Thursday, August 22, 2013

Keep Your Distance If Customers Expect It

When the waitress at my local Outback restaurant kneeled down next to the table and said, “Hello, my name is Gretchen. I’ll be serving you tonight,” I did not reply, “I’m honored to meet you. My name is Bruce, and allow me to introduce you to my wife Irene.”
     Equally odd would have been the server saying, “Hello, my name is Mrs. Fredrickson. I’ll be serving you tonight.”
     Why would that have been odd? Because I, like other restaurant patrons, envision the waitress or waiter as fulfilling a role which is subservient to mine. The notion behind leaving a tip is that the diner is judging the wait staff. When those role expectations of a superior judging a subordinate are violated, the consumer often becomes uncomfortable.
     Researchers at University of North Carolina and Western Carolina University explored what happens to customer tipping when the server draws a smiley face on the check before giving it to the diner. Other research had found that writing a brief thank you leads to higher average tips.
     However, in this study, those patrons receiving a bill with a smiley face left a smaller tip percentage than did the patrons getting their bill sans decoration. The smiley face implied a level of informal familiarity which violated role expectations.
     The dampening effect of the happy face—or a brief thank you note—was more when the customer judged the wait staff as not meeting expectations. Satisfied diners getting their checks with the happy face or a note ended up leaving lower tips. Dissatisfied diners getting the decorated checks left lower tips still, on average. The inadequate service combined with the effort to seem like an equal with the diner aggravated the dissonance for the customer.
     Maintain a respectful social distance from the customer when that’s what the customer expects. If you know the customer well in settings outside the retail setting, familiarity like happy faces makes sense. If you know the customer well from business inside your store, calling the customer by first name makes sense. Otherwise, err on the side of the more formal, and if the customer gives you permission, ease up.
     The “first name rule” may not hold when expectations are for the consumer to be subservient to you. The other rule still does: If you’re a brain surgeon, please refrain from drawing smiley faces or writing “Thanks” next to the incision.

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Name Your Customers

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