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Customers hunting for a bargain are less friendly

Customers hunting for a bargain are less friendly

Photographer:Fotograaf: Mikel Ortega

Customers are more likely to behave unseemly towards employees of low-budget companies than towards employees of reputable companies. This discovery was made by Alexander Henkel, researcher at the BISS institute in Heerlen.

It was an experience with Ryanair some years ago that got Alexander Henkel onto the idea of this research project. He is not entirely sure anymore, but it must have been at Eindhoven Airport, where the German postdoc was witness to some unsavoury scenes. Employees snapped at customers and passengers launched a stampede for the best seats. “It was in the days when you couldn't reserve a seat. The scene intrigued me as a scientist to the extent that I had to do something with the behaviour of people who go for cheap.”

In Social Psychology, Henkel came across the concept of dehumanization. “Until about ten years ago, it was mostly related to extreme evil such as genocide and murder,” says Henkel. “The last few years it has also been studied in connection with everyday life. A familiar example is doctors who refer to a patient as ‘the broken arm’.”

Henkel is the first to apply this concept to marketing: do Ryanair passengers behave less friendly towards Ryanair personnel than passengers of respected companies do towards for example Lufthansa staff? Together with former dean Jos Lemmink and researchers from the University of British Columbia, Henkel analysed the language used in two-thousand online reviews of the two airlines. They tallied, among other things, the number of words referring to human characteristics. These can be positive and negative, but it is a fact that people who use these terms are more considerate of the person behind ‘the employee’. The use of humanising language turned out to be much more prevalent in the Lufthansa assessments.

Henkel then moved to a more controlled environment in the ‘lab’ to study the underlying process. Test subjects heard that they were on holiday; some could be lavish, not needing to worry about money, others had to be very careful and keep a look out for special offers. Afterwards everyone was told to rent a car online. They were free to choose but almost everyone chose a car in accordance with either their luxurious or low-budget holiday.

That is when they received an annoying e-mail: ‘The reservation was unsuccessful.’ Having contacted an employee from the car hire company through a chat box, they received the blunt message: ‘Simply re-do the booking.’

To finish up, they had to mark their appreciation with a score of 1 to 7. They knew that with a low mark of 1 or 2, the company would reprimand the employee. Still, the test subjects with a cost-conscious attitude more often gave a low mark. “So the unfriendly behaviour has little to do with specific brands, such as Ryanair, but more with the mentality: people become fixated on price and lose all notion of the person behind the desk.”

What can low-budget companies like Ryanair, but most likely also Aldi, Action and Primark do about this? Literature shows that unfriendly behaviour has its effect on the psychological and physical well-being of personnel. For instance, it may result in higher mental exhaustion, a lower working morale, higher employee turnover, and burnout.

Henkel: “The question is whether companies even want to do anything to fight this. It sounds cynical but as a low-budget company you could also think: the employee who drops out can be replaced and Bob’s your uncle. However, they could also screen personnel better or provide training, but this all costs money. Or they could emphasise the human characteristics of employees more. We carried out an experiment in which personnel wore handwritten nametags instead of typed ones, just like the American supermarket Walmart does. Unfortunately, this did not revert the effect.”

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