The power of personal

Make both customers and workers feel that there is a person on the other side of the transaction. You’ll increase satisfaction, sales, and product quality.

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📝 Intro

Today’s study aims to correct one of Karl Marx’s key criticisms of our society: mass production and technology dehumanize people.

Customers see companies as abstract entities formed by workers that might as well be objects. Workers typically never know who the buyer of their product is.

And the trend is accelerating. A blender can be bought on Amazon without ever interacting with anyone. A burger at McDonald’s can be ordered on a touchscreen.

Contrast this with an artisan of the past, who built a product and sold it directly to those who benefited from it. That felt good, both for the buyer and the seller (which is why people love buying and selling handmade products on Etsy, for example).

But can’t we have both: High productivity, with a human touch between workers and customers?

It turns out that yes, we can. And it’s a rare win-win-win that:

  • Increases customer satisfaction and spending

  • Boosts worker motivation and work quality

  • Together, leads to more sales and higher prices

P.S.: Thank you Stefano Puntoni - one of the co-authors of this study - for reviewing this tip and offering suggestions.

Stefano was one of the professors I was lucky to work with most closely when I was a marketing student at RSM. First on a few student union projects, then as his research assistant.

Without his advice when I was starting Ariyh, it wouldn’t be what it is today (perhaps it wouldn’t even exist!).

Fun fact: we’re both Italian, but for some reason, we always speak English to each other.

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Previous tip: How to be an unbiased marketer (All tips here)

Make customers and workers feel that there’s another human on the other side

Impacted metrics: Customer spending | Customer satisfaction
Channels: Customer experience | Marketing communications
For: Both B2C and B2B
Tip type: Existing research (January 2020)

📈 Recommendation

Create a personal touch, at scale, between workers and customers to delight both. Make them feel that there is another person on the other side of the transaction.

For example:

  • To increase customer satisfaction and spending:

    • Hotel cleaning personnel can leave a signed note with their name after cleaning a room

    • A food delivery app can show the name and picture of the person preparing a person’s meal

    • Factory workers can sign the finished product or take turns delivering it to the end customer

    • Emails should be sent by people (e.g. “Thomas from Ariyh”, not “Ariyh”)

  • To increase worker satisfaction and work quality:

    • Customers can be encouraged to upload a profile picture in their banking app, so customer service can visualize they’re talking to a person

    • Share stories or case studies of how customers benefited from their work

    • Talk about customers by name (of a person, rather than a company, when possible), instead of by ID or order number

Many techniques benefit both sides at the same time (e.g. signing one’s work also improves worker satisfaction).

🎓 Effects

  • Due to the way goods and services are produced (e.g. assembly line, working on a small part of a project) and bought (e.g. online, without contact with the worker):

    • Workers can feel objectified and disconnected from the buyer. Work loses meaning and the pride that comes from it (e.g. seeing the results of one’s work)

    • Customers feel disconnected from the producer, and can feel like mere tools of profit for companies. Without social relationships consuming a product loses some of its meaning (e.g. that’s why we love handmade products)

  • Interventions can be made to break the barrier between workers and customers, without sacrificing high productivity.

  • For example, previous research has found that:

    • For workers:

      • Signing one’s work increased work satisfaction and led to higher quality

      • A photo of a patient improved a radiologists performance

      • Fundraisers raised 171% more money when they met and interacted with a beneficiary

      • When a waitress introduced herself by name, people tipped over 50% more than when she remained anonymous

    • For consumers:

      • Knowing who made a soap bar increased one’s willingness to pay

      • Being called by name when retrieving a coffee stimulated repeat purchases


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🧠 Why it works

  • In recent decades, we have been evolving away from caring about material possessions. Instead, we value self-expression, belongingness, and relationships more.

  • This is particularly true for Millenials and Gen Zs. Indie and hipster movements are a clear demonstration of this.

  • While we often prefer to not interact with producers (e.g. we’d rather buy online than make a phone call), there are ways in which we can feel like we’re interacting with another person - without the effort (e.g. reading the name of our beer’s master brewer on the label).

✋ Limitations

  • This study is a review of existing research. It analyzed studies from sociology, psychology, and marketing to identify this opportunity.

  • However, it also leaves many unanswered consequences that need to be managed. For example:

    • If customers connect directly with workers, will people’s loyalty shift away from the brand and to the individual worker instead? In which cases? (e.g. you might follow your barber if they get hired at a new barbershop)

    • Could customers and workers discriminate against each other (e.g. by race, gender), if they know who the other party is?

    • Would you repair or throw away your hand-knitted hat if you knew it was knitted by Susan Barnes, who lives in a wooden house near Boston, has two kids, and likes to ski but is not very good at it?

🏢 Companies using this

  • Corporate traditions and language often appear to be explicitly designed to make workers (sorry, I meant “human resources”) feel like objects.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, Airbnb found huge success by making customers and workers (hosts) connect, as humans.

  • Others have started down this path, for example:

    • Hoogstraten creates individual codes for each strawberry box so customers can know who the grower is

    • Domino’s Pizza Tracker allows customers to leave comments directly for their pizza maker

    • Online sellers of handcrafted goods, such as Novica, Emilime, Mormor, and Etsy often show background information about producers

⚡ Steps to implement


🔍 Study type

Review of existing research.

📖 Research

Van Osselaer, S. M., Fuchs, C., Schreier, M., & Puntoni, S. (January 2020). The Power of Personal. Journal of Retailing.

[Link to paper]

🏫 Affiliations

SC Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University; TUM School of Management, Technical University of Munich; Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University; and WU - Vienna University of Economics and Business. United States, Germany, Netherlands, and Austria

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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