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Businesses must offer customers social support, says U-M marketing expert

ANN ARBOR—Ask Sam, the bartender on " Cheers. " Businesses that go beyond " service with a smile" to provide empathy, social support and, sometimes, pleasant contacts with other customers, are likely to boost the bottom line. Small businesses, which often serve the same customers regularly, are in a particularly good position to offer support and reap customer loyalty as a reward.

Three demographic trends are feeding this development, according to Aaron C. Ahuvia, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan School of Business Administration, and Mara B. Adelman, assistant professor of communication at Seattle University,

"Research shows that, unlike their pre-World War II parents, baby boomers—the dominant population group— prefer warm, personal encounters to more formal, impersonal ones, even at the cash register," Ahuvia says. need and are responsive to social support. So when the baby boomers go grey, as they are beginning to do, the demand for such support will be compounded. "

By 2030, Ahuvia points out, more than 24 percent of the population will be over age 65. " Already some banks in retirement regions, recognizing their aging customers' needs, have put in refreshment areas and air-conditioned lounges where they can relax while doing business," he says.

Generation X-ers and singles of all ages, who often feel alienated from the larger, two-by-two adult community, are other growing demographic groups who respond to casual social ties and feeling connected, Ahuvia notes. Like " Seinfeld" and " Frazier," many routinely head for their favorite public haven—a coffee house, diner, bar, or fitness club—places where somebody, if not everybody, knows their names. Some even frequent laundromats like Suds and Duds, where they can down a beer and discuss grease spots with the manager and other customers while they wait for the dryer.

While the social ties resulting from such support are weak, " they are not `McFriendships' nor are they so-called first name on a data base. The ties are genuine and can increase connectedness for everyone, including the employers and employees. They also might increase profits," Ahuvia says.

Social support in a business context is different from support offered by friends and family. " An empathic conversation with your barber or even the L.L. Bean customer service representative offers the chance for casual conversation and self-disclosure where it is unlikely to come back to haunt you. It also enlarges your perspective on the world because you are talking to and receiving information from someone who might be quite different from your family and friends," he explains.

In general, social support does at least one of the following:

It reduces a customer's uncertainties and anxieties. " For instance, when a lawyer says, `Don't worry. My other divorce clients do that, too,' the client is reassured somewhat," Ahuvia says. It enhances self-esteem. The salesperson says, hair. It makes you look like you are in charge. " It creates a sense of connection to others. " It is nice to see you again. How was your vacation?"

There can be some downsides to offering social support to customers, Ahuvia adds: it may increase employee workload, expense and stress; it might generate loyalty to an employee rather than to the business; and some customers may see it as intrusive.

However, if business owners are serious about providing support, they should hire empathic employees and set up chairs, lights and so on, to enhance comfort. " But if they advertise social support, they should do so carefully. One of the attractions of weak, limited social support is that the customer doesn't have to admit need, so spelling out the offer may be counter-productive," Ahuvia cautions.

Above all, he adds, customer satisfaction requires the real thing. " If businesses suggest that `we care,' then do it. Don't deceive and don't oversell. "

Ahuvia and Adelman discuss their theories in a chapter of a new book, " Service Quality: New Directions in Theory and Practice" (1994), and will report them in the March 1995 issue of the Journal of Business Research.