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Can service be too friendly?

Customers don’t always want to become pals with brands
Can service be too friendly?

Anyone who’s worked in customer service knows the maxim “service with a smile.” People indeed appreciate doing business with a genuine friendly face. But can firms overdo it? Can they be too friendly? Worse, can überfriendliness be a turn-off?

Laurence Ashworth, professor of marketing at Smith, says yes. Ashworth has done several studies with colleagues (including Smith assistant professor Nicole Robitaille and Suzanne Rath, PhD’19) on friendly service. For example, they tested two customer sales encounters: one with a very friendly salesperson and the other with a polite, but not overly friendly, salesperson. The result: people were less likely to want to stay in the store with the very friendly salesperson.

So what’s wrong with a big mug of conviviality? It all comes down to how friendships develop, Ashworth says. “If you think about your own interpersonal relationships, you act very differently at the early stages of a friendship than you do at the latter stages.”

By being overly friendly, employees are trying to treat customers like old friends, when they are not. And that makes people uncomfortable. The lesson, Ashworth says: “Friendliness works in friendships. Friendliness does not necessarily work when you are trying to create a friendship.”

So if not glad-handing, what should firms do to please customers? One tip: “Focus your frontline employees on making things easy for your customers,” Ashworth says. “Don’t worry about becoming their friends. Instead, become their personal assistant.”

To learn more about what research says about customer service, watch this video with Professor Laurence Ashworth.