Is Your Friendly Customer Service Backfiring?

Friendliness without friendship may undermine customer relationships
friendly salesperson

From “service with a smile” to making a personal connection, friendly behaviour is both widely recommended and eagerly implemented as a way to forge strong consumer-brand relationships.

But new research is calling these ideas into doubt. It suggests that firms can be too friendly, too soon, and may actually be doing more harm than good.

“While friendly behaviours are clearly symptomatic of friendship,” says Laurence Ashworth, associate professor of marketing at Smith School of Business. “It’s less clear that they are causally responsible for friendship or that they are even appropriate in the early stages of friendship.”

Studies on relationship development show that the behaviours people tend to engage in at the beginning of a relationship are very different from those once the relationship is established. Further, behaviours that conflict with expectations for the stage or nature of the relationship, such as whether it is business or personal, can make people uncomfortable and even undermine relationships entirely.

“Friendliness is characterized by more than just smiling,” says Ashworth. “It's characterized by self-disclosure, by mutual like, by wanting to spend time with people, by sharing, by favours. Based on that, you might get a sense that friendliness may not always be appropriate.”

Comforting or Discomforting?

Ashworth and his collaborators Suzanne Rath (Ph.D. student and lead researcher) and Nicole Robitaille of Smith School of Business and Matthew Philp of HEC Montreal, set out to examine consumers’ responses to friendly customer service. They looked at whether brands, in an effort to be “friends” with their customers, may actually be causing discomfort or even harming a firm’s chance of establishing the desired relationship.

The researchers conducted four studies. The first was a simple test of the basic idea. They constructed two scenarios that described a consumer sales encounter — one that had a very friendly salesperson and one with an equally polite, but less overtly friendly, salesperson — and looked at consumers' desire to stay in that situation. They found that, in the friendly condition, people’s desire to stay in the store was reduced.

Seeing the first study as initial evidence that they might be on to something, they next tried to rule out the possibility that there might be something odd or unusual about the friendly behaviours they described. They tested the same behaviours in two alternate situations: as a guest at a party versus in an interaction with the owner of a store.

Replicating the previous results, friendly behaviours reduced consumers’ desire to stay in the interaction with the store owner.  The exact same behaviours, however, increased people’s desires to stay at the party. This reassured the researchers that there was nothing unusual about the particular friendly behaviours they had used in the study, since the behaviours described had the expected positive effect in a social context.

“Friendliness is characterized by self-disclosure, by mutual like, by wanting to spend time with people, by sharing, by favours”

The third study tested whether consumers’ reactions to friendliness depended on their opinion of the store itself. “We were concerned that this might be unique to the store that people imagined,” says Ashworth. “Maybe they’re thinking of an undesirable store, somewhere where friendliness would be viewed as manipulative or slimy.” This time they found the exact opposite of what they expected. Friendliness had a more negative effect in a desirable store than an undesirable one.

Further examination indicated that the urge to stay in the undesirable store was so low that the nature of the interaction did little to change that. In contrast, friendliness in the desirable store reduced an otherwise strong desire to stay. They concluded that the negative response to the friendly salesperson wasn’t due to the store the consumers were imagining – the effect was coming from somewhere else.

Finally, the researchers turned their attention to the relationship between the consumer and the salesperson. Would the consumer react differently to the same behaviours in a pre-existing friendship as compared to the beginning of a possible relationship? They employed two versions of the scenario: one where consumers had no relationship with the salesperson and one where they had a prior business relationship with the salesperson.

With no pre-existing relationship, the negative effect was re-affirmed, but when the consumer had a prior relationship with the salesperson, says Ashworth, “we finally saw a positive effect of friendliness.”

This suggested that “maybe it was something to do with a pre-existing relationship. That is, it's not friendliness that leads to a relationship but a relationship that requires friendly behaviours.”

Knowing When to be Friendly

While the academic literature has shown that consumers can view firms and brands as meaningful relationship partners, Ashworth says their studies show that acting like a friend may not be the best way to develop such relationships.

“We’re not saying that customer relationships don’t matter,” says Ashworth. “They do. We’re not saying that service with a smile doesn’t matter. What we’re saying is that friendly behaviours are not always appropriate. Acting like a friend reflects a customer service strategy that may unintentionally do more harm than good.”

Sparrow McGowan

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

Follow us on: