Thursday, May 3, 2018

Drawing the Line

In the context of professional relationships, there are clearly defined boundaries for interaction – lines that it is socially inappropriate to cross, given the context of the relationship.   In general, these boundaries are drawn by functional necessity: if any interaction is not functionally necessary to success are the professional encounter, then it is inappropriate to the professional relationship.

This may be considered a function of economics: the time and effort that a person must spend in a professional encounter represents a cost that is laid out for whatever benefit is derived from the contact.   On the business side, we seek to minimize the amount of time employees spend serving customers in order to maximize the efficiency of the funds spent on wages.

This is also considered from the customer side as well, though the “hassle” of service is seldom monetized, people do consider the amount of time they must invest in a purchasing or service encounter.   It is not that they desire quickness, but they abhor wastefulness of their time.   

Hence it is desirable to both sides for the professional encounter to be as brief as possible.

Of course, this is a rather inhuman method of measuring the value of an interaction.  While those on the business side would be entirely satisfied by a minimal and sterile encounter between their front-line employees and the market, the “market” is composed of human beings, social creatures whose functional needs may be met by an encounter with an automaton, but whose social proclivities require something more than the bare necessities of a functional encounter.

The question is: where to draw the line?

On one extreme, an encounter with a sterile and officious service provider is unpleasant – and while such an encounter is very respectful of the customers’ time, it is an affront to their humanity.   On the other extreme, an encounter with a service provider who is overly social becomes equally loathsome – friendliness is pleasant, but if it is overdone, it can become overbearing and customers expect a certain professional distance from those who serve them.

One factor is likely the duration of the service: when making a retail purchase, it would be very awkward for the checkout clerk to engage customers in extended conversation.   But when getting a haircut, it would be equally awkward for the barber or stylist not to engage in conversation with the customer.

Another factor would be whether the service is recursive.  One generally does not expect a waiter to be overly friendly, but a customer who has lunch in the very same restaurant every workday and sees the same waiter five times a week will accept and perhaps expect a greater degree of social interaction with the service provider.

Another factor might be the nature of the product.  To provide assistance, a service provider must have a better sense of the context in which a product is used: a clerk at a grocery store might ask what meal is being prepared and how many are being served, one at a clothing store might ask about the occasion for which an outfit is being purchased, one at a hardware store might ask about the home and lifestyle of the client.   Arguably, these are functionally necessary questions for the service, but there is often a but of non-functional conversation that arises in due course.

Another factor is the level of service required or desired of the service provider.   In the previous example, a customer might welcome a higher level of service from the grocery clerk, who might presume to offer advice about the meal that the customer is preparing.   In other instances, the customer does not welcome such advice – he knows what he wants and just needs help finding an item.

Another factor is the degree to which the product relates to the esteem (social or self) of the purchaser or owner.   It can be generally observed that service at high-end stores is more “personal” than service at low-end stores.   Hence buying an expensive pair of shoes at a boutique is a far more social encounter than buying a cheap pair at a discount retailer.

At this point, I’m getting the sense I may have scratched the surface of a topic that goes much deeper than a blog post will accommodate – and likely there’s need for study in the domain of social psychology.

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