Positive captivity…when the service is so good

Positive captivity…when the service is so good

Freedom. We lie for it. We die for it. Some have been hailed for it. Some have been jailed for it. 18th-century Swiss philosopher, writer, and composer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau says we were born free. British author and journalist, Katharine Whitehorn says we were not. But whether we were born free or born shackled, freedom is something we all desire. It is ingrained in our psyche. It is encoded in our DNA.

Former Israeli military leader, Moshe Dayan says “freedom is the oxygen of the soul”. In the immortal words of French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free.” 19th-century national leader of the American abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass said it was “better even to die free than to live as slaves.”

Freedom is that important, which is why when people do something society finds detestable, we tend to take away their freedom from them. We know that aside life itself, the next most important thing we possess is our freedom, so we take it away from you when you misbehave. Freedom is so important that when incarcerated people misbehave we take away any last freedoms they have—placing them in solitary confinements.

That is how important freedom is to all human beings, including customers. Customers want as much freedom as the next man or woman. Customers want to have the choice to buy from whom they choose to, without having any constraints. After all, it is their hard-earned money. They should be free to spend it anywhere they choose.

However, there are times when customers have no choice but to deal with only one particular organisation. When the organisation is a pure monopolistic entity, customers become tied to that entity. Whether the service is as desired by the customer or not, the customer has no other way to turn. That is the opposite of the freedom humans so crave. In that situation, customers experience what is referred to as “Service Captivity”.

Described as “experience of constrained choice whereby a consumer has no power and feels unable to exit a service relationship”, Service Captivity can be very frustrating. As a matter of fact, when customers feel like captives in a service relationship, they tend to detest the relationship. The idea of being “forced” to deal with just one organisation negatively affects the customer’s experience.

A paper delivered at the 10th SERVSIG Conference in June 2018 took an in-depth look at how captivity affects the attitudes and behaviours of captive customers. Titled, The Effect of Captivity on Customers’ Service Quality Perception, Dissatisfaction, and Word-of-Mouth, the researcher asserted that the mere lack of choice brought about by the captivity reduced the customer’s service quality perception which led to an increase in customer dissatisfaction and negative word-of-mouth. In other words, it is very possible that the service in question may actually be of high quality. Nevertheless, the fact that customers do not have any choice makes them evaluate that service as being of low quality.

The truth, however, is that customers cannot be blamed for scoring captive services lower than usual marks in terms of quality. Customers dealing with pure monopolistic entities really have nothing to benchmark that particular service against. This is why sometimes competition is such a good thing. Competition, if for nothing at all, provides the customer with something to mark the quality of service by. No competition takes away that power and according to the paper, customers detest that.

Service captivity can also be very frustrating when the service is actually substandard. It is one thing to be perceived as not being of high quality and it is another thing to actually be of low quality. There used to be a time when the services of the Electricity Company of Ghana left many Ghanaians very frustrated. There used to be a time in the not-so-distant past when the slightest rainfall was sure to be accompanied by a power outage. On a daily basis, there were numerous complaints about the poor quality of service from the company.

However, because of the company’s monopoly over the distribution of electricity in the country, there was very little Ghanaians could do. No matter how bad things got, many Ghanaians had no other choice than to deal with this state-owned behemoth of a monopoly. We were captive customers of the company. I must admit that things have changed for the better over the years, though.

The aforementioned SERVSIG paper also added that a customer’s feeling of dissatisfaction increases when there is a perception that the particular service or product is overpriced. Once again, it is entirely possible that the service or product is appropriately priced. However, with no other option to benchmark against, customers can assume that the offering is too costly. This is what leads to the greater resentment for the service.

Another study carried out on the subject of Service Captivity found that when customers feel like captives in a service relationship, they try to lessen their frustration by talking to others about their situation. It is from this attempt to “talk away” their frustrations that negative word-of-mouth situations arise. That study was titled “Customer captivity, negative word of mouth and well-being: A mixed-methods study”. It was published in the October 2021 edition of the Journal of Services Marketing.

According to the study, service captivity is a form of customer vulnerability and thus, negative word-of-mouth is a way captive customers seek emotional support from others. By getting back to their social ties, these customers attempt to take control of their emotional wellbeing. In other words, captive customers will badmouth a business as a way of regaining some of their lost personal freedom.

From the preceding paragraphs, it is easy to assume that service captivity is an entirely negative phenomenon. To a large extent, it is. There are however times when the captivity of customers within the service relationship is not because there is only one business to deal with. There are times when there are other options but the captivity is self-imposed. There are times when the organisation offers something that is so wonderful that the customer becomes hooked. Although there might be other organisations that might be offering something similar, customers would not even look at those other options. That is what self-imposed service captivity looks like.

A study titled, How positive service experiences contribute to service captivity,” and published in the October 2021 edition of the Journal of Services Marketing, lent credence to this assertion. The study which was undertaken within the context of Australia’s financial services industry found that positive service experiences “contribute to the service captivity of some consumers, rendering alternative avenues less attractive.” In short, when a service becomes a life-saver for customers, those customers fall so in love with that offering that they make themselves captives. Among the things that made customers positively captive to the service according to the aforementioned Australian study were “accessible solutions, self-esteem, and a sense of control over their financial situation.”

Smart businesses understand the concept of positive captivity and so they ensure that they provide customers with the kind of experiences that customers will not receive anywhere else. These businesses know that great service can be so addictive that when customers get hooked on them, it will take some work to get them off it. These are the organisations that ensure that the whole organisation acts as a customer service department, with every individual primed to do his or her best to always give customers exceptionally excellent service. These organisations also know that they cannot afford to be complacent, so they ensure that every single day, they are putting in place measures to up their game.

Positive captivity can be so successful that it is important to drop a word of caution at this juncture. For organisations whose service quality is such that it positively “captures” customers, it is important that these organisations do not take advantage of these customers. Businesses must know that in a service captive situation, customers are actually in a very vulnerable state. Customers in a state of positive captivity will do anything to keep the relationship with the brand or organisation going. That will be a pretty good time for the organisation to try to take advantage of the customer. But that should not be the case. Integrity should always be a watchword when dealing with customers.

Service Captivity is a topic that might not feature high on the agenda of many organisations, for a number of reasons. The truth is that very few organisations can boast of being truly monopolistic. There is always a hard-charging competitor just around the corner. There is almost always an alternative to whatever offering is out there. Consequently, having captive customers just because that business is the only one in town is only a dream for many businesses.

However, as can be gleaned from the ongoing discussion, customers can become so captivated by the quality of a service that they would go out of their way to become captives to that service. This should be the aim of every single business, regardless of whether it is a monopoly or not. It does not matter how competitive the market is, if your services are superior, you will get captive customers. Customers should be so enamoured with the service they receive and the experience they have, that they should walk to the organisation and hand themselves over. That is what Positive Captivity is all about.

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