Interaction in the Service Encounter

Dr Brian Monger

Interaction between customer and organisation lies at the heart of service delivery.  The interaction may take many forms, from a brief encounter with a directions sign to a protracted encounter with a service employee.  Whatever the nature and type of contact, each represents a moment of truth for the customer.  According toLynn  Shostack, ‘Controlling and enhancing the encounter is a critically important task that no service organisation can afford to leave to chance’.

Types of encounters

Shostack describes three types of service encounters:

1.         The remote encounter – where customers interact with a service, or part of it, through the mail e.g. financial services, mail order.  The remote encounter may also occur via a machine, e.g. the ATM.  Leaflets, brochures and forms sent by mail need to be designed with the consumer in mind.  Machines need to function and be user friendly.  This type of encounter should be the easiest to control as it is based on some form of physical object, be it printed material or a computer terminal.  Quality should be assured as they can be tested, modified and made uniform.

2.         The indirect personal encounter – where customers interact with a service by telephone.  There is potentially more scope for variability entering the service delivery.  This can be avoided by requiring the employee to work to a script, but problems may still arise if the customer’s enquiry/complaint requires reference to other parts of the organisation only to find their support is not forthcoming.

3.         The direct personal encounter – where customers interact face-to-face with the service provider.  Customers now have the opportunity of visualising the providers of the service.  Judgements about service quality may be made from the appearance and demeanour of the service provider.  The increasing use of uniforms, now referred to as corporate clothing, and the development of interpersonal skills training are recognition of the impact direct personal encounters may have on customer satisfaction.

In addition to these three types of encounter, there is a host of other encounter points that may influence the customer’s view of the service.   For example:

The front entrance to an organisation

The car park

The organisation’s vehicles

The interior of a building – type of furnishings, plants (real or plastic)



The above list is simply illustrative but indicates that service organisations contain a wealth of encounter points (not only human).  It is at these points that impressions are formed which are subsequently converted into feelings, beliefs and perhaps lasting images.

In certain service situations (some observers may say the numbers are increasing) the customer has a choice between a personal and impersonal encounter.  Langeard et al sought to measure customers’ willingness to participate in the process of producing a service.  By developing scenarios for a range of services (bank, petrol station, hotel, airport, restaurant, outlet selling travellers cheques) respondents were asked to indicate which type of encounter they preferred.

The rules of the game

In service encounters people come together to obtain certain goals.  To achieve these goals and coordinate the behaviour of the participants, rules must be developed.  Rules specify the behaviour which is regarded as appropriate in a given situation.

Rules should be distinguished from norms and conventions.  Norms refer to modal behaviour, i.e. what most people do; sometimes most people break the rules.  Conventions refer to arbitrary customs, e.g. hats for nurses.  Conventions can vary without affecting performance or attainment of goals.

There is a great deal of scope for creating added value by investigating customer behaviour, their effect on the situation and how they should be handled.

There is a need to understand why customer experiences of service provision can range  from excellent to vows never to return’ .

The Critical Incident Technique

Organisations need to know what customers expect from the service experience.  In particular they need to study what goes on during the encounter with service personnel to see if it lives up to customers’ expectations.  A method particularly suited to achieving that objective is the critical incident technique which has been described as: a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behaviour in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving problems and developing broad psychological principles.

By collecting statements from the participants in an encounter it seeks to determine incidents (behaviours, actions) that are especially helpful or inadequate.  It is particularly valuable for evaluating employee/customer interactions but can be equally revealing when applied within an organisation.  For example the following questions can reveal effective or ineffective behaviours of a supervisor.  Employees, and even management, could be asked to:

•           Think of a time when your supervisor did something that you felt should be encouraged as it seemed in your opinion an example of good supervison

•           Think of a time when the supervisor did something that you though-. was not up to par

What may be interesting is the degree of agreement/disagreement between management and employees as to what constitutes effective and ineffective behaviour by the supervisor.

Applications of the critical incident technique to the service encounter communication problems

Having a technically sound operational system is insufficient for delivering service quality and providing customer satisfaction.  Positive service encounters require effective oral communication skills on the part of the employees.  This is particularly so in the case of high contact service organisations like hotels, airlines, restaurants, colleges etc.

