September 12, 2012

Customer perception is key to service satisfaction

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- As a customer, is your perception of a service encounter really based on the encounter itself or on what you bring to it?

Research by a team that includes a Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty member indicates that the customer plays a crucial part in his or her own perceptions of, and satisfaction with, service.  In addition, research also found that customers who approach a service encounter with positive emotions put forth more effort in the process and get more out of it as a result.

“What’s interesting here is that we found something rather counterintuitive.  That is, that the amount and type of effort the customer invests in a service interaction will actually improve the customer’s perceptions of the quality of the service provider and satisfaction with the service experience.  That’s unique,” said Cheryl Burke Jarvis, associate professor and interim chair of the marketing department in the College of Business.

Jarvis joined Andrew S. Gallan, assistant marketing professor at DePaul University’s Driehaus College of Business, and Stephen W. Brown, emeritus professor, and Mary Jo Bitner, professor, at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, in researching positive emotions and service encounters.

The study of 190 patients at a tertiary medical care facility included people with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.  The research focused on the patients’ perceptions of the quality of their treatment providers and the care they received as well as their overall feelings about their treatment.  Jarvis said she and the other researchers found that when patients entered a service relationship with more positive feelings the patients took more effort to make the experience successful and in turn, judged the service provider to be of higher quality and were more satisfied with the service.

“This effect held true even with patients facing serious illnesses.  If they had positive attitudes going into the service experience and were actively involved in the experience they actually thought their doctors were more qualified, when the only real difference was the patients’ level of effort expended.  Customer participation optimizes outcomes,” Jarvis said. 

Jarvis said their work has a number of managerial implications and that although their focus was on the health care industry, the results likely are applicable in many service provider scenarios.  Their research found that patients can differentiate between technical/clinic quality and functional/service quality, with those who more actively participate in their own care reporting greater satisfaction. 

Knowing these things allows providers to use service “blueprinting,” a technique that allows them to design customer experiences to integrate customer and employee actions, support processes and physical evidence to improve the service process.  This blueprinting allows them to identify and take advantage of opportunities to enhance and reinforce positivity, Jarvis said.  Service providers can tool various elements of the service experience including the facilities, the service processes, the service providers and beyond to create a scenario that increases the likelihood of a positive experience for the customer.  They can also take steps to better involve the customers and encourage in them positive attitudes, again helping create positive overall experiences for the customers.

Although the research did not focus on the implications for customers approaching a service experience, the data has relevance to them as well, Jarvis said.

“It is insightful for them (customers) to know that if they approach a service encounter with a more positive emotional outlook, they will find that they are better prepared for difficult situations in that they can access a broader and richer set of actions and resources to address the situation,” Jarvis said.  “Although our work doesn’t address the impact of positivity on actual health outcomes but rather on their perceptions of the service experience, there is psychology research that does show that positivity results in better actual outcomes.”

The “Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science” recently published “Customer Positivity and Participation in Services:  An Empirical Test in a Health Care Context,” detailing the team’s research.  It is available online at The journal has also accepted the paper for print publication in the near future.