Writing for MIT Sloan Management Review, Sriram Dasu and Richard B. Chase attempt to answer the question, "How can service organisations make their encounters with customers more positive?"
As the authors observe, customers have complex needs in service environments and emotions are lurking under the surface even in mundane encounters. So the challenge is to make those feelings positive.
Dasu and Chase say: "Organisations often measure the outcomes of service encounters in concrete terms such as on-time flight arrivals or the time to resolve a customer's call. However, the subjective outcomes – the emotions and the feelings – are more difficult to describe. Did the passenger enjoy the flight? Did the customer who called the service centre with a problem hang up feeling better about the provider?"
The authors insist that findings from behavioural decision-making research, cognitive psychology and social psychology can point service providers to ideas for redesigning the "psychological or implicit aspects of service encounters".
According to Dasu and Chase, there are three key elements in most service encounters that can influence customer assessments of their experiences and overall view of providers. Collectively known as the "ECTs", these are:
1) Emotions. These influence what we remember, the decisions we make and how we rate encounters.
2) Trust. This is essential in any enduring relationship and brings a sense of comfort.
3) Control. Negative experiences diminish our sense of control. The greater a customer's trust, the less their need of control.
Companies work hard to select the emotions that make up their competitive positioning, say the authors. They refer to this high-level positioning as the "emotional platform". For instance, if an insurance provider uses the slogan, "You’re in safe hands," it wants to reinforce the idea of security and loyalty.
Dasu and Chase say: "Once a company has selected its emotional platform, the next step is designing the interactions that consistently manage emotions in accordance with the platform."
The authors say that linking process flows and transaction history to emotions allows service organisations to limit negative emotions and accentuate positive ones. Identifying and focusing on points in the service cycle where emotions tend to be high can bring success.
"Consistent performance goes a long way toward building trust," say Dasu and Chase.
They add: "The need for trust is particularly important when the outcomes are not completely under the control of the service provider and when the customer is not in a position to assess the service provider’s knowledge or skills.
"That is often the case with professional services, where customers have legitimate questions about whether service providers have the skills, the motivation and the resources to serve them."
Credentials, testimonials and recommendations are important factors in trust but customers also make judgements based on a person's behaviour and professional appearance, their problem-solving skills and their ability to communicate clearly.
"Little gestures speak volumes about a server's motivation," say the authors. "These include following up with the customer after the contractual obligations have been completed."
Another key factor is "likeability", made up of a number of variables such as friendliness, congruence of values, language and similarity of backgrounds.
Customers experience a loss of control in any service encounter that involves uncertainty either in outcome or process.
Dasu and Chase explain: "Service providers design for control in two ways: by allowing people to have behavioural control over parts of the service delivery process, and through cognitive control, where even though customers can’t influence the process, they can see enough of the system to know that it's well managed."
Central to managing cognitive control is making information available to customers. However, events that generate strong emotions should be handled carefully, allowing customers to choose how much information they receive. Web technologies are suited to this.
The authors observe that even people who don't want detailed information about outcomes often like to know as much as they can about process.
They suggest one way of providing process information is with service previews, which can "reduce anxiety about the negative aspects of a service and prepare people for the positive parts". Another key issue of control is the allocation of decision rights between customers and service providers, i.e., what decisions should the company allow the customer to make?
Dasu and Chase's research suggests that customer preferences on decision rights are based on the significance of the decision and the level of knowledge customers have.
They explain: "On major decisions, customers frequently prefer to cede decision control to service providers with greater expertise. In instances where the decisions are relatively inconsequential, providers can allocate decision rights to customers, giving them an increased sense of control."
The authors conclude: "It is not enough to assume that the organisational culture or heroic actions by a few front-line employees will produce the proper outcomes. Rather, managers must rethink the emotions, trust and control of service encounters much the way industrial engineers approach the physical side of work."