A sales assistant demonstrates a blackout coat for dogs at Selfridge's in London, circa 1940. The coat would ensure the dog was visible during the dark nights of the blackout (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #220

The Secret of a Good Sales Assistant: Reading Customer Mood

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.

Key Concept

The ability to interpret facial expressions and body language is an important interpersonal skill. However, relatively little is known about how it affects people’s perceptions and experiences of retailers. New research suggests that sales assistants sensitive to ‘non-verbal cues’ are viewed positively by customers but negatively by third-party observers. This has important implications for the way ‘customer-facing’ staff are recruited, trained and evaluated — and for the way shops are designed. 

Idea Summary

Imagine rushing into a store to grab a bottle of wine on your way to a dinner party and encountering a salesperson who wants to share their extensive knowledge of wine with you. Although the salesperson is very friendly and very keen to be helpful, he is clearly unaware of your need for rapid service as he makes you increasingly late for your dinner party.

As a result, you grow irritated with the salesperson and the service provided, and you vow never to return to the store. Had this salesperson detected that you were anxious to be served quickly, the store might have exceeded your expectations by providing fast, efficient service and — potentially, at least — turned you into a loyal customer.

This hypothetical example points to the link between ‘personalised’ service and a salesperson’s ability to read non-verbal and behavioural cues of customer affect (or mood). This link has long been suggested by research. A 1995 study, for example, found that that the ability to read affect enhances rapport between a salesperson and a client. More recently, it’s been shown that a salesperson’s ability to read the mood of others moderates the effect of their efforts to engage in adaptive selling and customer-oriented selling on performance.

In general, though, relatively little is known about social environmental cues in retail — and what they mean for the customer ‘experience’. How does the ability to read mood influence people’s perceptions of the quality of service?

Two recent in-class studies addressed this question.
Based on simulations of retail environments, they examined the effects not only of facial expressions, which often belie someone’s true feelings and are ‘scripted’ for social norms, but also for more ‘leaky’ (i.e. less voluntary) cues such as gestures and body language and tone of voice.

They found that salespeople able to read both face and body cues are perceived as offering higher-quality service — but only by consumers interacting with them directly. Third-party observers tend to view sensitivity to non-verbal cues far less positively.

What explains this difference? Previous research suggests that the way we experience a situation often diverges from how we judge that someone else experiences the same situation. Perhaps, in the observer context, the salesperson’s non-normative interactions with the customer — e.g. “I can see you’re in a hurry” — seem impolite or obtrusive, whereas, in the ‘self’ context, they’re experienced as a response to personal needs.

Given increasing emphasis on the customer experience and increasing evidence that characteristics of the retail environment have a dramatic impact on customer behaviour, these findings could have important implications for retail businesses.

Business Application

The researchers conclude that:

  • The ability to read affect should be one of the main criteria for selecting customer-facing employees — and that tests such as the PONS (Profile of Non-verbal Sensitivity) could be invaluable ‘screening’ tools.
  • Managers should interact with salespeople as customers (through, for example, role plays) when trying to evaluate them and their effectiveness.
  • Staff should be taught the importance of paying attention to non-verbal behavioural cues in training — and offered feedback on the accuracy of their ‘readings’.
  • Stores should be designed to offer more points of contact with customers — and more opportunities for people to experience salespeople’s sensitivity to non-verbal cues.

More generally, perhaps, the research suggests that extraversion might not be the most important attribute for sales assistants. (Many successful retail businesses have been based on the idea of the soft-sell — for example, Carphone Warehouse in the UK.)

Real Time Analytics