, but even Margaret would probably be nodding along to its findings.

When customers would prefer a robot over a human
When people are buying condoms, for example, or taking an item with unusual stains to a dry cleaner, they are far more likely to opt for self check-out. Failing that, they look for the “most robotic acting” human they can find.

This is known as mechanistic dehumanization, and it’s a defence mechanism, according to one of the study’s co-authors.

“They think, ‘That person doesn’t care about me or what I’m doing. They’re just doing their job,’” explained Dr. JoAndrea Hoegg. “They do that to make themselves feel better. But we didn’t find any evidence that strategy actually works. They were still embarrassed.” 

This may all seem incredibly obvious – until you think about how most customer experiences are designed as though every masterpiece can be painted with the same brush.

Brands and their employees, CX experts always say, should be welcoming. They should be aiming for maximum engagement so as to deepen their relationships with customers and thereby earn their loyalty. In these scenarios, though, customers avoid eye contact with employees. When they get to use self-checkout or similar tools, they answer questions in more detail and provide in-depth information.

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Making it easy for customers to avoid moments of connection could, in fact, help deepen their loyalty as well. Helping them through experiences in a way that they don’t feel judged may be better in some cases than striving for extra-friendly service.

Using embarrassment to inform your CX strategy
This is valuable insight on two levels. First, it speaks to the question that so many brands are asking themselves about how best to balance technology and a human touch in their CX strategies. Understanding the impact of embarrassment could help CX leaders prioritise which aspects of their in-person and digital experiences should be automated.

Second, we shouldn’t always treat the customer journey as this idealistic odyssey, where customers move from one “moment that matters” to another. There are times when there is only one moment that matters, and it should be as brief and private as possible.

This may not be limited to companies selling “embarrassing” items, either. It could include performing common steps, such as returning a product, where customers feel ill at ease in explaining themselves to staff.

We’ve typically defined great CX as interactions as those that are consistent, easy, error free and memorable. It’s time to add “letting you forget you had to have this experience” to that list.

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