guest article by Anne-Madeleine Kranzbühler, winner of the 2018 SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award.

“There is only one boss. The customer.” In our current times of independent comparison platforms, online word-of-mouth, and often non-existing switching costs, this famous quote of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, is more important than ever. Consumers have a plethora of information sources to help them decide where (and where not) to spend their money. This realization has led to a shift in focus – for both research and practice – from creating value for firms to creating value for individual customers. The phenomenon of customer experience (CE) has emerged around this focus and developed into a buzzword for managers. CE has not only moved to the center of attention of practitioners but has also developed into a popular topic for scientific research fuelled by the Marketing Science Institute listing “understanding customers and their customer experience“  as one of their research priorities since 2010.

In my PhD project I set out to shed some more light on the holy grail of customer experience management from a scientific perspective. In four essays using various methodologies and focusing on different phases of the customer journey, my dissertation aims to contribute to building knowledge on what drives today’s customer experiences.

I started out with a literature review of three decades of customer experience research. One of the main findings was that CE research takes place from two perspectives: the organizational and consumer perspectives. While the organizational perspective deals with the design and management of CEs, the consumer perspective analyzes how consumers perceive different factors of their experiences. Although both perspectives analyze the same phenomenon they are mostly unconnected. The organizational perspective mainly focuses on touchpoints that are directly controllable by firms, the consumer perspective investigates the impact of touchpoints that are beyond firm control. To counter this disconnect, the remaining three chapters provide consumer research-based approaches to CE design and management.

The second essay analyzes how consumers make use of different information sources in their decision-making phase. We find that when consumers are simultaneously exposed to conflicting quality ratings from other consumers and experts on an online rating platform, they are influenced more strongly by their peers. Even for complex credence services (such as healthcare), other consumers’ subjective ratings overrule contrasting opinions of experts in the field. We find that consumers still seem to engage in decision making characterized by heuristic biases. The decision to follow the consumer rather than the expert advice is explained by levels of perceived similarity with the other consumers. This perceived similarity even outweighs the lack of the other consumers’ perceived expertise.

The third essay analyzes how branded (i.e., openly communicated) outsourcing of a touchpoint during the experience and usage stage of the customer journey affects consumer evaluations. We find that when using branded outsourcing for dissatisfying touchpoints consumer evaluations of the focal brand are more positive compared to when the touchpoint is performed under the focal firm brand itself. However, the opposite holds for satisfying touchpoints. Thus, firms can strategically shape the customer journey using branded outsourcing as a way to overcome “pain” moments experienced by consumers. Contrary to prior attribution research, we show that brand associations are a better predictor of branded outsourcing effects than attributions of blame. We find that when branded outsourcing is used, the outsourced touchpoint gets associated less with the focal brand and thus also has a reduced impact on focal brand evaluations.

Finally, we meta-analyze the effects of specific emotions during service encounters. Contrary to the assumed importance of high-arousal emotions, the strongest impact across all meta-analyzed studies stems from gratitude, love, and comfort (i.e., emotions with only medium levels of arousal). We also find that positive emotions show a consistently stronger impact on evaluations and behaviors than negative emotions. Our findings further confirm that emotions do play an important role in consumers’ experiences, but this role is not universal. First, only specific (mostly positive) emotions consistently impact outcome variables across studies. Second, while the effects on evaluation and sharing behavior are substantial, the effects on actual purchase behavior are much weaker. Third, the impact of emotions often depends on situational- and consumer-factors such as consumers’ level of expertise, whether a service recovery took place, or whether the consumer used a search, experience, or credence good or service.

Anne-Madeleine Kranzbühler
Assistant Professor in Marketing
Delft University of Technology