What emotional costs are passed along to your company and how are you counteracting them?  If you rarely think about the emotional toll that customer service takes on your employees, I suggest you glance through a recent study in the Journal of Management.  The article, titled “Alleviating the Burden of Emotional Labor: The Role of Social Sharing” examines how “difficult customer interactions cause service employees to experience negative emotions …”


These interactions tax individuals (directly) and companies (indirectly) because employees have to invest emotional energy (expend emotional labor) to diffuse tough situations and remain calm while still assisting customers.  Basically employees must mask their true feelings to meet the expectations and service norms that a company sets.  For example, “I have to be helpful” or “I have to be professional and courteous.”  Among the findings:

  1. Difficult calls had higher anger and ‘surface acting’ levels.  (Fake it ‘til you make it.)  Employees had to work harder to feel the emotions appropriate to display to customers.  (Ticking time bombs.)
  2. Sharing after the call helped reduce anger/surface acting.  Or as the authors write, there is a “benefit of social sharing in mitigating the emotional impact of difficult customer interactions.”  So water cooler talk, while it may seem “expensive” in the sense that contact center representatives are not “serving customers” may be viewed more appropriately as a way to equip your front-line teams with the emotional fortitude to ‘fake it’ on the next call.  In fact, the authors recommend that companies structure time for social sharing to take place.
  3. The kinds of sharing (i.e. whether feelings, facts, or positive experiences) were equally effective.  This finding was interesting because the authors expected a different result.  They expected discussions focused on positive experiences (what I learned) to decrease anger levels more effectively than just venting.

Left untouched but among the suggestions for further study is whether how you communicate makes a difference.  Is social sharing more effective when done face-to-face, via phone calls or on blogs/online communities?  If it is, then it may shed new light on the efficacy of work-from-home.

The conclusion from the study is that “social sharing… can counteract the emotional hazards of working in customer service.”  This conclusion makes intuitive sense.  Nevertheless, it seems like we would be better served as customer experience professionals (and caring human beings) to develop a good product in the first place so that the customer interactions are more positive than negative.  Wonder what it would cost to just do it right?

The pivot point is that next time your customer service reps seem on edge, send them to the water cooler to commiserate with their peers.  They’ll thank you for it, and so will your customers!

How Water Coolers Improve the Customer Experience

2 thoughts on “How Water Coolers Improve the Customer Experience

  • 6 June 2013 at 22:57

    Great article. Looks like the water cooler is (thankfully) not going away anytime soon. You give some sound practical application tips from the research – even if it the findings are intuitive, it’s still surprising how fast we can forget this kind of stuff. Thanks for sharing!

    • 18 June 2013 at 09:47

      Thanks Robert. I often draw the same conclusion — this stuff is (should be) pretty straight-forward.


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