Snotty salespeople increase sales

Human Resources Management Small Business Screenshot of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere from Pretty Woman

Remember the restaurant L’Idiot in the movie L.A. Story, where the city’s elite clamoured for the chance to be treated like scum by Patrick Stewart as the maitre d’? And they all loved it?

Remember the following exchange between Chevy Chase and the maître d’?

MD: “Your usual table?”
CC: “No. I’d like a good one this time.”
MD: “I’m sorry, that is impossible.”
CC: “Part of the new cruelty?”
MD: “I’m afraid so.”

Well, we’ve always known this was a case of art imitating life. But now we have scientific research to prove it.

According to a recent study at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, people who are treated rudely by salespeople can actually become more likely to buy those brands.

The theory is that they do so just to prove they can.

According to HR Reporter, marketing professor Darren Dahl wondered about this question when he went to buy Hermes cologne while wearing worn-out jeans and a T-shirt. He was treated “with disdain” by the salesperson, which had the surprising effect of making him more, rather than less determined to buy the expensive cologne.

The reason should be obvious to anyone who has ever wanted to fit in anywhere, with anyone. He wanted to prove to the snotty salesperson that he could buy the cologne.

HR Reporter quotes Dahl as saying, “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.’

“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.”

For the study, participants imagined or had interactions with sales representatives who were either rude or not rude. Subjects then rated their feelings about associated brands, and their desire to own them.

Participants who expressed an aspiration to be associated with high-end brands reported an increased desire to own those products after being treated badly. It only worked when people aspired to the brand. Dahl says, “It has to be something you want that you don’t have.”

But, while he says that snobbiness might actually be a “qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci,” Dahl also cautions that “you’ve got to be the right kind of snob in the right kind of store for the effect to work.”

So, it only worked when the salesperson came across as an “authentic representative of the brand,” and didn’t work if they weren’t convincing representatives.

Also, the effect was only true for luxury brands, not mass market labels. H&M salespeople need to be friendly, in other words.

This is interesting because I have noticed a similar effect in high end (hipster) restaurants. When wait-staff is rude, and they seem cooler than me – which isn’t hard. I’m not very cool – I often find myself being overly friendly, because I assume there must be something about me they don’t like and I want to cool kids to like me. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit in your forties, but here we are. I even leave big tips for rude wait staff, because I am desperate for them to like me.

But here’s the rub: I later regret it and feel embarrassed and pathetic, and I don’t go back to those places.

Similarly, the effect wore off in Dahl’s study as well.

“Customers who expressed increased desire to purchase the products reported significantly diminished desire two weeks later.”

Because the buyer wanted to prove to themselves that they belong but eventually it sinks in that all they proved is that they’re easily goaded into parting with their money.

So, now we come to the question of whether using snobbiness as a sales tactic is a good idea. It can be, if the sale is likely to be a one-off.

As Elaine Hay of staffing firm Campbell, Edgar in Vancouver tells HR Reporter, “Being rude to a customer is never a basis for building a long-term relationship.”

This tactic isn’t going to make you any long-term friends, but you could get that one customer that one time.

Dahl says, “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.”