Want to improve customer service and satisfaction? Invest in employee wellbeing- Hays careers advice

Want to improve customer service and satisfaction? Invest in employee wellbeing

It is becoming clear that employee wellbeing has moved into the mainstream of HR and people strategy in many organisations.  There are a number of drivers for this, including the increasingly compelling evidence which links employee well-being to health and performance outcomes.  The subsequent benefits include reduced absences and increased productivity.  One area that has had less attention, however, is the link between employee well-being and customer service and satisfaction.

Wellbeing is characterised by generally feeling good, with a strong sense of purpose.  When we engage as customers with the “shop front” staff, do we get a sense of how good and purposeful they feel about interacting with us and the extent to which they seem driven to help and solve our problems?

I’m sure most of us would agree that we can usually gauge this, but how can we distinguish between a genuinely fulfilled employee and someone who is just putting on a fake smile?  It’s conceivable that having been exposed to customer service training, many staff start to play a role defined by the “required behaviours” for optimum customer satisfaction.

It’s not that easy for employees to fake it

Role-playing, however, requires considerable effort and what psychologists refer to as emotional labour.  How do you sustain your best “customer face” if generally you are feeling anxious or depressed, or you don’t really believe in what you are doing?  The emotional labour required to do so has proven to be stressful in many cases.  For example, in an interesting study of flight cabin crew, Professor Claire Williams discovered that 44 percent of employees found the emotional labour of the role stressful.  Interestingly though Williams also found some evidence that faking a happy face for customers often made the cabin crew feel better!

Linking customer and employee satisfaction

Some more recent and thorough research by Professor Hean Tat Keh (et al) shows that customer satisfaction is influenced by a number of factors related to the person providing the service, such as perceived helpfulness, displayed emotion, and even physical attractiveness.However, they found the first of these to be the most important in determining customer satisfaction.

Surely it is easier to be helpful when you have a strong sense of purpose connected to what you are trying to achieve.  As the authors of this work note: “service organisations need to create meaning and clarity of purpose for employees”. Keh and colleagues also note that the combination of helpfulness and displayed positive emotion provides a particularly powerful impact on customer service.  No doubt customer service staff can be, and are, trained to display these qualities.  However, sustaining them will be much easier if there is a strong underlying level of wellbeing.

There is also a correlation between the well-being of service staff, and stressful interactions, such as aggressive or hostile customers.  Other studies have demonstrated how these have a short and medium term impact, highlighting the negative cycles that can ensue between customers and service providers.  However, they also point out that positive customer interactions can compensate for these less desirable exchanges to replenish coping resources.

A strategy for improving employee wellbeing

Taking the above findings into consideration, what might be the best course of action to support the wellbeing of customer facing staff?  As always these will be context dependent to some extent and influenced by the nature of the customer service interaction, but the following three strategies are likely to have a positive impact:

  • Keep customer facing staff connected to the purpose of the service they provide.  It’s not all about ensuring they are up to date with the latest features and benefits of the product or service offering.  There should be regular dialogue, ideally through team managers, about the service purpose in the context of the wider business, industry and customer needs. Organisations should also invite the questioning of this to ensure understanding and commitment.
  • Encourage customer facing teams to share their emotional experiences, positive and negative, and create the space and time for them to do so.  It is likely that peer support will be very useful when dealing with negative emotional experiences.  Sharing positive emotional experiences will have a contagious uplifting effect.  This can serve to counterbalance any negative experiences as well as creating positive spirals which will have further customer satisfaction benefits.
  • Ensure that the known barriers and enablers to wellbeing, such as a sense of being able to control and influence events and workload management, are regularly reviewed and addressed.

Ultimately improving the wellbeing of your people at the customer interface will have a positive impact on their health, engagement and performance, and there should be additional benefits in terms of improved customer satisfaction levels.

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Gordon is a very experienced occupational psychologist (Chartered and Registered) and works on a freelance basis (GT Work Psychology).  Gordon has broad cross-sector and multi-level experience.  He has worked extensively with the Police Service, in Defence, with the NHS, in Financial Services and with science and engineering companies, as well as a wide range of other businesses.

Gordon’s work is often focused on helping managers and leaders maximise the wellbeing, psychological resilience and performance of their teams.   As well as his Masters level qualification in occupational psychology he has an MBA from Warwick Business School.  He has recently co-authored a book with Professor Sir Cary Cooper on mid-level role pressures and development (The Outstanding Middle Manager).