The aim must be to identify, with the aid of the critical incident technique, employee behaviours that are regarded as either effective or ineffective in exchanges with customers.  There is an endless amount and variety of customer behaviours that may prove difficult to manage.  For example:

*          Unreasonable demands

*          Demands against company policy   (Check your policy?

*          Unacceptable treatment of employees

*          Drunkenness

It may often be the case that customer expectations or demands exceed the organisation’s and its employees’ willingness and/or ability to meet them.  In knowing how to handle these demands employees should have a knowledge of customer expectations and how they are formed.

Organisations often equip their employees with scripts which specify a range of responses to be used in a given situation.  There are inherent dangers with this approach as the customer perceives the organisation to be impersonal and inflexible.  To overcome this, employees should be encouraged to expand their repertoire of possible responses.

Organisations need to train employees to be competent communicators.

There is a large body of research from which communication strategies can be developed.  However, there are a number of fundamental principles that every employee should adhere to when confronted with a difficult situation:

•           Remain calm – an irate customer can be equated to a pressure cooker so the lid needs to be taken off gently

•           Let the customer vent his/her anger – don’t interrupt, laugh etc

•           Listen with understanding – this diffuses anger and demonstrates concern.  Apologise to the customer for being inconvenienced and state that you are there to help.  It is vital to show a sincere interest and willingness to help.  The customer’s first impression of the employee is all important in gaining cooperation

•           Restate what the customer is saying, in summary form.  This tells the customer that you have listened and understood what has been said

•           Don’t blame others or make excuses.  Instead, take the responsibility and initiative to do whatever you can to solve the problem as quickly as possible, and

•           Find out what the customer wants.  If that cannot be met, state why  and propose your own solution.  The customer may also be asked what he or she would consider a fair alternative

•           Once a solution is agreed, act quickly.  If agreement cannot be reached, refer the customer to someone else able to resolve the problem.

In all the dealings with the customer it is important to be courteous and considerate and respect the feelings of the customer.

Satisfactory and unsatisfactory encounters

In addition to asking employees for examples of interactions with customers that were difficult and uncomfortable, the views of customers are invaluable for revealing the specific events and employee behaviours that make for a satisfactory or dissatisfactory encounter.  Critical incidents (events and behaviour) are uncovered by asking consumers the following:

*          Think of a time when, as a customer, you had a particularly satisfying (dissatisfying) interaction with an employee of (service specified)?

*          When did the incident happen?

*          What specific circumstances led up to this situation?

*          Exactly what did the employees say or do?

*          What resulted that made you feel the interaction was satisfying (dissatisfying)?

Responses to questions such as these can shed enormous light on the performance of the entire service delivery system.  It can reveal specific customer perceptions of how well (or badly) employees responded, failures in the service delivery system and customer needs and requests.  It can provide surprises, e.g. excellent service as a consequence of unexpected and unrequested employee behaviour.  In addition to individual expressions of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a particular event or behaviour customers may intimate their overall feelings, for example:”

Everything went right – ‘a sincere and professional team effort. accommodating, polite but not pushy, warm atmosphere, courteous, efficient and professional, no waiting, best service ever received, everything was perfect’.

Everything went wrong – ‘inefficient, unprepared, slow, not accommodating nor attentive, no assistance, unprofessional, bad decor/atmosphere’.

Customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction will depend to a large extent on whether, and how, employees apply their ability, willingness and ingenuity.  Implicit in all of this is the recurring theme of how well prepared, motivated and rewarded the employees are.  Personality may explain acts of extreme helpfulness.  However, employee response must be planned on a much firmer footing.  The service organisation bears a heavy responsibility for ensuring that employees are well resourced to act in a positive manner.

Dr Brian Monger is Executive Director of MAANZ International and an internationally known consultant with over 45 years of experience assisting both large and small companies with their projects.  He is a specialist in negotiation and behaviour He is also a highly effective and experienced trainer and educator

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