Business Research

The Benefits of Unmasking Emotions in Customer Service

by Julie Campbell Carlson

"Service with a smile," "the customer is always right" and similar attitudes are wonderful when one is a consumer. However, when employees are instructed to mask true emotions and always show a smiling face, (surface acting) then high levels of stress, burnout and work/family conflict can occur, says Cindy Wu, associate professor of Management and Entrepreneurship in the Hankamer School of Business.

As a McBride Global Scholar, Wu researched the consequences that "emotional labor" has on work/life balance. Emotional labor refers to the practice of requiring workers to display certain emotions, usually as part of their job and to promote an organization's goals. It is often found in the service professions. Wu looked at both surface acting and deep acting (actually feeling the emotions required) and how they affect employee performance, stress, and experiences in their family life.

Wu studied emotional labor in one service industry in Taiwan and spent a month there. However, emotional labor is a global experience among the service professions.

"The service experience in Taiwan is very different than what is found in the United States," Wu said. "For example, department stores have elevator attendants. These workers are beautifully dressed, very polite and always smile. They provide detailed descriptions of services that can be found on each floor of the store and press the floor buttons for the customers. It is long, hard work, and I wondered how they handle the fatigue and how it influences their well-being."

To obtain the data she needed for the research, Wu collaborated with Yenchun Grace Chen, assistant professor at I-Shou University in Taiwan, and her doctoral students. For the study, Wu and Chen dealt with hair designers and their supervisors (store managers) from 40 stores from two hair salon chains in Taiwan.

"Hair designers in training actually live on-site at the salon," Wu said. "Their training is almost militaristic with a wake-up time, roll call and universal welcome."

Employee questionnaires were distributed during the regular designer training programs conducted by the headquarters. After the training session, store managers assessed each designer's job performance, extra-role service behavior and cooperation behavior. Overall, 374 designers and 39 managers participated.

The designers were asked to respond to such questions as "I resist expressing my true feelings" "I make an effort to actually feel the emotions that I need to display to others," and "I have to miss family activities due to the amount of time I must spend on work responsibilities." Supervisors were asked questions such as "Does the employee go beyond what is required at work to help customers?"

A central piece of what Wu and Chen hypothesized was that surface acting would be related to greater work/life conflict while deep acting would result in work/life enrichment. The research results supported these hypotheses.

A presentation of their findings "Emotional labor, work-family interface and service performance: A resource perspective" was given at the Academy of Management meeting in Boston in August. The research also is under review with an academic journal.

Wu does have advice for supervisors in helping their employees develop deep acting emotions.

"Requiring employees to demonstrate certain emotions is not always stressful to the employees," she said. "In fact, it is only related to stress when supervisors tell employees to simply show the emotions. They should explain why these emotions are important in dealing with customers. When employees can look at situations from the customer's perspective, sympathize with them, and understand the value of their required emotions on the job, they are more likely to adjust their internal feelings to the required emotion. This is an important emotional management skill that can benefit employees in their service work performance, customer relations, their own wellbeing, and even the quality of their family life."

Wu and Chen are following up on their research by surveying employees' family members and by exploring how employees' leisure activities and their managers' leadership affect their work performance and quality of life. Because their current research dealt with one service profession that focuses on positive emotions, Wu believes future research should examine other service professions, particularly those in which solemn emotions are expected, such as funeral homes or law enforcement.

Given the current research, the conclusion is that where emotional displays are required at work, management should provide relevant training and support that will encourage deep acting by employees. This will help reduce employee stress, and facilitate a more enriched family life. This will also help employers develop a service workforce that's willing to go extra miles for their customer and coworkers-a factor contributing to higher customer satisfaction and ultimately, the bottom line.

Cindy Wu
Baylor University