July 12, 2018

Bad service can taint the taste of our food

by Christi Mathis

Jaehoon-leeCARBONDALE, Ill. — Bad service can actually affect the way food tastes to us at a restaurant or how clean we think our hotel rooms are.

That’s what Jaehoon Lee, assistant professor of marketing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, concluded based on several studies he conducted.

He found that after an encounter with a rude waiter, many people will give poor reviews to the food they are served. Likewise, an unsatisfactory meeting with a hotel clerk or staff member frequently translates into a guest opining that the room is unclean or otherwise substandard.

The effect was stronger for certain demographics

Lee’s research also led to another discovery. He found that this “carryover effect” was much stronger within people who perceive themselves as members of a lower social class.

He said this is important for businesses to recognize, because polls by Gallup and others have found that the number of Americans who identify themselves as working and lower class, while fluctuating from year to year, continues an upward climb and is fast-approaching 50 percent of the population.

Based on previous research, Lee has found that people who classify themselves as being of a lower social class tend to have or believe they have less access to resources. They thus tend to perceive greater interconnections between goods and services, while those who see themselves as higher on the societal class ladder are more likely to view services and products as separate entities from those who provide them.

“A lot of companies and marketers have focused most of their attention and advertising on upper and upper middle class consumers, but if they continue to do that, they’re missing out on connecting with nearly half of the population,” Lee said.

Personal observations led to study

Lee’s extensive research has included a variety of components and areas, all intertwined.

It all began when he realized that as he read reviews and made consumer decisions about visiting hotels or restaurants, he discovered patterns.

“When I plan to go to a restaurant or book a hotel room, I often read online reviews. I noticed that for some people, specific aspects of a service encounter influence their overall evaluation of the service while for others, that doesn’t tend to happen,” Lee said. “I wondered whether the difference could be traced to different ways of processing information, which vary across social classes.”

It’s all about perception

Much like the proverb that proclaims “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Lee learned that social class is subjective and likewise much in the eye of the individual.

While he questioned people about their actual income, education and standard of living, he also asked how they would classify themselves and learned that “it’s all about how you feel about yourself relative to others that really matters,” Lee said.

Some people with an income in a certain range considered themselves to be of a lower class while others perceived themselves to be of a higher middle class. Those who see themselves as part of a higher social class tend to see service interactions in an analytic and unconnected way, while those who classify themselves lower tend to have a more holistic approach, thinking of all aspects in an interconnected way.

Lee conducted four studies, delved into the processes underlying consumer judgments regarding service failures and focusing on how perceived social class comes into play in response.

Conditioning can affect consumers

Just as Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov proved in his experiments with dogs and conditioning in the 1890s, responses in people can become conditioned, according to Lee.

He said one illustration of this concept can be seen in households in which parents condition children by rewarding every accomplishment, whether it’s completing a chore or making good grades. As long as the rewards continue, so do the accomplishments, but if the rewards are discontinued, frustration and lack of motivation set in and the accomplishments often fade away.

To link this phenomenon to his research, Lee primed the thinking styles of participants so as to encourage those who gauge themselves to be higher class to think more holistically about experiences, connecting the service and provider closely. Meanwhile, people at the other end of the class perception scale were encouraged to think the opposite, separating their service experience from the product.

“Then I gave them the same scenario to imagine, a rude employee waited on them at a restaurant. I found that the thinking style overrides the social class perceptions. When I primed the thinking style, the social class difference disappeared,” Lee said. “It’s all about the perception – how they perceive themselves, whether they feel powerful or powerless.”

Customer satisfaction is possible

What this means for companies and marketers, is they can help set the tone for interactions with consumers and increase the likelihood those interactions will satisfy customers, according to Lee.

By applying Lee’s findings, companies and service providers can work to establish a relationship with consumers in which customers feel in control and powerful, and in which they see each aspect of an experience as separate pieces rather than one whole that could easily be soured by a bad experience with one element.

Lee’s research story, “Can a Rude Waiter Make Your Food Less Tasty? Social Class Differences in Thinking Style and Carryover in Consumer Judgments” was published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.