How Can Humor Help?
Scholars of business and economics from Freie Universität study the effects of humor in customer situations.
Dec 19, 2016
What next? The train is late, the car is jam-packed, and to top it off, it is stuffy inside because the ventilation isn’t working. One passenger loses it, complaining loudly to the conductor. His response? “You should be happy you’re just a customer. I have to work here!”
The conductor’s witty response defuses the situation, bringing a laugh from other passengers as well. To Michael Kleinaltenkamp, a professor of marketing at the School of Business and Economics, this situation is a prime example of the successful use of humor at a service company. He says, “Humor is a part of our everyday lives. It can make our lives easier – especially in situations where service providers and customers approach each other from a critical standpoint.”
Together with colleagues from the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Kleinaltenkamp is studying the effects of humor in service situations. The scholars found out that a quick witty remark or small joke at the cash register boosts customer satisfaction. So are jokes a cure for the stress of Christmas shopping? Kleinaltenkamp says they may well be. There’s just one thing: What is humor, anyway?
He explains that there are as many answers to that question as there are different individuals, “since humor is in the eye of the beholder.” Everyone has a different sense of what is funny or entertaining. That’s why even scholars consider humor to include all actions, gestures, or words that could be perceived as amusing by the audience.
How receptive a person is to humor depends on how much of a sense of humor he or she has. Kleinaltenkamp explains that this sense varies in degree. “On the one hand, you have your curmudgeons, who don’t react much to funny words or signals. And then there are the jokers who like to joke around themselves and respond to humor from others.”
If two jokers meet, there is a lot to laugh about on both sides – hardly a surprise. But what happens if a joker at a store counter, in a customer care department, or at a seminar meets a humorless person? That’s a good match, too, Kleinaltenkamp says. “Our study showed that even people who don’t think of themselves as very humorous were happier customers after a funny conversation than they were before.”
For their study, Kleinaltenkamp and his colleagues surveyed more than 500 people, asking them about how satisfied they were with a service situation. After visiting a newsstand, a university course, and a continuing education class, respondents were asked to rate their own sense of humor and then indicate how happy they were with the customer situation. “In all cases, it was apparent that humor boosts satisfaction with the service situation.”
This finding is of great interest to the business sector. After all, a satisfied customer feels better about buying things, comes back more often, and is happy to recommend the store or service to others. The trick of using humor has long been an integral element of advertising. Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, the local transit operator for Berlin, is currently running an ironic, self-deprecating ad campaign featuring a squirrel that triggers the week’s bus delays in a lottery drawing studio, and Berliner Stadtreinigung, the city’s waste collection and cleaning agency, has been running its “Saturday Night Feger” (the “Saturday Night Sweeper,” a play on the movie title) for more than ten years now.
Researchers long ago proved that witty campaigns are well received by customers. “But running a funny ad is completely different than engaging in a one-on-one situation with the customer,” the business professor says. It has been nearly four years now since Kleinaltenkamp embarked on his research on humor – and found to his surprise that there are not many studies dealing with humor in customer interactions. The professor from Berlin plans to continue to pursue the subject with his Australian colleagues.
In another study, the scholars showed that a well-intentioned joke can also be counterproductive in a tense situation. If a waiter in a restaurant goofs up several times and then makes a joke at the guests’ expense on top of it all, it isn’t well received, even by those who enjoy humor themselves. This is because unlike in the situation with the train conductor, the waiter himself is responsible for the tension here.
“You need to have a finely tuned sense of what’s appropriate in these situations,” Kleinaltenkamp says. He suggests that people who work at stores, restaurants, or for other service providers with customer contact should receive training on humor awareness. Kleinaltenkamp offers another tip people can use when they go Christmas shopping, or the next time they take the train. “Humor works both ways: When customers make a joke, it’s a pleasure for employees, too.”
Prof. Dr. Michael Kleinaltenkamp, Freie Universität Berlin, School of Business and Economics, Marketing Department, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org