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The Service Experience Intangibles Published: Sunday, February 28, 2016 12:01 am By: Rafael Ríos, Executive VP

I recently found and interesting article by Sriram Dasu and Richard B. Chase relating to the importance of feelings, confidence and control in the overall service experience. They stated that when people talk about innovation in customer service, they usually think in terms of technological or process enhancements that make service delivery faster or more efficient. In recent years, restaurants have introduced hand-held devices that buzz patrons when their table is ready, and supermarkets offer customers self-service checkout lines,  APP’s tell you where to find the best sushi while on your vacationing etc., etc. While such innovations may simplify matters for customers, service organizations rarely stop to consider the overall psychology that shapes service encounters. Indeed, despite the plethora of articles and books about managing the customer experience, many key psychological variables that influence customer perceptions, the subtle enhancements that help define a positive experience, have yet to be defined or articulated fully.

Organizations 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 feelings are more difficult to describe: Did the passenger enjoy the flight? Did the customer who called the service center with a problem hang up feeling better about the provider? Much as having a deeper understanding of systems dynamics and process analysis has pushed companies to re-engineer their operations to achieve explicit outcomes, findings from behavioral decision- making research, cognitive psychology and social psychology can point service providers to ideas for redesigning the psychological or implicit aspects of service encounters.

Feelings, confidence and control can influence customer assessments of service experiences and their overall view of service providers. These factors are key elements in most service encounters in many cases they either drive or reinforce how customers perceive their experience. Organizations that take the time to understand how each of them works will have opportunities to shape new offerings that lead to more positive service results.

Feelings influence what we remember, how we score encounters and the decisions we make. We all have explicit memories that we access about events, and implicit, or unconscious, emotional memories that characterize our feelings during those events. Emotionally charged episodes (both positive and negative) are often easily recalled.

Confidence is a primitive psychological variable that is essential to any robust and enduring relationship. Without trust there is often no engagement, only negative feelings such as anxiety and frustration. With confidence comes a sense of comfort.

Control over one’s environment and knowledge of how events are going to evolve are fundamental psychological needs. Research shows that feelings of control (or lack thereof) can affect one’s health. Negative events for example, learning of a serious illness or a large decline in the value of one’s retirement fund can inflict serious psychological harm by diminishing our sense of control. However, control is linked to trust, and greater trust can reduce a customer’s need for control. The concept of cocreating a service encounter or product is an example of letting the customer participation that creates a since of control.

In recent years, manufacturing companies have achieved significant productivity and quality gains by embedding new production knowledge into production systems. Services providers can achieve similar levels of improvement by embedding psychological knowledge into their customer service encounters. They can accomplish that by actively addressing feeling, confidence and control factors as design variables.

Consistent performance goes a long way toward building confidence. 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.

Every service encounter that involves uncertainty either in outcome or process will cause customers to experience a loss of control. Service providers design for control in two ways: by allowing people to have behavioral 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 (for example Fed Ex’s tracking system). Behavioral control is at play when investors get to select from a menu of retirement investment options; when patients get to arrange their own hospital meal schedules; and when cable subscribers get to personalize their channel lineups and home entertainment choices. In general, if service is not going to be delivered right away, customers prefer having behavioral control and the ability to manage when the service is delivered; off-line waits are preferable to in-line waits. Cognitive control is created by conveying information about the process or the outcome to the customer. When airlines post information about flight delays, they are restoring cognitive control.

Companies seeking to excel in customer service need to explore opportunities to revamp their service processes. It is not enough to assume that the organizational culture or heroic actions by a few front-line employees will produce the proper outcomes. Rather, managers must carefully rethink the psychological aspects of emotions, trust and control of service encounters much the way industrial engineers approach the physical side of work. Although some areas, such as mobile technologies that facilitate banking or access to medical records, may lend themselves to technological innovations, the first requirement for any service provider is having a clear understanding of the kind of service and personal attention customers are looking for as well as their emotional needs.


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