Christmas cheer? The hidden toll of friendly customer service

Ryan Fehr

Ryan Fehr

Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds

“Service with a smile” has become an almost sacrosanct feature of the American consumer experience. It’s a fundamental expectation of customers at restaurants, in retail stores, and during all manner of service calls.

But this longstanding imperative for ever-friendly service exacts a hidden toll on many who provide it.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Washington Foster School of Business have determined that supervisors who frequently engage in “surface acting”—that is, suppressing negative or even neutral feelings in order to maintain a happy face for customers—are more abusive toward their employees.

This abuse can lead to a number of downstream personnel problems in an organization that eventually cycle back to the customer.

“This problem can be especially relevant during the holiday season,” notes co-author Ryan Fehr, an assistant professor of management at Foster. “Stores get overrun with customers who want a positive experience. And so the amount of surface acting that retail employees have to do grows and grows.”

Ego depletion

Fehr says that a growing body of research—including the considerable contributions of the Foster School’s Christopher Barnes—is establishing that negative behavior such as supervisory abuse is more a projection of how a person is feeling on a given day than it is of some immutable personality trait.

Being in a state of fatigue, hunger or other form of stress saps our stores of self-control and leaves us more vulnerable to a litany of misconduct and unproductive behaviors: lying, cheating, bullying, procrastination, errors, accidents and lack of creativity, to name just a few.

Surface acting is another kind of strain on our self-regulating resources. To determine its consequences in the workplace, Fehr collaborated with Scott Reynolds, an associate professor of business ethics at the Foster School, Foster doctoral students Kai Chi Yam (now an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore) and Fong T. Keng-Kighberger, and Anthony Klotz of Oregon State University.

The researchers surveyed 184 pairings of employees and their direct managers working in customer service and sales. They asked the supervisors to rate how often they engaged in surface acting with customers over a three-week period and conducted various measures of their self-control. They asked subordinates to report the incidence of abusive behavior by their boss—getting yelled at, belittled or wrongfully blamed, for instance—over the same three weeks.

An obvious pattern emerged. A rise in manager surface acting corresponded to an increase in abusive behavior toward employees.

Fehr says that abusive bosses make for unhappy, unproductive employees who are, in turn, being asked to put on a happy face for customers. That’s not going to end well.

Friendly advice

The expectation of friendly service is so deeply ingrained in American culture that it’s folly to think any service organization will relax its policies on front-line employee cheer any time soon.

So what is a Starbucks or Eddie Bauer or Microsoft Store to do?

One strategy would be addressing the self-control of managers. The study reveals that leaders who exhibit a high degree of self-control are less likely to abuse their subordinates, even after a long shift faking smiles for customers.

The good news, Fehr says, is that self-control, like a muscle, can be strengthened with exercise. So he suggests that retail and service firms adopt training methodologies to build their managers’ capacities for self-control.

He also points to a number of simple but effective daily countermeasures that can quickly restore one’s capacity for self-control: short breaks, walks in nature, lunches away from the workplace, even catnaps. And schedules that don’t overload or overburden managers (and other employees) can go a long way toward reducing the negative effects of surface acting during hectic periods such as the holiday shopping season.

At a deeper level, Fehr says that firms should foster a true sense of engagement in their front-line managers to achieve a positive demeanor which is genuine, not faked. This idyllic state is called “deep acting.” And, unlike surface acting, deep acting does not deplete.

“In the long run, organizations can address this problem by instilling managers and employees with a sense of purpose, a sense of belongingness, a sense that the relationship with the organization is more than transactional,” Fehr says. “Managers who actually enjoy their jobs and want to smile when they’re around customers will have a much easier time retaining self-control.”

Out of Control: A Self-Control Perspective on the Link Between Surface Acting and Abusive Supervision” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.