Interview with Mark Rosenbaum, University of South Carolina.

Many consumers report overt or subtle discrimination in service contexts. And when it happens, it’s bad news for everyone. Obviously, it’s bad for business. But it also has serious implications for both the individuals who experience discrimination and for society more broadly.

Service marketers and practitioners know that consumers enter service contexts with different expectations. But despite this fact, there has been little research into vulnerable consumers and the effects surrounding them until recently.

A new special issue of the Journal of Services Marketing addresses issues relating to vulnerable consumers in depth – and shows that it’s time for a paradigm shift.

To mark the release of the new landmark volume, I put a few questions to Dr Mark Rosenbaum, of the special issue’s editors.

What exactly is a vulnerable consumer?

To understand the term, vulnerable consumers, I draw upon the American Marketing Association definition of Marketing. According to the AMA, marketing is an activity, a set of institutions, and processes for “creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers…” Yet, the marketplace serves a wide variety of consumers whom enter exchanges while being characterized by a series of sociocultural identity markers, such as ethnicity, race, age, gender, social class, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities, and so forth, which often impair a customer’s ability to obtain the maximum value potential during exchange activities. That is, a consumer may be rendered with a marketplace disadvantage, or a vulnerability, in terms of having an equitable opportunity to obtain value in the marketplace, merely due to possessing, or being associated with, various sociocultural markers that typically originate from a consumer being identified with a stigmatized status.

Why did you get involved in research into vulnerable consumers?

My interest in the topic actually stems from my doctoral student experience when I was first introduced to theoretical models and frameworks. Our theories and framework rarely consider perspectives from consumers who are often marginalized or stigmatized. For example, I conducted my dissertation research in a diner that was patronized by a group of retirees and widows because loneliness brought them together; most of them found the food to be of mediocre quality. I’ve talked to transgender consumers who are scared to enter the marketplace and who turn to e-commerce for personal safety and not because of product selection or prices. I’ve spoken to consumers with disabilities who cannot get off at certain train stops in Chicago, and thus, they must alter their choice of medical care because the train stop is not handicapped accessible. How can we talk about service quality in health care when some consumers cannot access desired health care providers because of public transportation failing to accommodate persons with disabilities?

As marketers, we don’t fully understand consumers’ experiences in places because we fail to consider situations when consumers may be unable to obtain maximum value during a marketplace exchange.

In your editorial you mention that by addressing the needs of vulnerable consumers, service marketers can contribute to individual, national and even global well-being. Is this really something that a humble marketer can hope to achieve?

At the present time, about 20% of the U.S. population, nearly 60 million, are people with disabilities. Do we truly understand their experience in the marketplace? Have we considered how these consumers use self-service technology, or services, such as drive-thru lanes? Now, let’s consider not only consumers with disabilities, but also, other consumers who may be vulnerable in some service settings, such as obese consumers or gay and lesbian consumers. Do extant service quality models apply to these consumers? How do poor consumers use banking services? In some developing countries, poor consumers prefer using so-called “loan sharks” because they feel more comfortable with them than by entering formal banks. This finding puts service design by the wayside. Perhaps, poor consumers evaluate services differently than higher-income consumers, but how?

For too long, marketers have overlooked the reality that our seminal theories and frameworks do not apply to vulnerable consumers, or, at best, they require some type of modification and re-investigation.

By investigating how we can improve value delivery to a vulnerable consumer, we help the individual’s well-being. Because vulnerable consumers are not alone, but represent groups of individuals, we help current and future consumers obtain value from their marketplace activities. Finally, because all consumers may be vulnerable in some marketplace exchange, we can improve global well-being by improving service delivery for all consumers. We must begin to understand when and why our theories and frameworks need to be altered for various groups of consumers.

What’s the significance of the special issue that you’ve been working on?

The articles reconsider our knowledge of the marketplace from various perspectives. We see how deaf and hard of hearing consumers interact in the marketplace. We look at the marketplace from an aging consumers’ perspective and from an immigrant’s perspective. We look at how survivors of prostitution services, human trafficking, recover and how consumers seek social support over the phone. We look at consumers who are vulnerable. We analyze consumers who enter consumption settings knowing that they won’t obtain maximum value. Many simply want to survive after being forced into prostitution or surviving a natural disaster.

Are there any brands we can learn from which have taken effective measures to help vulnerable consumers?

This is a difficult question. Many companies strive to hire people with disabilities. But, the question concerns serving vulnerable consumers. I’m going to say here that no service organization is stellar at serving vulnerable consumers. The reason that i say this is that I found that employee-to-consumer discrimination often occurs at the front-line and is counter to managerial and organizational policies. Yet, self-service may not be the answer because consumers who lack credit access are essentially barred from these exchanges.

If there was one take-home message you could give to marketers about vulnerable consumers, what would it be?

Consider your customer’s journey from multiple perspectives. Consider a touchpoint, a situation when a customer interacts from an organization, and determine how and why a consumer may experience value creation as well as value destruction.

Mark Scott Rosenbaum
is a Fullbrighter and Department Chair and Professor at the University of South Carolina.

(This article was originally posted on the emerald website here)