Are you being served, or processed by rote?

Frontline employees need the autonomy to respond flexibly

Almost everyone can tell the difference between a scripted and a natural approach from a shop assistant. Some jump on the customer with a series of catchphrases and marketing clichés as if they are programmed robots, there to reinforce a checklist of brand messages.

But from a consumer’s point of view, there’s nothing better than a spontaneous, helpful and cheerful approach applied without too much pressure. 

In these situations, you can feel the shop assistant is not so much selling you something as delivering a much-needed solution. Most consumers are more likely to buy if they are approached in this way.

The trend in retail business, however, has been for the “service encounter” – as it is called – to be micro-managed from start to finish.

Steven Lui, an associate professor in the school of management at UNSW Business School, calls this the “McDonaldisation” of service, which he says has been “managed on the mass production principles of predictability, calculability and efficiency”.

“To be able to monitor a service encounter, most retailers have standardised [it] to the extent that when we enter a shop of a global chain, we can expect to receive the same branded greeting tone anywhere in the world,” says Lui.

While standardised service enables the delivery of a consistent brand message, there can be a backlash.

“Research has shown that customers can distinguish between scripted and impromptu service encounters at a hotel check-in desk, and customers dislike scripted service,” says Lui.

“On the other hand, research has [also] documented how a part-time worker at a 7-Eleven in Japan changed the lunch offering to cool noodles when the weather suddenly turned warm, and thus provided an innovative and satisfying customer experience.

“When frontline employees are allowed more autonomy, they could provide a novel service encounter to customers.”

'The reality is that the employees may know customers better than those at the company headquarters'


Innovate and create

With colleagues John Lai from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Alice Hon from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Lui has undertaken his own study into the service encounter.

In 2010, the team conducted field work at 158 outlets of Bossini, an international apparel retailer based in Hong Kong, with stores in six cities: Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

The aim was to understand what “creative acts” the employees were offering during service encounters, and whether these acts were delivering service innovation. 

The encounter was divided into seven stages to see if these creative acts took place at particular points in the interaction. The stages were, entering the shop; viewing the merchandise; selecting merchandise; fitting; deciding whether or not to buy; paying; and leaving the shop.

During the fieldwork, Lui and his colleagues entered the shops as typical shoppers, observing the activities of the employees and the other customers and left after about 30 minutes per visit.

The chief observation was that there were, on average, 2.19 acts of “novel behaviour” in each shop, with the highest frequency occurring in stage three – the selecting of merchandise. 

Examples included briefing customers on the latest trends and products, and giving ‘mix and match’ advice based on the way a customer was dressed.

There was also noticeable variation between locations and shop sizes. Staff in Shenzhen and Guangzhou – nearby cities in southern China – were more likely to deviate from the standard script, while more of this novel behaviour was seen in larger shops with more staff.

According to Lui, the message for retailers is that employees should have the flexibility to serve customers in their own way, but it is essential to train them well enough so they have a clear understanding of the brand and the product and can “innovate and create” based on that structural knowledge.

“The reality is that the employees may know customers better than those at the company headquarters,” says Lui.

“Of course they need to be confident in themselves and know what the brand message is, but companies need to trust their employees to be flexible.

“We are not advocating chaos, but we do think at the moment that in most companies there is too much control, and this can work against innovation and it can work against delivering the best service to the customer.”

'More task autonomy and empowerment for employees could help motivate them and come up with new ideas to serve customers better'


Allowing for difference

Lui’s observations resonate with the experience of Melbourne-based sales training expert Sue Barrett. She says retailers need to understand that many people, when they come into a store, fear they are about to be “pounced on” and given a jargon-filled sales pitch.

According to Barrett, good selling is about “setting up an environment which welcomes people”. And a good sale is more about helping someone find a solution than “scoring a kill”.

“You need to give them the freedom to manoeuvre around the store and feel they can come up to you and have a conversation about what they want, and how you can help them,” says Barrett.

She describes effective selling as “a form of problem-solving for customers” which in itself is a “form of creativity in the context of the customer’s situation”.

Barrett agrees that training is essential, however, for sales people to fully understand the value proposition of the business and its offer to costumers, and that from this will flow the innate structured knowledge which then allows them to innovate with confidence.

“The structure allows them to greet the customer, but then the encounter must take its own form,” she says.

“You can’t have too rigid a script because that doesn’t allow for difference. You need things that give a rhythm or structure and which are true to the brand, but you also need to allow people to be themselves, not robots.”

Co-operation and responsibility

Lui and his colleagues have aggregated their findings in the paper, Does standardised service fit all: Novel service encounter in frontline employee-customer interface.

“A novel service encounter provides customers with a new experience. The process includes identifying problems with work tasks, gathering new ideas and seeking new solutions,” Lui says.

“When they improvise, frontline employees play a key role here as they have first-hand information about customers.”

In order to generate value from this, Lui cautions that retailers need to build up a strong service culture, based on co-operation and responsibility.

“We are not advocating a totally hands-off approach for frontline staff. But more task autonomy and empowerment for employees could help motivate them and come up with new ideas to serve customers better.”


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy