We all appreciate an excellent customer experience, but what truly sets an experience apart is how it makes us feel. Unfortunately, the emotional aspect of customer interactions is often overlooked. However, it’s the emotional connection that usually leaves a lasting impression.
For example, a recent experience got me thinking about using humor in customer interactions to improve how customers feel. I was in the local Lowe’s hardware store. I needed a plumbing part with a name I was unsure of. I knew what the part was supposed to do but could not recall the name of it. I found a very friendly associate who offered to help. I described the needed part, and the associate asked where it was used. I soon realized he was having fun at my expense when he started laughing. He then said, “I know what you need. Let’s go to this aisle.” We quickly found the part. He said to return it if needed and thanked me for being a good sport. The humor caused me to feel better about not knowing what I was looking for. The associate’s humor was funny and caused me to laugh at my insecurity. It also caused me to think more positively about Lowe’s (by the way, this particular store understands how to provide great customer experiences).
I want to revisit and update a blog from 2020 because appropriate humor has a place in improving CX. People too often focus on making the service fast and efficient, and neglect the all-important emotional side of the experience. Yes, the service can be fast and efficient, but it may not be memorable to a customer. Making the experience positively memorable is what matters most. To illustrate this point, let’s talk about Blackhawk Hardware.
The Local Hardware Store Customer Experience
Do you ever just go to the hardware store on the weekend just for a “hardware fix?” I do, and Blackhawk Hardware, a Charlotte institution, is the perfect hardware store for wandering. Not taking themselves too seriously, they say in their sponsorship for the local public radio station, “mismanaged since 1977.”
Blackhawk recently expanded and remodeled, so wandering is even more fun. Several weeks ago, I went to Blackhawk to get something I needed and for a “hardware fix.” I turned a corner, and I happened upon the “Aisle of Death” (bug killers and related items) juxtaposed against the “Aisle of Life” (seeds, fertilizers, and associated products). This categorization perfectly captures the spirit of Blackhawk and their sometimes light-hearted approach to work.
But what this juxtaposition did was create something unexpected, something I remembered. I posted this photo on LinkedIn with a short note about using humor in your customer experience work. Almost, 11,000 people and counting have viewed it, and numerous people have clicked the “Like” button and many made comments. While some of the respondents were from the Charlotte area and knew of Blackhawk, this group accounted for 12% of respondents.
Why did so many people respond to this post?
It wasn’t the photo quality or description. Perhaps it was the topic itself—humor and customer experience.
What happened to me when I saw the two signs? The signs reconfirm the style of the store and management—friendly, light-hearted. This approach did not inhibit their ability to get to the right solution, even if in an irreverent style. The experience makes customers smile and chuckle. As I was taking the picture, several other customers were smiling and pointing to the aisle signs. This observation prompted some thinking and research into what happens when humor is part of the service environment. I want to share some ideas.
What Happens to You When Experience Something Humorous
Humor works because it defies expectations. In the case of a joke or seeing or hearing something humorous, the punchline moment causes changes in your body. Your brain senses a “disconnect” from what you might expect to see or hear. This “disconnect” causes you to stop focusing on the immediate task and, instead, to shift toward an emotional response (see “On the Brain” newsletter from Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, Spring, 2010).
This disconnect is what happened to me. I was on a mission to get some replacement screws for a drawer. Momentarily, I forgot all about the screws, started smiling, and took the picture that you saw previously.
Endorphins released by the brain in response to external stimuli cause relaxation. When you smile, it is contagious. I noticed this in the hardware store that Saturday. I was smiling, looking at the signs, and taking pictures. Several others saw the signs AND began smiling as well.
The humor that was part of the signs provoked me to smile and caused others to smile. For the moment, we focused less on getting the screws for the repair I needed to do at home. I thought more about this experience and other past experiences at Blackhawk.
Why Does Humor Matter to Customer Experience?
When customers engage with a provider, they are looking for solutions to their needs. It could be you buying screws for a home repair or the buyer of a sophisticated piece of industrial equipment. Everyone wants efficient and effective solutions. These are rational needs. By getting the right screws, you can go home and fix a piece of furniture.
Your rational needs are satisfied.
If fun (a little humor) comes along with it, that is even better. Customers enjoy going to Blackhawk because:
- Blackhawk generally has solutions to hardware problems
- Customers usually see something interesting, which they may not need (but buy)
- Customers know that the sales associates will sometimes use humor when they know customers do not understand what they really need
When customers leave the store, they always feel good about the visit, no matter the outcome. Appropriate humor causes customers to move from task focus to an emotional engagement and connection.
You can meet customers’ rational needs, but the relationship becomes far more valuable if you can meet their emotional needs as well. In 2007, two Gallup researchers published a book entitled Human Sigma. One of their findings was that customers expressing similar satisfaction levels with a product were service exhibited behaviors. The more loyal (and more valuable) were not just rationally satisfied with a provider but emotionally satisfied as well.
Rational satisfaction will get you only so far. Emotional engagement is critical. Humor is one way to start creating that essential emotional engagement.
Recommendations and Caveats for Using Humor in Customer Experience
Some managers may be uncomfortable encouraging humor in the workplace. Here are some suggestions and caveats to keep in mind:
The first thing to do in any Customer Experience situation is to smile. Smiling is contagious, even in those more tense situations. A 2002 study conducted in Sweden confirmed that when individuals were shown images of smiling faces, the test subjects tended to smile as well.
As noted earlier, a smile tends to cause the brain to swing into action and release endorphins that lower blood pressure and have other positive effects on the body. A smile does much to set the table for engaging the customer emotionally. Do not overlook “smiling” through the phone.
We train our research analysts to smile when conducting interviews because it makes a difference. We hear the difference when we listen to recorded interviews.
Humor needs to meet-the-moment. If the customer with which you are interacting is upset, it is not the best time to use humor. If inappropriate humor is used, customers may feel they are not being taken seriously. For example, if I just broke my leg, I don’t appreciate the doctor cracking jokes.
Humor needs to be real. There are some organizations where those expressing a sense of humor seem to stick out. Moreover, customers may see someone expressing humor, even if appropriate, as not believable because of past experiences. Not everyone can be humorous. Please don’t push it on those employees who feel uncomfortable. That is fine. Encouraging unnatural behaviors will backfire.
Lastly, humor needs to be appropriate—for example, avoid gender, race, religion, or political satire. If you have to follow up with, “It was only a joke,” you’ve missed the mark. Keep it simple and based on the current situation.
Smiling, laughing, and humor, in general, can have a positive impact on customer experience. Think about it. I got my screws from Blackhawk, shared a funny picture with almost 8,000 people, and perhaps more, and helped to contribute to the store’s already positive reputation.
Let me know how you are using humor in your CX efforts. If you are, what is working? If not, why not?