Guest article by Ilias Danatzis, Ingo O. Karpen, and Michael Kleinaltenkamp, winners of the SERVSIG Best Service Article Award.

We are honoured to receive SERVSIG’s Best Service Article Award for our 2022 paper on “Actor Ecosystem Readiness” (AER) in the Journal of Service Research. This award is particularly gratifying to us, not only because it underlines the positive response we have received from the academic community to our paper, but also because it highlights the central role of readiness in navigating today’s evolving service landscapes.

Initially, our readiness concept aimed to shed light on what it takes for customers and employees to navigate the myriad of interactions that modern service environments offer. Simply put, customers and employees must be ‘ready’ to deal with a plethora of people and touchpoints throughout their usage journey. When we first conceptualised AER, it grew out of a recognition of the rapid changes in service delivery, driven largely by the rise of digital platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon. These platforms have revolutionised how we work, shop, and socialise, often putting users in the driver’s seat. As a result, there has been a marked shift in roles and responsibilities, with customers and employees taking on more empowered stances. Interactions were no longer confined to dyadic exchanges but spanned multiple actors, both human and non-human. Our AER concept delves into the breadth of human abilities and motivations required to function in such interconnected environments, from cognitive to emotional, interactional, and motivational facets of readiness.

In the last two years since the first publication of our paper, service delivery has undergone even more profound changes. The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges, reshaping customer, and employee behaviour, disrupting organisational frontlines, and spurring misbehaviour. At the same time, the emphasis on sustainability has surged across sectors, with service environments offering particular opportunities. And recent technological advances such as generative AI, including ChatGPT, offer a glimpse into the future of service interactions – automated yet personalised, efficient yet human-like. 

Amidst these changes, AER has not just remained relevant, but has become even more crucial in navigating these new service realities. Here is why: 

Dysfunctional Service Encounters: A Question of Readiness

As we outline in our paper, dysfunctional service encounters often result from insufficient customer or employee readiness. Without adequate readiness, service processes may break down, and lead to stress, disengagement, or even deviant behaviors. Customer misbehaviour, in particular, has notably escalated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. From an uptick in unruly airplane passengers and increased verbal and physical abuse of frontline workers to enhanced misuse of shared resources like rental cars or e-scooters, service providers worldwide are grappling with both the increased number and intensity of dysfunctional customer behaviour. 

While customer misbehaviour is traditionally linked to contextual and personality factors, our AER framework offers deeper insights. For instance, a gym member’s refusal to clean equipment post-use might arise from a lack of motivational readiness and will require regular reminders through signage or staff or incentive programs like loyalty points for consistent compliance. In contrast, territorial or confrontational customer behaviour in planes, retail stores, or cafes, stemming from insufficient emotional or interactional readiness, will necessitate conflict resolution and empathy training for staff, calming servicescape modifications, and clearly defined escalation procedures and guidelines. Such readiness-based measures can therefore assist service firms in designing more effective measures to curb misbehaviour, an area that only recently received attention in the service literature (see, for example, Danatzis and Möller-Herm 2023).

Readiness at the Organisational Frontlines in the Age of Generative AI

AER’s relevance is further accentuated with AI rapidly permeating service sectors. As generative AI platforms such as ChatGPT become ubiquitous, ensuring employees and customers are ‘ready’ to engage with them is paramount.

For instance, both customers and employees need to be ‘ready’ to engage with a variety of AI interfaces at the organisational frontline, whether it is to support frontline employees in delivering the service with the help of AI or to enable customers to interact with AI in fully automated service processes. Without adequate customer or employee AER respectively, the integration of such advanced technologies can lead to confusion, resistance, or even rejection. 

Conversely, the readiness of the technology itself is becoming increasingly important. Just like humans, an AI system must be ‘ready’ to respond to human needs, expectations, and emotions in a way that facilitates a symbiotic relationship, where both entities complement each other and ideally create synergies. While the nature of technological readiness may differ significantly from human AER, our AER concept can guide which abilities AI should be trained in to achieve mutual readiness and seamless human-AI interactions. 

Notably, as we point out in our paper, this does not necessarily mean that both humans and technology need to have similar levels of readiness. Rather, the lack of readiness of one exchange party must be compensated for by the other. This also requires both humans and technology to be ‘ready’ to critically evaluate their own readiness (shortcomings) in relation to other actors involved in the service process, whether human or non-human. In this way, they can effectively identify complementarities, seek support, or delegate tasks.

Fostering Sustainability Through Readiness

Fostering sustainability is increasingly recognised as a key research priority in service research, but making service provision more sustainable in practice remains a challenge. Providing services more sustainably isn’t just about business models; it’s also about shaping employee and customer behaviour. From understanding product lifecycles to responsible disposal, readiness plays a key role in ensuring that customers and employees are equipped for sustainable consumption. As we argue in our paper, readiness is not a fixed personality trait but needs to be actively fostered and requires intentional service design, whether through building more resilient infrastructure, better orchestration, the use of technology, or public policies that ultimately increase the AER for sustainable consumption.

However, fostering sustainability through readiness is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is essential to recognise that customers and employees have different levels of readiness; some may require more tailored development efforts than others. It also requires an understanding that certain sustainability initiatives, while well-intentioned, may have unintended consequences, particularly for disadvantaged and marginalised customers and employees. A readiness approach to sustainability must therefore take into account how readiness deficits can impede service participation, reinforce social inequalities, and often result from unintentional but systematic biases in service processes, delivery practices, and sustainability programmes. Designing for readiness is thus a critical task for service firms.

As we navigate today’s evolving service landscapes, from AI to sustainability, we believe that our AER concept can provide a useful guide to better understand and manage the intricacies of modern service encounters. As we continue to explore this fascinating area, we hope that our AER concept will also inspire other service scholars to move service research forward.

Ilias Danatzis
Associate Professor of Marketing Analytics, King’s Business School, King’s College London

Ingo O. Karpen
Professor of Business and Design, Service Research Center, Karlstad University & Adelaide Business School, The University of Adelaide

Michael Kleinaltenkamp
Professor Emeritus of Marketing of Business and Services Marketing, School of Business & Economics, Freie Universität Berlin

Image Credits: Pixelbliss.