Experience Blog

The Ethnography of Experience

Creating Belonging and Trust in Service Encounters: Customer Experience and Guitar Shopping


It can be difficult to differentiate between customer satisfaction and customer experience. Such a close relationship can exist between the two that it is easy to think of them as the same. However, certain sales encounters can show us the distinction relatively clearly. It might be that the overall experience is magical, but the actual delivery of service is lacking. More than likely, it is going to be the inverse. You might give high marks for customer satisfaction, but low marks for customer experience. The reason for this is that a customer experience focus often is not even a consideration for front-line workers, those with whom customers primarily interaction. Thus, you can have great employees delivering solid customer service, but missing the opportunity elevating the experience. The little tweaks and additions that are important to an experience are not featured, and the opportunity to make an experience happen is missed.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to learn how to play guitar. As far as lifelong dreams go, it is not terribly original. As far as midlife crises go, wanting to buy a guitar is safe and inexpensive. The decision to buy my own was predicated on buying my 12-year-old daughter her first guitar. Having a friend who plays guitar, I sought his counsel on where to go and what to look for in a first instrument. Hers would be an acoustic; mine would be an electric guitar, a Fender Squire Strat with a sunburst pattern. Providing sound would be a Marshall amp. I’ll never play it as well as it looks, but hopefully I’ll at least be able to play it.

Despite listening to guitars and watching them being played for most of my life, I know nothing about them. My shopping experience would be defined by a steep epistemic gradient, meaning the knowledge differential between me and the staff would be incredibly steep. I knew next to nothing, and they presumably knew everything. Compounding matters was the trade-in 12-string guitar that my friend gave to me. He told me, “Get what you can for it.” What was it worth? What could I expect to get? How would I know if I was being taken advantage of in terms of the deal? I had nothing even approach an answer to any of these questions. I was at their mercy.

After being greeted at the counter by a staff member, I handed over the 12 string and confessed my ignorance as a first-time guitar buyer. The staff member said they would look at it, and that would take about 5 minutes. In the meantime, he told me that I could “look” at guitars and escorted me to the used guitar area. I have no idea how to “look” at guitars. Look at what exactly? I could see they were guitars, but what was I looking at? He said that I should pick some up, see how they “feel” in my hands, how the neck felt when trying to reach for the strings. Feel? Felt? What was it supposed to “feel” like? I couldn’t even play a simple G scale without screwing up at least two to three times (out of 16 notes). Sitting down and playing it would involve me fumbling through the G scale, and incorrectly playing the three chords that my friend taught me. This was my repertoire. Juxtaposed to my skills were those who wandered in, sat down, and began to “shred” up and down the fret board, expertly handling the instrument, some of them more than half my age. I tried to look convincing strumming G, C, and D chords (which I wasn’t).

Such business settings are defined by in-groups and out-groups, those who belong and those who don’t. I was no musician surrounded by musicians. Instruments occupied every space, hung from the walls, even from the ceilings. It was all overwhelming to a customer who has no idea where to start, what to ask, what to look for, how to act. My anxiety and uncertainty was high. Along with this uncertainty is an increased vulnerability. Anyone who has had their car repaired, while knowing nothing about how cars work, is familiar with this feeling. The mechanic could almost tell you anything, and you are in no position to argue whether he is right or wrong. You have no frame of reference for how much it should cost, how long it should take, or what quality of parts should be used.

At the same time, increased vulnerability presents a great opportunity to establish closer relations through trust. Vulnerability and trust go together. For instance, trust falls are recommended for team building because the idea of trusting someone in a very vulnerable position (i.e. falling backwards), and having that person deliver on that trust, is supposed to bring you closer together. The same principle can be applied to all kinds of team building exercises. So many of our metaphors are wrapped up in this duality of vulnerability and trust. “Kicking someone when s/he is down” (or vulnerable) is a demonstration of the person doing the kicking as not being trustworthy. “Having someone’s back” (where the person is vulnerable) is the epitome of being trustworthy.

Back to my guitar situation, I never felt that the staff members exploited my lack of knowledge and vulnerability. They made some recommendations, answered what questions I had (when I had them), and were attentive in between helping other customers. All in all, I would say that I had a high level of customer satisfaction.

But what of my customer experience? This is where things felt to be lacking. It is also where applying a sociological approach can help us look at the larger features of the situation.

First, there is the narrative component of my experience. At 47 years old, I was fulfilling a long-standing dream by buying a guitar. This was the culmination of a lot of thinking about doing it, but never actually doing it. Everyone who plays guitar has a story about how they started. Being able to share my own story would have enhanced my experience, but no one who worked at the store bothered to ask. Humans are narrative creatures who build connection through sharing experiences in the form of stories. As the photoblog and book Humans of New York shows, everyone has a story to tell, but to hear it you first must ask.

Second, there is the group belonging component of my experience. I was starting a journey into another world. I was seeking not only the purchase of an item, but an identity. I was looking to become a “guitar player.” Group belonging is always more than just doing an activity; it is a matter of being accepted by those in the group. I was sharing in an experience common to those working in the store, as well as many shopping in it. Everyone who plays guitar gets their “first guitar” at some point. I would imagine it is similarly memorable to other monumental firsts in a person’s life. The staff members in the store, as well as those who were coming into the store expertly handle the guitars, already belonged to that group, and could start the process of accepting me (as well as rebuffing me).

Taken together, these insights suggest a tremendous opportunity to develop connection in the service encounter. This is the realm in which customer experience exists. It is not just the delivery of a service, but the creation of a memorable moment that evokes positive feelings and sentiments. I would give the store high marks on customer service, but low marks on customer experience. Will this impact my decision to go back there in the future? Probably not. I liked the store, and the workers were nice. However, there is another store closer to my house. It is more convenient to go to that store in terms of time and distance. At the same time, as the song from the TV show Cheers goes, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” I doubt those staff members would remember my name, but that extra level of customer experience would have made me feel like I did belong there, and that it would be a place I would want to return to because of that feeling of belonging.

Further, this interaction was not only a lost opportunity for increasing my connection with the store, but also for enhancing a happy moment in my life. Research has shown that experiences are made more pleasurable when shared with others. While I was occupying the same moment with the staff members, it cannot be said that I was sharing an experience. Their actions did not make the moment less enjoyable, but they certainly did not enhance it. I would recommend others to go there if they solicited my opinion, but I probably won’t retell the story to others in terms of it being something wonderful that I experienced.

People often crave and seek out connection and belonging. Typically, we look for these things in our personal and family lives. We also can find them in other parts of everyday life, such as service encounters. Trust comes more easily when we feel connected to the person with whom we are dealing. The vulnerability that is experienced in high epistemic gradient settings can be ameliorated through the creation of trust, facilitated through the formation of connection and belonging. Developing this has the additional benefit of elevating customer satisfaction to customer experience. Companies would do well to create this awareness through training aimed at developing connection and belonging in the service encounter. Having such an awareness would prime the workers with conversational strategies to engage customers beyond the sales of products and into connections of the moment. As people, we often are in search of connection. Service encounters provide opportunities for humanity, forming collective identities in the moment. In the end, this adds value beyond price point and quality of product. Value is added in the creation of positive experiences between two people, giving support and aid when it is needed. It is this kind of value that is priceless.