Why customer service reps aren't friendly

Why is it so hard for customer service reps to be friendly?

Why is it so hard for customer service reps to be friendly?

This post originally appeared on the Salesforce Blog. You can also read my latest Salesforce blog post, " How detoxing our brains can improve customer service."


Friendliness is a basic expectation for employees serving customers. It doesn’t cost anything and isn’t really a skill that needs to be trained. So why do we still receive unfriendly service over and over again?

I remember walking into a furniture store with my wife, Sally. There was a cluster of employees having a conversation at one end of the store when we arrived. Nobody stopped to greet us. We didn’t see anything exciting so we decided to leave after a few minutes.

One of the employees finally approached us as we left. “Can I help you?” he said tersely. No thanks, we’re just leaving. The employee obviously sensed that a lack of service had hastened our exit. “Hey! We’ve been here for 12 hours! Give us a break!”

Sally and I noticed a sign in the window for the first time as we left the store:

Going out of business sale! Everything must go!

We had a good laugh as we imagined we might have just identified the cause of the store’s demise.


The root cause of unfriendly service

It’s easy to get stuck thinking about what employees like the guy at the furniture store should have done. I think that answer is obvious. A more important question is why wasn’t he friendly?

One explanation is something called emotional labor.

Emotional labor is a term initially coined by Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. It refers to the effort required to display appropriate workplace emotions, such as friendliness and enthusiasm. The amount of emotional labor required is based on the difference between the emotions an employee is expected to display, and the emotions an employee actually feels.

Simply put, it’s hard to be friendly if you don’t feel friendly.

Let’s go back to the furniture store. The employees were likely to lose their jobs after the store closed. It was difficult to take pride in their store since the merchandise grew less and less appealing as inventory was sold off. The employees felt tired from working long hours for a losing cause. It’s easy to imagine that they didn’t feel particularly friendly that day. This doesn’t excuse the poor service we received, but understanding the employees’ perspective does explain why it might have happened.

There are plenty of reasons why employees might not feel friendly. Upset customers, heavy workloads, demanding bosses, and poor products can all make an employee feel frustrated. This says nothing about what types of stress may be going on in employees’ personal lives. “Leave your problems at home” is simplistic advice that’s much easier said than done.

Contact centers often provide a great example of a work environment that can bring many of these factors together. Agents may feel frustration sinking in when they serve irate customer after irate customer. At the same time, their boss is breathing down their neck demanding greater productivity while monitoring their every move, even bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, agents might feel powerless to solve many of the problems they encounter that are caused by defective products or poorly designed processes.

Some employees just don’t like their jobs and feel miserable every day they go to work. I recently talked to a customer service employee who had great skills but a sour attitude. She confided in me that she absolutely hated her job! She had been hired into another position, which she liked, but her boss recognized her obvious talent by promoting her into a new role she couldn’t stand.


How to help service employees be friendlier

The best customer service leaders make it easy for employees to be friendly.

It starts by setting a positive example. Employees are much more likely to be friendly when they have a boss who is friendly, kind, and treats them with respect. On the other hand, gruffly telling employees to “act happier or you’ll be written up” rarely has the desired effect.

Another important strategy is hiring employees who will be happy to do what you want them to do. A company that sells covers for boats and RVs hired a boating enthusiast to work in their small customer service department. She was an immediate hit with her customers since she loved the job and could relate to the products. Her positive attitude even influenced an unfriendly co-worker who improved her own demeanor after working with the new employee.

Finally, involve employees in finding solutions to your toughest customer service challenges. This works in two ways. First, employees feel more empowered when they are able to give meaningful input on how to serve customers better. Second, working with upset customers requires a great deal of emotional labor so fixing the problems that upset customers naturally makes the job easier.

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 Salesforce.com 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.