Is the sheer range of channels used to communicate with customers nowadays actually harming relationships? Probably not, but face-to-face encounters are still vital in creating and drawing on customer emotions.

Emotion in Customer Relationships: What Impact is the Plethora of Communication Channels Having?

What role do “affective” reactions – basically emotions – play in customer service nowadays when so many different channels are being used? Email, internet and mobile now dominate communications, and as a result the customer relationship has not gone unscathed. Sandra Kiffin-Petersen and Geoffrey Soutar of the University of Western Australia, together with Steven Murphy of CarletonUniversity in Canada, ran a study* in order to shed light on the sales experience – but this time from the employee viewpoint. The research shows how positive emotion can be generated mutually in a sales context. The findings show that positive emotion in sales staff is transmitted to the customer: the feeling is somehow “contagious”. In the same vein, a satisfied customer tends to boost the mood of the salesperson. The researchers explain how emotions are generated in response to specific events, especially social interaction.  Stephane Adnet, Head of Business Development at Merlane Group, the HR and management consultancy, firmly believes that “you can’t succeed in business if you rely exclusively on electronic channels”. He reckons that that the impression a person puts across sends a signal that creates emotion in the receiver, which is why face-to-face encounters are crucial.  

Face-to-face still essential

Stephane Adnet’s view is shared by Elodie Arneguy, a consultant in change leadership and management, who argues that “face-to-face meetings are essential for customers; they signal a commitment to customer service.” Then the rather ‘impersonal’ email channel can be used to deal with more practical matters. Adnet underlines that “all the intangible methods - email, newsletter, website, etc, are a plus, but they simply won’t suffice on their own.” Nevertheless they are a substantial plus, since “customer-oriented websites enable firms to gather information to see where their customers’ interests lie and thus set up marketing profiles,” points outElodie Arneguy. So this is definitely one way that a company can seek to optimise customer relations: the better you know your customers, the better you can anticipate their feelings. And it’s not all that easy to convey feelings in an email, even though nowadays you can reproduce standard facial gestures with those famous ‘emoticons’.

Making use of multiple channels

So how do you deal with all these channels? How do you know which is most suitable in a given situation?  A salesperson or staffer needs to be able to decide when it’s best to send an email rather than set up a face-to-face meeting and when a phone call might be preferable. How are  companies going to bring about these changes? They risk generating negative emotions if they don’t get it right. Elodie Arneguy insists that what companies should basically be doing is aiming to optimise their customer relationships, and that means also thinking through how staff should make use of the various channels available. “When a company sets up several different channels to communicate with its customers, it should at the same time do some hand-holding with its people and make sure the staff find their feet,” stresses the change management consultant.

*“The problem-solving service worker: Appraisal mechanisms and positive affective experiences during customer interactions”,carried out among 276 sales staff from various industries.