How unfriendly service gets crowd-sourced

 The Pyles Peak trail head.

The Pyles Peak trail head.

I won’t waste your time extolling the virtues of friendly customer service. You get that. The real question is why do we receive unfriendly service so often?

There are many explanations. Some customers are jerks who are hard to be nice to. A few employees just don’t care. I recently wrote a post for the blog describing how something called emotional labor is often to blame. 


Some unfriendly service is caused by crowds.

In a strange quirk of human nature, people tend to get less friendly as the size of the crowd grows. You probably know your neighbors if you live in the country. Move to a city with many more people and you hardly know anyone. In many urban environments, eye contact with strangers is downright discouraged.

I recently conducted a little experiment called the Eye Contact Game while hiking near my home in San Diego. Each time I encountered someone on the trail, I looked them in the eye and smiled. If they looked back I said hello. 

There were two parts to the hike. The first was on the Cowles Mountain Golfcrest Trail, which is one of the most popular hiking trails in San Diego. The second part was the much quieter Pyles Peak trail which continues from the top of Cowles Mountain. I wrote a blog post about the Pyles Peak trail way back in 2009 where I compared it to the business road less traveled.

Here are the results of my game:


  • Cowles: 8 of 62 people made eye contact
  • Pyles: 2 of 2 people made eye contact


  • Cowles: 4 of 162 people made eye contact
  • Pyles: 3 of 3 people made eye contact

Any statistician will tell me my sample size is too small to be totally certain, but the results are still interesting. 

I went on my hike in the late afternoon and the after work crowd was arriving as I descended. The Cowles Mountain trail itself got less friendly as the number of hikers increased. I even caught a few people deliberately avoiding eye contact!

It’s worth noting that everyone on the Pyles Peak trail not only made eye contact but said “Hello” too. 

There are a few ways this same phenomenon happens in customer service situations. Ask yourself when you’re more likely to get friendly service:

  • From a small business or a large business?
  • In a quiet store or in a busy store?
  • From a single employee or a group of employees talking to each other?

Reflecting on these situations makes it easy to generalize that friendly service happens in more intimate settings.


What can you do about it?

It’s human nature for crowds to make us a little unfriendly. That doesn’t mean customer service employees can’t overcome this challenge. Here are a few great ways to ensure service remains friendly no matter how many people are around.

Training: A former co-worker of mine was famous for reminding his employees “You can only serve one customer at a time.” Giving employees a few skills to stay focused on the customer they are working with can go a long way.

Staffing: Ensure you have adequate staff to provide customers with friendly service and personal attention. This looks like a big expense up front, but the payoff comes in the form of higher customer retention and increased sales.

Leadership: Are you the kind of leader who keeps cool under fire or do you become a stress monster at the first sign of pressure? Employees look to their boss to set an example, so a boss who encourages employees to be friendly even as the crowds grow will make it easier for employees to be friendly too.

Here’s a quick example from the Container Store:

My wife and I recently went to our local Container Store to get help organizing our bedroom closet. It was a busy afternoon and the store was full of customers. We worried whether one of their designers could spend enough time to help us design our closet.

Fortunately, they had it covered. A friendly manager greeted us and told us they’d be happy to help design a closet (leadership). She paged a closet designer who was available to assist us (staffing). Our designer was frequently interrupted by other customers while she assisted us, but each time she graciously offered to find a co-worker who could assist them (staffing) and then immediately returned her attention back to us (training). 

We appreciated the fact that we received friendly, attentive service in a crowded store. We are also really enjoying our newly organized closet! 

Crowds naturally cause people to be a little less friendly. Smart companies recognize this and take steps to avoid service failures by mitigating this challenge.