A friendly demeanor goes a long way in customer relations, says marketing professor Dwayne Gremler.

A friendly demeanor goes a long way in customer relations, says marketing professor Dwayne Gremler.

For retailers, going 'that extra mile' may be as close as a smile: Gremler

It may not be easy for retailers to entice consumers squeezed by prices at the pump and the checkout line these days. But it can be done, and in practical, cost-free ways, says Dr. Dwayne Gremler, marketing.

The problem, as Gremler tells his services marketing class, is that what seem to be common-sense concepts aren’t as common as you might think.

In “Rapport-Building Behaviors Used by Retail Employees,” an article in the current Journal of Retailing, Gremler and Kevin Gwinner from Kansas State University point out that rapport—which they define as an enjoyable interaction, characterized by a personal connection, between employees and customers—“relates significantly to customer satisfaction, loyalty, and word-of-mouth communication.” Their study of 388 service encounters found that “uncommonly attentive” behavior shown by employees—going “above and beyond”—was the rapport-building kind most frequently mentioned by customers.
Uncommon attentiveness and courteous behavior have been noted in previous research of the subject, the authors write. But other cost-free efforts to connect with customers, simply through humor, pleasant conversation and generally friendly interactions, have gotten scant attention.
Many consumers may feel that friendly interaction with retail workers is also hard to come by in stores, Gremler acknowledges. Thinking of one’s own service encounters, maybe 25-30 percent are pleasant, he says, but in the majority, the customer may see attempts to establish rapport and ask, “Why don’t I see these more often?”
In some cases, it’s due simply to the employee’s personality, Gremler says—“It’s just who that person is.” Even so, employees can be trained to use scripted opening lines or jokes. The opening line doesn’t have to be “May I help you?” either, he adds, advising different options for workers depending on the customer or time of day.
Another possible means of building rapport is creating an environment that facilitates interaction, Gremler says. Some banks have eliminated traditional teller windows in favor of desks where employees and customers can sit face-to-face and conduct their business in a more private setting. And the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain encourages its servers to squat next to, or even sit at, customers’ tables for a minute or two in hopes of making a connection.
Establishing rapport may not be helpful when the service provided is poor, but if the service is acceptable and there is rapport with employees, customers will want to stay, Gremler says. All other things being equal—location and cost, as well as service—most people enjoy pleasant interactions and “that connection with the employee will make the difference.”
Ideally, companies should hire authentic people and provide the skill sets and training they need to succeed, Gremler notes. And that training wouldn’t have to include instruction in more than one rapport-building behavior—he and Gwinner were surprised to learn that rapport isn’t enhanced when employees try more than one.
But identifying the right people to hire is difficult for many companies, especially when many service jobs are low-paying, entry-level positions, he concedes. As a society, “we’re probably going to struggle with these issues for several decades: How do we get the right people in these customer-contact positions and keep them on board?” In the long run, though, with the right staff in place, companies are rewarded with customer loyalty, he argues.
Gremler suggests, too, that simply listening to customers might also “cement the relationship.” Asking them what they’re thinking, through informal or market research, isn’t necessarily costly, nor is implementing some things they may want, but many businesses do neither.
And when things go wrong, firms can initiate “service recovery,” often at virtually no cost beyond a little time, he says. Explaining what happened comes first in the series of service recovery steps, followed by giving customers a chance to vent frustration, apologizing to them for the inconvenience, thanking them for their business and assuring them the problem won’t recur.
In many cases, customers abandon businesses because of a bad experience with an employee—and word-of-mouth studies indicate that a bad experience will be shared with 15-20 people, as opposed to the handful who hear about a good experience, Gremler adds. But they’ll also leave if the retailer errs a second time by not attempting service recovery. If those low-cost steps are taken, however, customers are often willing to forgive, and the business may be able to “hang on to a large chunk of those customers it initially let down.”

September 22, 2008