WMU News

Customers expect more than they're getting

Feb. 13, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- If your last visit to see a doctor felt more like a trip to McDonalds, then you are not alone.

In fact, according to a Western Michigan University researcher, customers today are finding the service they expect not only from their doctors, but their dentists, hairdressers and auto mechanics as well, is not the kind of service they are receiving.

"Research has shown that organizations are moving toward processing as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible," says Dr. Wendy Zabava Ford, a WMU associate professor of communication and an expert on customer service. "Customers have very high expectations for personalized service that goes beyond smiles and greetings, while the trend in corporations is to streamline the process and make customer interactions faster and more efficient."

In a study published this month in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Ford compared customers' expectations of service across a variety of jobs from cashiers to nurses. She found that the more professional the occupation of the service provider, the more customers expect personalized service.

"Personalized service is tailored service, or service that attempts to address the unique needs of individual customers," says Ford. "It is service that is characterized by the service provider having a customer orientation, sharing information, showing that they are mentally and physically involved in the interaction, and providing a level of social support."

In other words, these professionals are expected to spend time listening and understanding the customers' needs.

In two surveys of West Michigan consumers, Ford found that customers have higher expectations of those service providers with whom they expect to do repeat business.

It seems, however, that corporate America isn't paying attention.

"The corporate model tends to see service interactions as needing to be brief, impersonal encounters rather than long-term relationships," she says. "This trend has been referred to as 'McDonaldization,' where professions like doctors and mechanics have become institutionalized and the corporation dictates how the service is practiced by the individuals."

So at the same time that consumers expect more communication from their physicians, health care workers are under pressure to process as many patients as possible and spend a minimum amount of time with each one.

"Customer expectations of professionals are simply not in line with current trends in the service industry," she says. "We shouldn't be surprised that customer dissatisfaction with service from professionals who operate under the corporate model is on the rise."

Ford points out that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 80 percent of U.S. workers are employed in service industries and that service interactions are a significant part of consumers' daily routines. As a result of this dependence on service, customers have higher expectations of the kind of service provided by all service workers, including those with whom they would normally have brief encounters, such as fast food employees, convenience store clerks and supermarket cashiers.

Consumers want these workers to be quick and efficient, as well as exude courtesy and friendliness. However, says Ford, they should not be too friendly.

"We've found that there is a certain social expectation for these service providers as well," Ford says. "Customers want them to be friendly, but they have set implicit limits on the social conversations with these service providers and are dissatisfied with providers who exceed those limits."

So "Chatty Cathys" need not apply.

And while social interaction is a factor in customer satisfaction, it appears that a key component in whether or not a customer regards service as good is based on time. According to Ford's study, the amount of time spent by the service provider is positively associated with customer satisfaction.

"Generally, customers expect providers of personalized services to spend substantial time with them and not 'rush' the social or informational exchange," she says. "However, providers of routine services, like cashiers or fast food workers, are expected to process customers as quickly and efficiently as possible."

When it comes to communication in customer service, says Ford, this study indicates there really is no magic formula for keeping all customers happy all the time.

"The variation in expectations that we found suggests there really is not one best way to serve customers," she concedes.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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