Customer Emotion Management: The Customer Needs To Smile Too

June 1, 2012

By Gülnur Tumbat, PhD

Strengthen the Service Exchange by Managing Emotions

In many service provider-customer or seller-buyer contexts, it has been assumed that the service provider or seller must exhibit a positive attitude towards customers, and may even be required to smile by his/her company. This is called emotional labor (Hochschild 1983). Various studies explore the emotional labor construct; for example, some studies examine the commercial exhibition of emotional labor management, including flight attendants who are expected to smile (Hochschild 1983); bill collectors who may be expected to grimace and raise their voice to convey command over the situation (Hochschild 1983); foreign nannies who are expected to show care for another person's children (Hochschild 2005); and detectives who may try to manipulate a criminal's emotions (Rafaeli and Sutton 1989). Emotional labor in these and other similar cases helps a company achieve corporate goals, including customer satisfaction and repeat patronage among some others.

The demanding aspects of employee emotion management can be understood even better when looking at stressful and extended service settings. At fire stations, for instance, veteran firefighters may facilitate the use of emotional labor techniques to socialize newcomers to the emotional expectations of clients (Scott and Myers 2005). Similarly, guides in experiential services are expected to engage in emotion management in outdoor adventure contexts (Sharpe 2005). Other relevant contexts include 911 call centers, where operators are expected to communicate calmly in emotionally volatile circumstances; hospital personnel, including nurses, doctors and funeral directors, who are expected to show sympathy and compassion; and emergency medical personnel and volunteer rescue groups who are expected to remain calm throughout extreme rescue operations.

Selling a home in today's economic environment can also be a highly stressful service encounter. The realtor is expected to be pleasant and maintain a positive attitude with clients throughout the entire sales experience. In each of these cases, though, it may also be assumed that there is not a requirement for the client (customer, passenger, patient, home buyer) to reciprocate the positive sentiments with a smile or a positive attitude of his own. According to the studies cited above (and some others), it seems that the sales person or service provider is the only one required to manage emotions if the experience is to be satisfactory for the client. However, in service interactions, customers and providers each perform certain roles to achieve their respective or common goals. Accordingly, services are now considered an integration of the various resources and skills of the involved participants (Lusch and Vargo 2006). A service is a process that is created and maintained by both the customer and the service provider. Therefore, the value of the interaction is in the experience that is co-created through the relationship between the two participants. What each participant brings to the table (in terms of skills, understandings, resources, etc.) shapes what s/he will receive from the experience. This research introduces the notion of customer emotion management and demonstrates that co-creation of the service experience includes active monitoring and management of the customers' emotions. Customers' emotional control affects the service experience not only for themselves, but also for the service providers and other patrons involved. Thus, the customer's ability (or willingness) to manage his emotions can impact the service experience as a whole. As such, it is important for managers and service marketers to understand customer emotion management in order to achieve satisfaction through the co-created service experience.

Extended Service Encounters

Service encounters that are longer in duration and involving more intimate interactions due to the close spatial proximity of the service provider and the client are known as extended service encounters (Price, Arnould and Tierney 1995). In extended service encounters, emotion management and effective communication are more likely to play a significant role in the experience. Duration and proximity characteristics affect psychological involvement and influence the level of required emotion work. Working with a real estate agent to purchase a home can also occur over a long period of time. This research looked at an extended and stressful service encounter context, explained below, that provided a unique opportunity to gain a more complete understanding of how service experiences are co-created. Using insights from this research, real estate agents can build long-term, fruitful relationships with their clients.

Data Collection and Service Context

Ethnographic data was collected through active participant observation in an extended service encounter context: commercially guided climbing expeditions on Mount Everest (for details regarding the data collection process, please see Tumbat and Belk 2011 and Tumbat 2011). In this context, service providers (climbing guides) and customers (paying climbers) interact over a long period of time in close proximity to one another. Everest expeditions are an important representative of the outdoor and adventure service industry and are part of today's growing "experience economy," which includes the equipment, clothing, tourism and insurance sectors. Commercial climbs to Everest and other high-altitude mountains, usually lasting three to nine or more weeks, are organized as mountaineering expeditions by adventure companies. The cost per individual to participate in an Everest expedition has risen to between $60,000 to $100,000. All participants, both clients and service providers alike, live in close quarters over the two-month duration of the climbing season. Adventure companies offer a variety of services to assist client-climbers, including obtaining the necessary permits, visas, guides, accommodations, flights, local transportation and transfer of all the necessary equipment such as oxygen cylinders to the base camp and to intermediary camps higher up the mountain.


As the data were analyzed, the way that paying climbers managed their emotions appeared to be a very significant component of the service experience. The findings suggest that service provider and customer emotion management influences the service encounter for all participants as they co-create the experience. There is no question that social interaction places demands on all participants. The findings demonstrate that service providers are not the only ones who face expectations with regards to managing emotions. Some service situations, like the one studied, place demands and expectations on consumers, requiring or encouraging them to engage in emotion management. Emotion management in the case of paying Everest client-climbers is about maintaining a strategic interaction with others in a commercial service setting. Emotion management is a way that individuals present themselves. Clients (paying Everest climbers) feel that they should be and are expected to manage their feelings in order to produce a proper state of mind in others (other clients and service providers) and for themselves. Sometimes these customers do emotion work to convince a guide that they are physically strong enough to continue to climb. Some other times they do it to convince fellow climbers that they are a good or better climber, or that they can be depended on if an emergency arises.


