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How Authenticity Within Defined Borders Drives Service Success

by Neil Morelli

Posted on Jun 20 2013

The ability to act is an unspoken requirement for success in almost every service-related job. No matter the industry or customer, service providers must often mask their true selves, thoughts and feelings to follow company policies and procedures when engaging with customers.

However, recent research shows that jobs that inhibit one’s ability to be authentic in their interactions with customers require extensive emotional labor. And too much emotional labor often leads to poor customer service, stress and burnout.

How Authenticity Within Defined Borders Drives Service Success imageLogi-Serve assess for qualities like customer reactivity awareness or engagement tapping into empathy, engagement, learnability and interpersonal closeness with the customer – vital qualities for success in any service or sales industry.

So, if a healthy balance of authenticity is required for engaged, effective workers, what factors drive authentic behavior – and are there any downsides?

In a recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal, Yagil and Medler-Liraz asked nearly 50 service professionals across a variety of industries to describe personal examples of authentic behavior at work. Condensing the responses into common dimensions helped the authors address three key questions: When are workers more likely to be authentic? How is authentic behavior manifested? And what are the risks of acting authentically?

First, what situations might lead a service provider to be more authentic? The findings revealed that a worker may be more authentic when they can identify with the customer and/or task at hand. Consider, for example, the customer whose mannerisms remind you of your grandmother. If she has a complaint or question, do you follow the company script or do you act genuinely, the way you would toward your own family member? The authors call this type of behavior idiosyncratic association, or identifying with the customer in a way that’s personally meaningful.
A worker may also be more authentic when identifying with the task at hand – that is, performing the job means acting how one would normally do so. This might be driven out of personal belief (apologizing, for example, to the customer out of courtesy) or because the product or service being provided is what the worker would personally select. Equally, workers are more authentic when they have the psychological autonomy to do so – that is, when they can act on a natural emotion, such as compassion, or because they choose to break from the script. After all, service workers are people, too, and people can act spontaneously no matter how strong or clear the procedure might be.

Second, the researchers asked, what does authenticity look like? Their work showed that authentic behavior was generally shown in three ways: speaking honestly, serving the customer in a caring or interested way, or displaying personal closeness towards the customer. In each of these, authenticity substitutes for the distant, formal service worker-customer relationship, creating a more informal, peer-to-peer relationship. If performed correctly and appropriately, this type of behavior can lead to positive outcomes, such as better customer service, greater customer satisfaction, and heightened employee well-being.

Third, are there instances where authenticity may backfire? Because there can be too much of a good thing, the researchers listed the potential costs of authentic behavior. These include being too honest, in a way that undermines business success; providing too much information, too informally, in a way that may cause the worker to lose control of the interaction with the customer; and crossing outside the formal service provider-customer relationship in a way that hurts the organization’s image, brand loyalty or interests.

Obviously, service workers and the organizations that hire and train them must walk a fine line – between robotic, impersonal service that turns customers away, and manufactured authenticity that is ineffective and potentially harmful to the organization. Employees who engage in genuinely caring behavior – going above and beyond protocol to provide the best service possible – are what every organization wants. Except when an employee goes inappropriately “off-script.”

So, how should organizations ensure they are encouraging appropriate authentic behavior that benefits both their business and their customers? Instead of mandating that employees be genuine or refusing to let them do so, the authors suggest organizations use “bounded authenticity” – placing clear boundaries on the behaviors that are critical to interactions with customers, without dictating every word.

 

Yagil, D., & Medler-Liraz, H.. (2013). Moments of truth: Examining transient authenticity and identity in service encounters. Academy of Management Journal, 56(2), 473-497.

 

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