Is one of these the smarter hire: a customer rep who will do a great job because (s)he, by dint of (psychological) personality or inclination, enjoys serving customers and clients, or one who does it from an unshakeable sense of duty at the core of his or her (moral) character?

Or is there a) no difference, b) no possible generalization, c) no importance in deciding? If the answer to each of these is “no”, and if any discovered differences and generalizations in fact make a difference to the placement outcome and hired employee performance, it is then worth asking what kind of difference these differences and generalizations make—i.e., asking why they matter.

What piqued my interest in this question was my recurrent observation that Japanese customer service (exposure to which I’ve recently added months to the years I previously had in Japan) is generally so good that it is impossible to tell whether it is being provided with genuine gusto or as obligatory, staged performance (without excluding the obvious possibility that it’s both). But why does this difference or caring about it matter?

At the outset it appears that there is a huge difference between duty-based and inclination-based customer service, to the extent that there is a huge conceptual and practical difference between character and personality. Character is a moral dimension of the self, personality is a social, psychological dimension.

When you apply for a bank loan or a bank job that entails getting a high security clearance, character is everything—trustworthiness being the paramount consideration and exclusively a moral one. Your sense of humor, extraversion, fear of heights, etc., are irrelevant, as are almost all other dimensions of “personality”.

But when you apply for a job as a stand-up comic, your being a stand-up guy with “integrity”, an altruistic nature or robust sense of honor will be irrelevant: All that will matter is whether you have an engaging, entertaining and dynamic personality and the skill to conceive, deliver and manage great gags. This is why the most “entertaining”, gag-riddled, flamboyant and superficial daytime TV shows do next to nothing for and too much to our character, while focusing almost exclusively on “personality”.

One reason the issue and the distinctions are important is that, in some cases, an employee motivated by duty is likely to be more reliable than one motivated by inclination, whereas in others, the probabilities are likely to be reversed.

Given that prospective employee reliability is a key consideration in hiring, it would be useful, to the say the least, to know which candidate is likely to be the more reliable and consistent performer.

Finding this out may, to a degree, be facilitated by the right line of interview questioning: “Which do you think is more important and more like you: being a ‘people person’ who naturally enjoys pleasing customers, or being a ‘principle person’ who sees pleasing clients and customers as a seriously?”

Of course, the smart or perfect applicant will reply, “Both.” If that’s the truth, that applicant will be the dream customer-service candidate and employee, and a delightful exception to the otherwise stark and standing contrast between acting from duty vs. from inclination.

An even smarter applicant will respect that contrast and suggested opposition between duty and inclination by declaring that his or her strong inclination is to always do whatever is perceived as a duty.

It may be argued that the duty-motivated employee will more consistently and reliably provide excellent service, because duty is principle-based—and principles do not change as readily as “feelings” and leanings. Such greater resistance to “extinction” typical of duty-determined behavior is partially due to the greater irrelevance of negative customer responses to the likelihood of continued commitment to customer-service excellence. That, in turn, is because this is what duty is: performance excellence prescribed and sustained irrespective of whether or not it is positively reinforced by its beneficiaries.

Interestingly, it is worth speculating as to whether the relative weights assigned to character and personality in an interview and the perceptions of the interviewer regarding these will be influenced not only by which is sought more by the interviewer, but also by which dominates within the interviewer’s own psyche.

If the interviewer is a predominantly “duty-motivated” individual—a “Kantian” (a label suggested by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s trumpeting of moral duty over psychological inclination as the proper determinant of actions), (s)he may inject a character-focused bias into the interview process.

On the other hand, if the dominant component of his or her persona is personality, the bias and filter may result in a focus on personality dimensions, such as sociability, perkiness or relaxed manner, rather than on truthful communication, strong sense of responsibility or general diligence.

Such hiring biases may translate into an organizational or corporate culture in which the tone of customer service is sober and duty focused, as opposed to playful, engaging and otherwise perky.

From the clientele side, I suspect that the customer preference is likely to be for that mode—duty vs. Inclination, character vs. personality—that reflects the individual or average client’s own persona. A Calvinist or Mennonite shopper is more likely to appreciate duty and character-oriented customer service, while Prada “girls gone wild” debs on a gleeful shopping spree may be more likely to want a giddy, exciting atmosphere of shopping support.

One very important strategic implication is that for businesses with clientele that are predictably and reliably homogeneous with respect to such preferences, it may be wise to set customer service standards that articulate and implement one of the two styles—duty and character-based or inclination and personality-based customer service.

My guess is that this will be easy to accomplish in very small businesses with only one or two customer service reps or retail staff and a very homogeneous clientele demographic. However, despite the sprawling success of massive standardization of customer service in huge corporations like McDonald’s, the heterogeneity of the customer base is likely to make such motivational standardization more difficult to justify.

As for myself, I prefer authentically friendly personality and inclination-based customer service, because I’d like to believe that all involved are having fun in the exchange and interaction, instead of its being one-sided and possibly faked from or burdened by a sense of duty and as “emotional labor”. It seems I simply can’t help being altruistic.

That’s just my personality.

Wait. Make that “my character”.