Insight of the Week
September 8, 2023

Customers Tolerate Bad Service When They're Given ID Numbers

A new study found that customers feel less human when they're given ID numbers, numbing them to bad service.

Waitress spilling drink on customer who stays smiling


Customers often receive ID numbers (e.g., banks, electricity, insurance).

Turns out, these IDs feel dehumanizing. Customers experience a numbing effect in which they become more tolerant of bad service:

"...numerical identification implies treating customers in a standardized and mechanical way...which can elicit the feeling of self‐dehumanization among the numbered customers. In response, the dehumanized customers tend to become emotionally numb and more tolerant when encountering a service failure" (Song, Huang, & Jiang, 2022, p. 2)

In one study with a mock restaurant, participants tolerated slow service when they dined in a private room called Room 212 (vs. Kitamoto or unnamed). They also tolerated an overcooked steak if they were seated at Table 218, compared to an unmarked table.

But be cautious. Tolerance should never be a goal.

Imagine if Starbucks wrote IDs on their cups. Sure, you might tolerate a wrong order — but your tolerance stems from low expectations. You expect failure.

Instead, follow these takeaways:

Use IDs in Failure Contexts

Delayed shipment? Perhaps your email should reference the customer ID to cushion negative emotions.

Avoid IDs in Standard Communication

GoDaddy personalized emails with ID numbers, whereas EventBrite uses the first name.

GoDaddy dehumanizes my identity with an ID number in all of their emails.

Let Customers Personalize Their IDs

Don't force customers to log in with an account number. Let them create a username.

Other New Studies

  • Close Relationships Are a Double-Edged Sword - A large European hotel surveyed 85,000+ guests. Turns out, guests who remembered an exceptional staff member were more likely to cancel future reservations. They felt a communal relationship with the hotel, as if they would understand and forgive the cancellation (Shuqair et al., 2022).
  • Self-Assembled Products Increase Performance - Participants performed better with a golf putter when they assembled it themselves, compared to an identical pre-assembled putter (Köcher & Wilcox, 2022).
  • The Neuroscience of Procrastination - Researchers are closer to a treatment for severe procrastinators. Activating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reduced procrastination in individuals by increasing the perceived value of the outcome (Xu, Zhang, Zhou, & Feng, 2023).