Service and Experience: shared appointments; serving customers in batches

J. N. Halm

By J. N. Halm

What was your preferred mode of study when you were a student? Group study or studying alone? Were you a lone ranger or you loved studying with your mates? Everyone indeed had their way of studying but research by a University of Washington professor indicates that studying in groups is a better way. The results of that research were published in the June 2005 issue of Linguistics and Education, an international research journal.

The professor, R. Keith Sawyer, explained that when studying in groups, it was easier for students to recall and make the lecture notes “their own”. By listening to their colleagues paraphrase what was said in class, students are also better able to recall and rephrase what they heard in class. This is what makes studying in groups better than studying alone.

But what if I were to tell you that a similar effect of group dynamics has been found outside of school? What if I were to tell you that similar effects have been within customer groups? It is generally believed that customers prefer to be offered customized, one-on-one services. It is commonly accepted that customers prefer individualised attention as compared to being served together with other customers.

This accounts for why many business setups are designed purposely such that customers solely receive one-on-one services. It seems everywhere one turns, a customer is receiving personalised one-on-one service of a kind. Customers queue in banks to deal individually with tellers, enquiries desk executives, or any other customer-facing professional.

Personalised services offer advantages such as privacy for the customer. You do not want any other customer to see your bank account balance or any other personal information. If you were to visit a lawyer with a very personal problem, the last thing you want is for the lawyer to broadcast your issue in front of other customers. The same applies if you went to the doctor with an ailment you would rather no one knew about. These are instances where privacy is a must.

One-on-one service also creates a personal connection between the customer and the customer-facing employee. If you are the only one being served, it increases the chances of you being given a special kind of treatment. That special treatment will endear the customer service professional to the customer. The customer, in turn, will display more pro-social behaviour. This sets off a virtuous cycle between the customer and the service professional, which is beneficial to both business and customer.

However, if the results of a recent study are anything to go by, then there may be those times when it is better to offer shared services to customers. According to the study titled “Shared Service Delivery Can Increase Client Engagement: A Study of Shared Medical Appointments,” on certain occasions, there are benefits to serving customers in batches. According to the results of the study, group dynamics play a part in making customers who have shared service much more engaged than customers who are given one-on-one appointments. The study results were published in the September 2023 edition of the Manufacturing & Service Operations Management journal.

To arrive at their conclusion, researchers engaged hundreds of patients who were undergoing glaucoma treatment over three years at a large eye hospital, the Aravind Eye Hospital (Aravind) in Pondicherry, India. The researchers found that when patients were dealt with in groups, they asked more questions per minute, made more non-question comments per minute, and exhibited higher levels of non-verbal engagement. In short, patients become more engaged when there are other patients around as compared to when the patient is alone.

The aforementioned Manufacturing & Service Operations Management study was indeed done within the medical field, but the results can have implications beyond hospitals and patients. The reality is that there are services where the service provider requires customers to open up and offer a lot of information to the service provider. This is common when there is co-production of the service. The co-production of services is a very common business practice. It involves customers playing a critical role in the quality of service they receive. It heavily involves customers playing their part in the creation of the service.

A good, albeit not perfect, example involves a student doing his or her homework. It does not matter how well the teacher performs. If the student refuses to play his or her part, there will be a problem with the experience. Another common example involves patients having to take their medication to get well. Without following the prescriptions as recommended by the physician, the experience would not end with the right results. When customers hold backing on following the recommendations of service providers, the experience falls short of expectations—mostly through no fault of the service provider.

On many occasions, what the professional needs more than anything from the customer is information. The information helps the service provider do a better job. For instance, doctors, consultants, trainers, etc. need as much information from their clients as possible to help them recommend the right remedies. A financial consultant will need to know, among other things, the aspirations of the customer before helping the one to draw up the right plan. A psychologist will need to know a lot more about a patient before going ahead with any solutions. These are businesses where the role of the customer in the creation of the service cannot be overestimated. It is therefore a big problem when such a customer refuses to open up.

It has however been observed that there are those instances when customers are less engaged in one-on-one situations. Customers will not be too open to sharing the much-needed information with the service provider. This is where the findings of the abovementioned research come in. According to the study, there are those occasions where people are more comfortable when they see others going through the same experience. It is when others are around that these customers tend to open up and become more engaged.

Shared services, where customers are served in batches, are said to be one good way of getting customers to provide information as well as contribute to the service creation process. The study acknowledges that the loss of privacy might result in customers clamming up and not yielding any information. However, the study also argued that serving customers with similar needs and the same time can actually increase each client’s time with the service provider. This is because one person’s questions may trigger follow-up questions from others. This may lead to higher levels of engagement.

There are varied reasons given for the increased engagement of customers when they are in groups. For instance, there is the Kohler Effect, named after German industrial psychologist Otto Kohler. The Kohler Effect is a phenomenon that asserts that in a team, inferior team members have been found to perform difficult tasks better than they would have done if they were working alone. When the Kohler Effect kicks in, it has been found that groups far outperform the level of the weakest member in the group. The Kohler Effect has been claimed to be in effect when customers are served in groups or batches.

One of the challenges that has been found with business-customer relationships is a lack of transparency. Not knowing what is going on behind the scenes tends to frustrate customers and leads to customers not trusting the organisation. It has therefore been discovered that when customers see the way other customers are served, there is a certain transparency that occurs. With that transparency comes the establishment of trust between the customer and the organisation. When customers feel they can trust a service provider, it becomes very easy for those customers to open up and also for them to display pro-social behaviours towards the organisation.

Another of the reasons given for the increased engagement by customers when they are served in groups is a sense of collective happiness. Seeing the joy on the faces of other customers has a way of engendering a similar feeling in a customer. This is what happens with successful group interaction rituals. The concept of group interaction rituals proposes that successful rituals create symbols of group membership and pump up individuals with emotional energy. When individuals feel a part of a group, they tend to draw their energy from the group.

This understanding is leading some healthcare providers to experiment with serving patients in batches. In the United States of America, the Cleveland Clinic and Kaiser Permanente have used the approach of shared customer appointments successfully for a variety of chronic conditions. This rather unorthodox way of providing patient care is said to be gaining ground in some places. This practice is referred to as Shared Medical Appointment (SMA). Patients with similar chronic conditions are put together. However, since every individual has a different problem, the patients are served individually, but with the other patients looking on.

Practitioners say that by observing what other patients go through, hearing the questions asked, and hearing the responses given by the physician, patients waiting their turn are better able to engage with the doctor when it gets to their turn. Additionally, when one considers all the time the patient spends with the doctor, albeit in the company of other patients, together with the time spent alone with the doctor, it can be seen that the patient gets to spend more time with the doctor during a Shared Medical Appointment.

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