Should your customers be treated rudely?

Snobby sales staff may make customers more inclined to buy aspirational items: Study

When marketing professor Darren Dahl walked into a store to purchase Hermes cologne, he was wearing tattered jeans and a T-shirt. Not surprisingly, he was treated with disdain by the salesperson. But instead of leaving the store, Dahl became even more determined to buy the product — so he did.

But it made him think: Why did he react that way when common sense should have told him to leave after he was treated poorly?

The answer is counter-intuitive, according to Dahl, senior associate dean, faculty of research, at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, who wrote a study on the issue with Morgan Ward, assistant professor of marketing at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Most research in this space would say, ‘Oh, you always want to give good service, never ever is it a good idea to give bad service’ and this research says, ‘Well, that’s true but there’s some situations where bad service may actually cause people to buy,’” he said.

“If you’re this luxury retailer, you have an image of exclusivity… and when you challenge me, I aspire to that, I want to show you that I can actually buy it so, in that case, rude service actually makes you want it more. You want to prove in that context that that’s something you can afford.”

The findings are based on a series of studies done largely in the United States, involving about 500 people. Participants imagined or had interactions with salespeople — rude or not — and rated their feelings about associated brands and their desire to own them.

Participants who expressed an aspiration to be associated with high-end brands had an increased desire to own the luxury products after being treated poorly — so rejection by a brand increased consumers’ desire to affiliate with it.

Mainstream brands such as the Gap, which are generally accessible to a lot of people, don’t have this affect at all — if people are treated rudely, they don’t buy, said Dahl.

“It only happens when people aspire to the brand. In other words, it has to be something that you want that you don’t have, and it really only happens for those products that are truly aspirational — a small set of people own them. Luxury products are a good example.”

It’s possible the rudeness of a salesperson adds to the perceived prestige of the goods or service to customers who wish to be seen in a certain way, said Elaine Hay, founder and president of staffing firm Campbell, Edgar in Vancouver.

“A variation of the takeaway close in sales, so to speak.”

But customers prefer receiving service from associates they feel they can relate to, who are knowledgeable and respectful of the products they represent, she said.

“Being rude to a customer is never a basis for building a long-term relationship.”

Specialty luxury retailer Holt Renfrew would seem to agree. It strives to ensure a warm and welcoming environment, according to Moira Wright, divisional vice-president of public relations at Holt Renfrew in Toronto.

“Our personal relationships with our customers are at the core of our business.”

The study is talking about interrupting the traditional pattern and the researchers have just applied it to high-end brands, said John Glennon, president of Sandler Training in Kelowna, B.C.

“We’ve known for years that that’s basically reverse psychology — the more pleading, the more desperate, the more presenting that’s done by a salesperson, the less likely the person is going to buy,” he said. “It’s more interrupting the stereotypical sales pattern.”

The number-one thing customers want is personalized customer service, along with knowledgeable people and friendly staff, according to Barbara Crowhurst, CEO of Retail Makeover in Toronto, adding it makes absolutely no sense to roll out the study’s model.

“Patience... articulation, communication, being respectful, being proactive, being positive, being empathetic — the kind of individual that hosts those kinds of attributes and that kind of character, those kinds of behaviours, those kinds of skills, is my model retail associate.”

And high-end brands should set an even higher standard for customer service, said Crowhurst, citing as an example the friendly staff found in Apple stores.


It’s not that luxury brands necessarily want their people to give bad service, said Dahl, “but they want their people to have the attitude of being an aristocrat or being someone who is prestigious, to wear those clothes, to have that upper class type of look,” he said.

“They don’t train people to be rude… but the attitude of exclusivity... people see it.”

However, authenticity is key — the more convincingly the staff represent and embody the brand, the greater the impact their rejection has on consumers.

“The salesperson actually has to fit the brand, so if it is someone selling a specific product, they have to represent the club. If it’s someone that’s snobby that is dressed down themselves, you don’t respond because they’re not part of that aspiration group,” said Dahl. “If the salesperson isn’t truly representing the brand, the effect doesn’t happen.”

And the positive brand perceptions resulting from a rejection incident may erode over time, he said.

“Good service is always the right thing if you’re the brand. But if your salespeople are looking to make a quick sale, this is a tactic they can use, so it speaks to the notion of sales force management — you have to be aware of how your salespeople are treating people because it may actually serve them better to serve the one-off customer poorly.”

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