What makes a good actor? When we go to a play we know why the lead actors got the starring parts. Their ability to inhabit their role means that they stand out. All actors know the script. They learned it before the first rehearsal. Only then can the director start to shape their performance. In the end, there are actors who “go through the motions”. They are called upon to be happy or bored and they do convey the correct facial expressions and movements. They are acting on the surface. The great actors are different. They make the emotions seem real. The can act from deep inside and make us believe that they really are sad, happy, angry etc.
The theatrical analogy for a service experience has a script, scenery and actors. Just like a play. The actors are the front line employees (FLE) and all the consumers. To work the service experience requires everyone to learn the script and to follow it. If they do the consumers will receive a satisfying experience and the operation will run efficiently. This is the idea of the co-production of a service and of the customer being a partial employee. Does the acting analogy go further and require employee and customer to engage their emotions?
For a long time organizational behaviour has looked at the emotional work done by employees. According to this idea there are display rules. These come from societal norms and from the “rules” imposed by management. The FLE’s need to express the correct emotion. They must smile and be friendly when they greet you. They must remain calm and detached when shouted at. They must regulate their emotions to act the part.
In the healthcare setting they have to remain happy and cheerful when dealing with harrowing situations. They must deal with the anguish of illness for the patient and their family. Researchers in organizational behaviour have called this “emotional labour”. This is the effort required to regulate internal emotions that do not match the role requirements.
There are two different kinds of employee acting. A surface pretence means smiling whilst you remain angry or sad. It is a veneer. As an actor you have not learned to invoke the emotions within yourself. Deep acting is much closer to the adoption of the role that a great actor can do. All the research suggests that surface acting is much more harmful to the firm and the individual. It causes unhappiness, internal conflict and low job satisfaction for the employee. In turn this leads to employee churn and industrial relations problems for the firm. Deep acting seems to be much less harmful to both. That completely artificial smile of welcome is not a good idea and probably does not fool the customer anyway.
Why do the FLEs behave in this way? There are societal norms about the service experience. No one expects these kinds of interactions to be conducted in anything but a civil way. During COVID 19 some of these rules broke down. The need for FLE’s to impose face mask wearing is not a normal part of the role. It has lead to well reported confrontations and a lot of extra emotional work.
The balance of the display rules comes from the firm. Many multi-site firms have “procedures manuals” that specify the role of the employee. Some specify the emotions as well “Make eye contact with customer and smile”. Display rules often come from the outlet or site manager. It is they that try to create the right “atmosphere” for the customer.
Consumers as the Emotional Workers
In a recent article the “emotional work” idea was applied to consumers instead of employees. As partial employees we too must play our part. We must follow the mechanics of the script. We must also become emotional actors. The emotional script may not be consistent with how we feel at that moment. Indeed it may not be compatible with how would normally behave. To the extent that creates a gap it requires us to regulate our emotions just as much as the FLE’s.
Why would we do such a thing? Why would we invest the energy? We may believe that being civil and friendly is the way we want to live our lives. It will reflect on the rest of our day and all our relationships. More cynically we may believe that regulating our emotions will improve the quality of the service we will receive. Displaying anger may ensure that we get what we want. Being friendly to a staff member may make them feel better and help us to get better service. There are many emotions that people will deploy. Often these are not their underlying emotions. It appears that we too can be good or bad actors. We can pretend on the surface or we can internalize the role and engage in deep acting. I suspect that the employees can spot surface consumer acting.
The service setting and the other customers set the standards for the display of emotions. The physical environment always sends signals. The furniture and lighting of a restaurant signals "luxury". This in turn defines the acceptable display of emotions. A lively fun bar on a Friday night sets a different display rule. If everyone is happy, you do not want to be the source of a “dark cloud”.
The Ageing Emotional Actor
Older people have many more experiences to draw upon. They know that the flight delay is outside the control of the person on the gate. They appear to be more satisfied with their service experiences. They can still act anger if they need to. Like the employee they can surface act or they can engage deep acting.
Older consumers are however already regulating their emotions, unlike their younger selves. Under the “life is too short” paradigm they are avoiding negative situations. They are orchestrating positive ones. This must influence their acting strategies. Do they need to “deep act” if they are to reconcile their own agenda with the display rules of the service experience. They may find the display rules more onerous than their younger selves.
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Imose, R.A.; Rogers, A.P.; Subramony, M. (2021), “Do Customers Regulate their Emotions? Development and Validation of a Model of Customer Emotional Labor”. Journal of Service Management Research, 241-255