If you're one of those who doesn't really enjoy getting "Happy Birthday" sung to you by the restaurant staff, join the crowd. A new study finds such cheesy efforts to make customers feel appreciated often backfire by making them feel trapped or embarrassed.
“Not all customers want to be entertained,” said study leader Cele Otnes, a marketing expert at the University of Illinois. “Some just want to escape and be left alone. So the bottom line here is that businesses really need to consider their target audience before creating rituals that are effectively forced on people.”
Otnes surveyed 150 college-age consumers. For some, such rituals are memorable and provide an incentive to come back, Otnes found. Among the things that worked: workers in costume, polished performances and glitzy accouterments.
But some survey respondents said that being forced to participate in rituals violated their sense of privacy and left them feeling hemmed in, embarrassed or even resentful.
“Those are really strong negatives,” said Otnes, a business administration professor who studies rituals ranging from weddings to at-home holiday celebrations. “While rituals can make some consumers embrace the business, there’s also a huge risk. People use words like ‘annoying’ or ‘irritating’ to describe the experience and some say it definitely makes them rethink whether they’ll come back.”
She presented the findings recently at the European Association for Consumer Research in London.
Businesses should carefully consider whether rituals are optional or embedded into the business model, making them a standard practice that customers have little chance to avoid, Otnes suggests.
“In truth, all rituals are optional, but customers may fear there’s a cost to them if they try to get out of embedded rituals,” Otnes said. “For example, opting out could be considered rude and jeopardize the service they receive.”
Optional rituals offer leeway to satisfy customers’ comfort zones, but could wither efforts to build a brand image that differentiates businesses from their competitors, she said.
“Which solution is best depends completely on the business,” Otnes said. “How much do you care about repeat business? Do you rely on a local market or are you in a tourist area where customers don’t necessarily come back regularly?”
Retailers and service providers also should seek feedback from customers to gauge response to the ritual, including reaction to nuances such as whether musical serenades are too noisy or if cooking at tables is too smoky.
“Businesses should not just be on autopilot when they’re creating rituals,” she said. “They really need to understand the difference between optional and embedded, and the potential consequences of forcing customers to sit through certain rituals.”