About a third of the UK workforce works in a customer service role. Up to three quarters of us service customers in one way or another. And 100 percent of us are a customer of someone else’s emotional labour.
So, having just endured hour-long phone calls with customer service representatives of both my phone provider and my bank, I’m left wondering whether the agent on the other side of the phone enjoyed our interaction as little as I did.
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What are the psychological consequences of working in the emotion economy?
Before we tackle the question of how the staff feel, let’s consider what the purpose of their role actually is.
The short answer boils down to two options: customer service employees are employed to satisfy the customers’ needs and make them happy. Or, customer service employees are employed to manipulate the customer and achieve management-set targets.
Both answers are correct.
Take my experience with my phone provider. I called them as I had noticed something unusual on my account, so I phoned them to resolve the issue. After navigating the maze of automated options (don’t even get me started), I was able to speak to a “real human” who addressed my question and checked my account.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mr Edward?”
“No, thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”
“Excellent. I’m glad to hear that I’ve been able to help you today. Now, just before you go, I have noticed a very special offer for you that I can do right away – “
And the sales pitch began.
For this company, customer service is a sales opportunity and employees are set targets to achieve. I wasn’t a hapless customer seeking support, I was a sales prospect. The sooner he could shift conversation away from my reason for calling and towards his reason for answering, the better.
To illustrate an alternative example of customer service, on a recent visit to my local hospital I was totally lost. A nurse found me trying to reorient myself. Instead of just pointing me in the right direction, this nurse walked me all the way to my destination, chatting as we went.
In both examples, I’m fairly convinced that my level of satisfaction was matched by that of the service-giver. Hanging up the phone from the phoneline’s call centre, I imagine we both had a dull headache. However, in the hospital, we parted ways with a smile, both having enjoyed our chance interaction.
The service industry is such that employees are tasked with expressing emotions that are desired by their employer during interpersonal interactions with customers (Morris and Feldman, 1996).
Rather than displaying their true emotions, service employees are required to display emotions that have been pre-selected by their employer as the “correct” emotion for a particular situation.
You don’t expect to see a sad member of staff leading Mickey Mouse around Disneyworld, and you don’t expect a nurse to roll their eyes and look bored when their patient is describing the pain in their abdomen.
As Grove and Fisk (1992) put it, service is theatre. The actor (employee) performs for his audience (customer).
Conceptually, there are two types of acting that employees might engage in, which will explain the different experiences I’ve described above.
Surface Acting or Deep Acting
We all know that service is supposed to be delivered with a smile. And we’ve all been welcomed into a shop by a member of staff hovering by the door with seemingly nothing else to do but wish us a pleasant day.
These skin-deep displays of positive emotion are the result of surface acting – employees “put on a smile” and hide their true emotions for the sake of a positive customer experience. When dealing with an angry customer wanting to return a faulty item, the shop assistant may fix a smile on their face in a bid to appear cheerful and friendly.
Inside, this member of staff is probably feeling anything but.
The alternative to surface acting is deep acting. In this case, employees don’t try to disguise internal emotions through behavioural corrections, but instead create the positive emotion internally for themselves – like Meryl Streep’s Method Acting.
Hochschild (1983) gives the example of how flight attendants are trained to reframe situations with angry passengers by seeing an angry passenger as a scared first-time flier. In this case, flight attendants are able to support the passenger with inner feelings of pity or sympathy, rather than approach the situation with feelings of annoyance.
There’s a lot riding on customer service staff getting their emotional performance “right”, because emotions are contagious.
In an unconscious process, a person spontaneously mimics another person’s facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. As a consequence of this mimicry, the recipient experiences the emotion through physiological changes.
Therefore, if a customer service employee can successfully convey happiness, they will be rewarded by dealing with a happy customer.
What is the cost of Emotional Labour?
People are naturally capable of recognising the authenticity of emotional displays, so employees engaging in deep acting are likely to exert more of a positive influence on their customers.
But deep acting is not without its drawbacks.
Critics of emotional labour argue that extensive deep acting can result in people being unable to separate their work identity from their personal life. This can render a person unable to recognise their genuine emotions, harming real relationships.
Critics of emotional labour draw on the classic sociological thinking of Marx and Weber.
Marx wrote about alienation from one’s productivity in a capitalist system. Weber used the description of an iron cage to describe an employee’s experience of capitalist labour.
It is perhaps an extreme development of a capitalist system when emotions and personality become commoditised.
Therefore, using either Marx’s “alienation” or Weber’s metaphorical “Iron Cage”, is this what we now see in an employee’s duty to perform certain emotional displays for the benefit of a customer, in order to receive their pay check?
Korczynski (2009) draws out three dimensions by which emotional labour may have negative consequences for the employee.
According to the paper, published in the journal Sociology, high levels of alienation will be experienced by an employee when he or she is:
- Using emotion as an instrument to achieve an ulterior motive, such as hitting a sales target.
- The customer is dominant, such as in companies where “customer is king” and we “never say no to the customer”.
- The worker and the customer interact in a series of one-off encounters.
Oh wait – have I just described a call centre?!
In contrast, low levels of alienation are experience when the worker has a genuine, caring and empathetic attitude towards the customer; the worker and customer have an equal power relationship; and the worker and customer repeatedly interact over many meetings. A great example of this in practice could be professional carers, or the barman at your local pub.
Who controls the situation?
In setting a company’s culture, the employer influences the experience of both the employee and the customer, for better or worse.
For example, if employees are aware that their employer uses “mystery shoppers” as an assessment tool, they will (a) be suspicious of customers, and (b) prioritise surface acting so that they don’t get caught without a smile. This impacts both the employee and customer’s experience of the interaction.
But it isn’t just in the hands of the employer.
Dutton, Debebe and Wrzensniewski (2000) give a brilliant example of how an individual’s self-perception of their role makes a big difference:
“Hospital cleaners who view their work as highly skilled and significant to patient healing engage with patients and visitors, do extra tasks, and time their work to enhance the medical unit’s work flow. Those who view their work as unskilled and no more than cleaning minimise their interaction with patients and visitors and avoid tasks outside of their job description.”
The Future of Emotional Labour
Technology – such as the telephone – has already strained the effectiveness of the emotional work force. Just consider how much more quickly you become irritated when talking to customer service on the phone compared to popping in to your local bank branch to ask the same question.
But then ask yourself one further question: why did you pick up the phone to the call centre when you could have talked to an “intelligent” chat bot online instead.
People want to talk to the “real human”, and even though the optimal customer service experience isn’t delivered down the telephone, we still want to talk to a “real” cognisant human at the other end of the line.
We’re All A Customer
And there’s no such thing as a worker-consumer dichotomy. As the service industry continues to grow, especially in developed economies, we are all service-providers for someone else, and we are all customers in our own right too.
I’m fairly sure that call centre staff dislike calling another call-centre just as much as the rest of us.
Either way, we will continue to pursue these frustrating interactions for a long time to come – just spare a thought for the person at the other end of the phone trapped between you and an operating manual.
The Reading List
Hochschild is referenced in almost every paper on emotional labour. This is the latest edition of her work on the commercialisation of human feeling.
This is a thorough textbook, providing an overview and review of research on the topic of emotional labour from Hochschild’s foundational work in 1983 to work conducted in the last few years. If you’re thinking of doing research or a dissertation in this area, this book will be very useful.
Another one of Arlie Hochschild’s best-selling books. This one looks at the commercialisation of the private realm, and the effects this has on personal lives.