When the Customer is Stressed

October 2015 | Berry, Leonard L.


Customers’ assessments of quality and value, decisions about what and where to buy, and recommendations to others are all influenced by emotions. But too often companies don’t adequately anticipate those emotions and therefore can’t mitigate negative ones in the design of their offerings. This is especially true for high-emotion services—those that trigger strong feelings before the service even begins. Services relating to major life events such as birth, marriage, illness, and death fall into this category, as do airline travel, car and computer repair, and home buying, selling, and renovation.

High-emotion services may elicit intense feelings for the following reasons:

  • Lack of familiarity with the service being delivered. When family members must quickly arrange a loved one’s funeral, their grief is often compounded by uncertainty surrounding expenses and options.
  • Lack of control over the performance of the service. Complaints about auto repair shops regularly top lists published by the Consumer Federation of America.
  • Major consequences if things go wrong. Legal services for a divorce can have a huge effect on a client’s finances, child custody, and self-esteem.
  • Complexity that makes the service a black box and gives its provider the upper hand. When a computer technician tells a customer that “the laptop’s motherboard is fried,” the customer usually has no way to judge either the diagnosis or the suggested repair.
  • Long duration across a series of events. A wedding commonly involves extended planning, a rehearsal dinner, the main ceremony, and some combination of reception, meal, and party—plenty of opportunities for conflict and pitfalls.

Satisfying anxious or overwrought customers who are contending with these issues is a challenge for service providers. Drawing from our collective experience studying, designing, and providing services, we have identified four guidelines that can help positively influence expectations and perceptions of quality and value, enhancing customers’ satisfaction and loyalty. Managers should identify emotional triggers, respond early to intense emotions, enhance customers’ control, and hire and rigorously train people who can communicate respectfully.



  • Scott W. Davis
  • Jody Wilmet


Harvard Business Review

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