New Australian study says humour at work is key to successful customer engagements

Making customers and employees laugh or amusing them with light-hearted banter is a win-win proposition for managers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 9:30pm

New research conducted at the UNSW Australia Business School suggests that the answer to the eternal question of how to keep customers engaged and satisfied is simple. Make them laugh, or at least try to.

This may go against some of the existing management theory, which suggests that the last place for humour is the workplace – and indeed it may seem brave to consider it – but every now and again, humour does have a place in the office or shop.

Our new study shows that making customers laugh or amusing them with light-hearted banter presents an all-round win-win.

Mind you, whether it’s perceived as being humorous very much depends on the person who’s receiving it.

We have explored the impact of humour in two different service environments: a suburban news agency in Sydney where one staffer had become something of a local legend for his clowning antics with customers, and at a tertiary education establishment in Germany, specifically when humour is used by lecturers.

Until we conducted this study, research on the effect of humour on frontline service encounters has been scant with previous research suggesting an unwelcome joke may equate to a major service failure, comparable to billing a customer the wrong amount.

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However, the new study, which recorded 537 responses straight after the service encounter, finds humour can actually have the opposite effect, regardless of a customer’s sense of humour.

One of the main difficulties for all the researchers in this project was in overcoming the many variables associated with humour.

For the study the researchers followed up service encounters with a survey that measured the customers’ humour recognition – their ability to tune into humour – and their propensity to be humorous themselves.

They then looked at their perception of what kind of humour the service employee had used. Were they able to detect humour; and did they find it funny?

Someone with a strong sense of humour can easily recognise when someone else is trying to be humorous, and is also much more likely to find it funny. Not so humorous people may think the person is being friendly and friendliness is a big thing in making the service interaction positive for the customer, so all is not lost.

So what happened when these “happy campers” and “grouches”, as the researchers branded them, met funny or not-so-funny employees?

Happy campers perceived more humour and found the interaction more enjoyable. Positive humour, making uplifting comments about either the customer or the employee themselves, contributed to a friendly atmosphere generally.

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Happy campers also didn’t mind laughing about faults and weaknesses; they found negative humour funny and this flowed on to their satisfaction and enjoyment, but negative humour bypassed the grouches.

Either way round, it just makes it a more pleasant place to be.

It is certainly important for organisations that want to have more fun with customers. Their main insight is that even happy campers’ strong sense of humour needs to be activated by a service employee initiating humour.

Ironically the study found, when a grouch meets a serious employee – like meets like – they enjoy it, but their satisfaction with the service organisation overall goes down. Conversely, when they meet someone who injects humour, even though they don’t enjoy it, grouches perceive it as friendly and their satisfaction level rises.

This finding fascinated us when we were researching the issue, because we expected that attempts to make a grouch giggle would go down like a metaphorical lead balloon. This was clearly not the case.

Since customer satisfaction drives big-ticket monetary outcomes such as repeat purchase behaviour, long-term loyalty and positive word of mouth, the conclusion is that serving up humour to both happy campers and grouches is universally good for the bottom line.

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There are various ways for companies to embrace these findings, and an important lesson for managers in many workplaces.

They can target applicants with humour in their recruitment programmes or create a work environment where people are encouraged to use humour.

Most recently we have seen this latter approach used at an aged care facility to lighten awkward moments and as an emotional coping strategy, both for the elderly residents and for staff.

The management encouraged it by modelling the use of humour. At the end of the day, teams give a cheeky debrief in a humorous way.

So when you are sitting on the tram to Causeway Bay on the way to the office, just think. It can often seem that humour is missing from the situation, but laughing is good for mental well-being so it’s often the better option in difficult situations.

Christine Mathies is a senior lecturer at the UNSW Business School in Australia