Balancing Frontliners’ Customer- and Coworker-Directed Behaviors When Serving Business Customers

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Michel van der Borgh of Copenhagen Business School, Ad de Jong of Copenhagen Business School, and Edwin J. Nijssen of Eindhoven University of Technology. They recently published an article in Journal of Service Research entitled “Balancing Frontliners’ Customer- and Coworker-Directed Behaviors When Serving Business Customers,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on this research:]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

The motivation for our research emerged from observations that prior literature mainly considered frontline employee (FLE) behaviors in isolation. This stands in sharp contrast with day-to-day practice where FLE’s constantly have to juggle between different tasks for different stakeholders. It is analogous to scholars who constantly have to balance time between research and teaching, among other things. Before this study we did some research on ambidexterity, which focusses more on paradoxical situations where FLE’s seem to be making trade-offs. Although the idea of ambidexterity also fits our research on customer-coworker balance, we felt that the theoretical underpinning was weak. When looking for other theoretical framework we realized that our situation of salespeople trying to balance multiple duties was very similar to something that many people can relate to; work-life balance. Looking into this stream of literature we found some articles pointing to role balance theory, which is rooted in role theory. The ideas of this theoretical framework matched very much with our observations of employees in the frontline. So, our motivation was borne out of personal observations, our knowledge of extant research, and new insights from related fields.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

In our study we employ a novel approach to study balance. While previous studies on ambidexterity and work-life balance often used difference scores or multiplicative measures of both roles, we employ surface response modeling to tease out the interrelationship between customer and coworker-directed behaviors on performance. We were inspired by a 2014 study by Mullins et al. in the Journal of Marketing who employed the same analytical approach to investigate salesperson perceptional accuracy of customer relationship quality. All in all, our work demonstrates that the surface response modeling approach using polynomial regression techniques is better in capturing true effects. We urge future research to apply a similar approach.

What did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

In our paper we decided not to explicitly link our research with the research on ambidexterity since it complicated the already complex story. This is a pity as ambidexterity research also would benefit handsomely from applying these more advanced analytical approaches to examine the true effects of, for instance exploration and exploitation on performance outcomes.

How important is it for customers to have a positive experience when dealing with a company? The evidence from all manner of research disciplines (Psychology, Management, and Marketing) and reports from the field by consultants and managers is that this encounter is absolutely critical. In the field of services marketing the place where this encounter happens is called the “organizational frontlines.” The frontlines refers to everything that occurs when the customer is in contact with the company: the people, the technology, the facilities and the processes. Research on organizational frontlines has focused in on the immediate contact of the customer with the company, especially contact with employees who serve them and the technology that serves them. This research reveals that knowledgeable and skilled service employees and technology that is accurate, speedy and easy to use play important roles in meeting customer expectations and producing customer satisfaction and loyalty.

This commentary on a special issue of the Journal of Service Research that was about organizational frontlines asks the following question: What kind of company context produces the employees and the technology that meets customers’ expectations and satisfies them? That is, given the importance of what happens at the frontlines the commentary considers what companies can do to ensure that what happens there is maximally positive. So, what can companies do?

We propose that companies must have the following mind-sets to create a context in which customers’ experience at the frontlines is optimal:

1. They must have a socio-technical systems mind-set. Socio-technical systems understand that there is no such thing as technology that stands alone. A socio-technical mind-set ensures that those who design and implement technology have those who use it (employees) and those who are served by it (customers) as there focus.

2. They must have a service climate mind set. A service climate mind-set is created in companies when HR, Marketing and Operations all work together to ensure that the people, the products/services, and the technology of a company all focus in on producing a positive customer experience. These functions can’t be silos because they all impact customers. These functions work together well when there is an internal service mind-set as well: “We help each other produce for our customers.”

3. They must have a strong service HR systems mind-set. Employees who deal immediately with customers must be only one focus of HR; as noted earlier, a service mind-set is critical also in those who design and implement technology and, we would add, those who design products and services.

4. They must have a multi-level mind-set. Companies must see themselves as containing three important levels: A managerial level, an employee level and a customer level. Thus, companies can’t divorce the customer from the company and executives can’t divorce employees from their strategies. In service organizations these different levels are in continuous interaction—at least in the best such companies.

Our proposal is that, while it is very important to focus on what happens in the immediate encounter at the company frontlines, there must also be focus on the context that produces what happens there. Our commentary addresses critical elements of that context and the mind-sets management must have if they wish to deliver excellent service.

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