Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Helping customers cope

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

dealing with the stress of customer participation

Co-production of services, the phenomenon whereby customers play an active role in the production of services they patronise, is here to stay. It is a fact. More than ever, customers are contributing to decisions that affect them. Customers are having their say in terms of their preferences before they make any purchases. As customers become more knowledgeable about what goes into the creation of services, there is a growing desire on the part of customers to play a role in that process. Interestingly, businesses are obliging and are thus, finding more ways to bring customers into the service creation process.

In the professional service industries such as legal, financial, and medical services, co-production is now a norm. These industries, which are essentially knowledge-intensive, are now requiring customers to do their part to ensure a great service experience. As a matter of fact, in some of those situations, without the customer’s participation, there would be no service delivery at all.

In a typical professional service encounter, customers will start by preparing the necessary information backed by the necessary documents. Assuming the customer is seeking a legal service, it is the customer’s job to bring all the relevant information to the lawyer. The lawyer is not an investigator who will go out and get the necessary information from the onset. If the case requires the services of a detective, then the lawyer can recommend one. However, from the beginning, it is the customer’s job to make sure all the relevant information is provided.

At the early stages of the service experience, all the thinking—as to what information to bring to the service encounter and what information to leave out—is done by the customer. As a matter of fact, it has been proven that sometimes even the thought of what to bring to the service encounter can stress the customer.

The second part of the service experience is when the customer gets to sit with the service provider, who in this case would be the lawyer. The giving of professional advice during the service encounter is the actual service being provided. However, even during that period, the customer still contributes to the service. The professional will ask the customer questions and the customer would have to think about the questions before answering. Experts have found that such encounters tend to place a “high cognitive demand on customers.”

For all intents and purposes, this trend of co-creation, especially for professional services will continue. The fact that even businesses that would normally not resort to the use of co-creation are now getting into co-creation is clear evidence that co-creation is not just a fad. For instance, there are even eateries that are getting customers to play a role in the preparing of food. This should give an indication of the upward trajectory of the co-creation trend.

The benefits of customer participation are so substantial that it will only push the trend upwards. It has been claimed by scientists that when customers play a part in the process of creating the service, the level of customer satisfaction is usually higher. People generally give a higher valuation to something they have been a part of. It has also been argued that customers who play a part in the creation of the service experience tend to be more loyal than customers who had no hand in the creation of the service.

But in spite of all of its merits, the truth is that customer participation also has demerits. For instance, it has been found that there is reduced job satisfaction among front line employees who deal with co-creation customers. These professionals feel they are really not being allowed to do their jobs—and some customers also do not make it any easier on these professionals. Customers who know something little about the job of the professional would often voice it out. These customers might even claim that they are doing all the work. All these result in additional job stress for the professional.

Sometimes, the plain fact is that customers just do not have what it takes to effectively participate in the co-creation of the service. There are certain services that require a high cognitive level for the service and subsequent experience to be a success. There are some services that demand that practitioners undergo years of strenuous training before they qualify to practice. Many customers do not have that level of knowledge to participate in the service creation process. However, regardless of the capacity of the customer, the one is still expected to play his or her part in the service creation process.

Let us take an example of a customer who approaches an investment advisor for advice on where to invest some funds. Assuming the customer is a non-financial person but the advisor places a portfolio of financial products before the customer and further asks the customer to evaluate the products. Can you imagine the stress that customer will be under to make a sound choice?

A scenario like this will force the said customer to overextend himself to fulfil his customer participation obligations and to live up to his responsibilities. This will inevitably lead to stress on the customer. The negative psychological state resulting from the customer’s overextension by required customer participation efforts is what is referred to as customer participation stress. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of work being done in that area of study. The reason is that stress comes with its own challenges.

When customers become stressed, it negatively affects their purchasing decisions. The stress that a customer will go through in co-creating a service experience can be enough to get the customer to abort the purchase or to never return again. The stress that accompanies the experience would definitely have a negative effect on the customer’s evaluation of the experience. A customer who has had to crack her brains to make a purchase will walk away from the experience drained and overwhelmed.

A recent study published in the January 2023 edition of the Psychology & Marketing journal found that there was at least one way organisations can help customers in such situations. The researchers used a study of a bank in Germany and an experiment to come up with their findings. According to the study, titled “How can customers cope with cognitive demands of professional services? The role of employee coping support,” employees have a very important role to play in helping customers cope with the demands of co-creation.

It is a known fact that when individuals are faced with challenging situations, they resort to a variety of ways and means to cope with the situation. To reduce personal stress, individuals adopt specific coping mechanisms. Two of the main coping mechanisms are coping by taking an appropriate action and coping by changing the one’s emotional state of the individual. The former is coping by taking directed action at the source of the stress and it is what is often referred to as problem‐focused coping. In the case of a customer seeking the services of a psychologist, this could mean the customer sitting down, researching and writing out all the possible information that the psychologist might need.

The latter case, referred to as emotion‐focused coping, refers to an individual’s support‐seeking behaviors by leveraging on the one’s social resources to achieve an improved emotional and/or mental state. In the case of the same customer seeking the services of a psychologist, this could mean taking someone the customer really trust to the meeting, for the one to offer some sort of emotional support. It is not uncommon to find patients going for doctor’s appointments with people they trust can offer the emotional support they might need,

One their own, individuals can do either of these two things on their own volition. However, it is also possible that someone can also help an individual come up with these coping mechanisms. This is where the customer-facing professional comes in. Employees can, and should, offer both problem-focused coping as well as emotional-focused coping to help their customers better manage the stress that comes with customer participation.

For employee-initiated action-focused coping, the employee can take ample time to properly explain every bit of requirement or information needed. The employee should see himself as an assistant of the customer and thereby, help the customer make the best of decisions. This will aid in making the customer’s co-creation responsibilities a lot more manageable.

In the case of employees initiating emotion-focused coping, the employee should regularly assure the customer that he or she is in good hands. The employee should, in that situation, become an emotional support for the customer. That is not the time for the professional to be all calculative and cold. It is time to be accommodating and warm.

From the ongoing discussion, it should be clear to business owners, managers, supervisors and front line employees that they have a responsibility to help their customers cope with the demands of co-creation. Those whose job it is to handle customers should know that offering emotional support to the customer during the service creation process is also part of customer service.

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