Eugene Kim and David Yoon observed 117 interactions between staff and customers at clothing and accessory stores at a large shopping mall in Seoul, South Korea. The emotional behaviour of the employees was observed, then the way their customers responded, and finally, right afterwards, both employee and customer were quizzed about their mood and personality.
The more positive the employee, the more positive the customer tended to be. Moreover, employees who were more positive tended to be in a better mood afterwards, an association that was fully explained by the positive emotions displayed by the customer. In other words, smiley and polite staff initiated a virtuous interactive circle in which customers tended to respond in kind, thus benefiting the worker's own mood.
Of course not all customers are made equal. Kim and Young found that customers who scored lower in agreeableness and lower in emotional stability were more influenced by the positive emotion of the staff. More agreeable customers would be friendly anyway and highly stable customers are less prone to outside influences on their emotions.
A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn't assess staff mood at the outset, prior to each customer interaction. Though unlikely, they admitted this means that they couldn't completely rule out the possibility that interaction had nothing to do with the results - that an employee's mood at the outset had simply affected both their own emotional display, the customer's response and their own mood at the end.
Notwithstanding the need for more longitudinal research, Kim and Yoon said a key message for managers was to see customers as "coproducers of a positive service interaction". As well as "recruiting and hiring employees who are adept at displaying positive emotions," they said that managers should also consider reminding customers of the part they have to play by saying thank you and being civil.
Kim E, and Yoon DJ (2012). Why Does Service With a Smile Make Employees Happy? A Social Interaction Model. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 22800188
-Further reading- Switching, empathising and staying neutral: the emotional labour of GP receptionists (from our sister blog, The Occupational Digest).
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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