Since it has been assumed that only the service providers engage in emotion management, it is suggested that there is an inherent inequality in emotion management in service exchanges between service providers and customers. This point is explained as follows: "The airline passenger may choose not to smile, but the flight attendant is obliged not only to smile but to try to work up some warmth behind it" (Hochschild 1983, p.19). Furthermore, it is assumed that service providers generally have to accept uneven exchanges even though they may be "treated with disrespect or anger by a client" (Hochschild 1983, p. 85), since the customer is not required to smile back. The findings of this research challenge these assumptions and suggest that there is no universally asymmetric emotional relationship between customers and service providers. It suggests that "there can be more balanced and symmetrical exchanges in extended service encounters through the acknowledgment of the relational characteristics of emotions and the interactional nature of emotion management" (Tumbat 2011, p.200).

Implications for Real Estate Agents

Just as mountain climbers rely on guides, customers often depend on experts in real estate, healthcare, education, law and consultancy services. Home buying, hospitals, long-term care facilities, debt counseling, legal aid and social services contexts provide relevant and fruitful opportunities for service providers and clients to interact over long periods and to invest substantial amounts of time, effort, and various other resources into an experience. Extended, intimate, or potentially stressful interactions, such as the exchange between a real estate agent and a home buyer, considerably shapes the experience for both parties. In most of these cases, the self-presentation practices by either side potentially contribute to or detract from their respective goals. Managing the client's emotions is important and may have greater consequences in extended and relational service encounters. As in all social relationships, emotions from each participant play a substantial role in service provider-customer interactions. Thus, real estate agents and agencies may take customer emotion management practices into account when designing the services they offer. For example, agencies may consider incorporating customer emotion management into employee training programs. They may consider codifying expectations of customers in order to communicate them better. Furthermore, agents may consider providing space and time for customers so that they can reflect on and manage their emotions. Customer emotion management enabled in such ways may even help to reduce the burnout experienced by service employees from their emotional labor. Emotion control may also help customers achieve greater satisfaction from the exchange, which may also lead to a long-term competitive advantage for the agent. In sum, with the help of conscious sales agents, customers can better manage their emotions and can contribute to a successful and satisfactory experience.

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Hochschild, Arlie R. (1983), Managed Heart. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. Hochschild, Arlie R. (2005), "Love and Gold," in B. Ehrenreich and A. R. Hochschild (eds) Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, pp.15-31. New York: Henry Holt and Company. Lusch, Robert F. and Stephen L. Vargo (2006), "Service-dominant Logic: Reactions, Reflections, and Refinements," Marketing Theory, 6 (3): 281-8. Price, Linda L., Eric J. Arnould and Patrick Tierney (1995), "Going to Extremes: Managing Service Encounters and Assessing Provider Performance," Journal of Marketing, 59 (2): 83-97. Rafaeli, Anat and Robert I. Sutton (1989), "The Expression of Emotion in Organizational Life," in L. L. Cummings and B. M. Staw (eds) Research in Organizational Behavior II, pp. 1-42. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press. Scott, Clifton and Karen K. Myers (2005), "The Socialization of Emotion: Learning Emotion Management at the Fire Station," Journal of Applied Communication Research, 33 (1): 67-92. Sharpe, Erin (2005), "Going Above and Beyond: The Emotional Labor of Adventure Guides," Journal of Leisure Research, 37(1): 29-50. Tumbat, Gülnur (2011), "Co-constructing the Service Experience: Exploring The Role of Customer Emotion Management," Marketing Theory, 11 (2), 187-206. Tumbat, Gülnur and Russell W. Belk (2011), "Marketplace Tensions in Extraordinary Experiences," Journal of Consumer Research, 38 (7), 42-61.

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About the Author

Gülnur Tumbat, PhD
Assistant Professor of Marketing, San Francisco State University

Gülnur holds a PhD in Marketing from University of Utah, MBA from Bilkent University (Ankara, Turkey), and MSc and BSc in engineering from Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey). Prior to her PhD, she worked as a business analyst for a technology company. She has published in Journal of Consumer Research, Consumption, Markets and Culture, Advances in Consumer Research, European Advances in Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Behavior, and Handbook of Research on Digital Media and Advertising: User Generated Content Consumption. Her article (with co-author R.W. Belk) "The Cult of Mac" in Consumption, Markets, and Culture was chosen as one of the top 25 articles from the same journal during 2009-2010. Another article "Marketplace Tensions in Extraordinary Experiences" in Journal of Consumer Research received the Sid Levy Award for the Best Consumer Culture Theory Article Based on a Dissertation, 2nd Place. She is also a 2012 recipient of Advertising Education Foundation's Visiting Professor Program Fellowship. Her research interests include marketer-consumer interactions, marketplace dynamics, risk marketing and consumption, and technology. In order to study these topics, she climbed Mt. McKinley through a research grant. She also conducted an ethnographic study at Everest Base Camp for her PhD where she stayed throughout one whole climbing season of 2 months at 17,700ft in Nepal with various commercial and non-commercial climbing teams. She is an ultra-runner, rock climber, ice-climber, high-altitude mountaineer, adventure racer and a triathlete and incorporates her insights from these experiences into her research and teaching.