Quiz 9: The Service Encounter


In caste-structured societies and during periods of slavery, service functions were often provided by members of the "lower" class or by slaves.  Although the social structure in many parts of the world has now changed, it is likely that the image of servitude still affects today's service industry.  Exceptions may be noted, however.  Consider the social position of service providers such as physicians and attorneys. Today customers may unknowingly be affected by this dated notion of servitude.  For example, historically the served class had almost limitless control over its servers and this attitude is often seen today in encounters between customers and service providers.  A customer's unrealistic expectations of control may lead to conflict that results in customer dissatisfaction and employee frustration.  On the other hand, if the expectations are reasonable or manageable, they may provide opportunities for designing and providing innovative services. Another aspect of the influence of historical views of service as servitude may be associated with the cost of services.  Historically, service providers were paid low wages or no wages at all!  Many people today still expect services to be provided at "servitude" levels, an attitude that creates a highly elastic demand.  In such a case, automation may allow the business to provide service at a price that customers are willing to pay, e.g., laundry and dry cleaning. Finally, the image of servitude may lead to high expectations for the level of attention that the service provider delivers.  Unmet expectations are sources of conflict and dissatisfaction, but sometimes they can be diffused by offering low cost surrogates such as frequently refilling the water glass in a restaurant or offering pillows to airline passengers. Notions of servitude may also influence service providers.  Employers and employees may see service jobs as "just" entry level or low-skill jobs.  Consequently, the employees may hold little regard for their positions and have little motivation to provide customers with a quality service.

Using a customer as a partial employee in the service process has several organizational implications.  Such use creates a trade-off between operational efficiency and operational control.  When customers provide elements of the service, the result is enhanced efficiency of the service capacity, because the capacity is added to the system at the moment it is needed.  At the same time, however, much of the quality of the service may be out of the control of the organization.  Mistakes by the customer may be costly.  For example, the self-serve yogurt machine in a grocery store is a highly efficient delivery system, but it may also result in waste, extra work for the cleaning staff, and damage to the equipment when customers misuse it. The use of customers as partial employees also requires management to "train" the customers in how to behave.  Often, the training must take place at the time when the service is sought.  Failure to communicate the proper behavior may result in customer anxiety and dissatisfaction.  A more subtle difficulty that providers may encounter involves changing the behaviors that customers have already learned.  For example, in an effort to streamline its airport operation, American Airlines now pre-assigns seats when tickets are issued so that passengers who do not have luggage to check can avoid standing in a long check-in line.  However, many such passengers still adhere to old behaviors and stand in lines needlessly. Customers who act as partial employees have implications for marketing operations.  Services may target the type of customer who desires a lot of control over the process and who is a quick learner.  An example may be seen in the relationship between airlines and frequent business travelers who are often control oriented and well educated.

When customers are served in groups such as in a recreational setting (e.g., Club Med) or on an airline flight, certain norms of behavior must be strictly enforced.  Because the potential for a single customer to ruin the service experience of the group is high, the contact personnel must exercise authority and be seen in that role (e.g., by wearing a uniform).  Peer pressure of other customers will help in the control of deviant behavior.  In one-on-one service, the opportunity for service customization is much easier to accomplish without the knowledge of other customers (e.g., upgrading a hotel room).  However, abuse can also result from either party to the encounter.  For example, the contact person could intimidate a customer into buying unnecessary services (e.g., insurance for a rental car) or the customer could demand disallowed services (e.g., extra carry-on luggage).