Understanding Frontline Problem-solving Dynamics Using Video Recordings of Service Failure Interactions

Jagdip Singh, Detelina Marinova, and Sunil Singh, 2016, 16-122

Frontline problem-solving interactions are a source of strategic differentiation and competitive advantage as evidenced by the enduring reputation of consistently recovering, sometimes even delighting, dissatisfied customers that companies such as Southwest, Ritz-Carlton, and Nordstrom have acquired in their respective industries.

While research has focused on customer states before and after frontline interactions, customer-agent dynamics during problem-solving interactions have received little attention. Our understanding of what occurs in problem-solving interactions that is critical for service failure recovery is, at best, limited.  In this study, Jagdip Singh, Detelina Marinova, and Sunil Singh examine the language of face-to-face frontline problem-solving interactions and how it influences customer satisfaction in real time.

Specifically, they categorize frontline employees’ verbal and nonverbal cues into distinct dimensions of frontline solving and relational work.  Based on video recordings of service failure interactions from the reality television series “Airline” (U.K. and U.S.), they examine the dynamic (time-varying) influence of frontline employees’ solving and relational work as well as their displayed affect on customer satisfaction (CSAT).

They find that frontline solving work not only has a positive effect on CSAT, but that this effect increases in magnitude during the problem-solving interaction. This influence on CSAT remains significant even when service recovery is not feasible, suggesting that customers value the problem-solving process independently from the outcome, and recognize frontline agent efforts in developing solution options.

The authors also find that the positive association between frontline solving work and CSAT becomes weaker for relatively higher levels of frontline relational work or displayed affect, and stronger for relatively lower levels of relational work or displayed affect over time.

Based on these findings, Singh, Marinova, and Singh suggest that common service scripts of frontline employees’ relational work (e.g., empathy) and displayed positive affect (e.g., smiling) might be less helpful, even dysfunctional, in problem-solving interactions. Instead, customers reward problem-solving competence of frontline agents that is focused on generating solutions even when they are insufficient to fully recover service failures.

In addition, the authors develop a library of validated dictionaries for frontline problem solving in service contexts which managers can use for cue-based training of frontline agents and for seeding an automated system for dynamic and live frontline assistance.

Jagdip Singh is AT&T Professor of Marketing, Case Western Reserve University, Weatherhead School of Management. Detelina Marinova is Frances Ridge Gay Professor and Associate Professor of Marketing, Robert J. Trulaske College of Business, University of Missouri-Columbia. Sunil Singh is a Ph.D. candidate in marketing, Robert J. Trulaske College of Business, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Related links

Where Customers and Organizations Meet: A Perspective on Organizational Frontlines
Gordon Wyner (2017) [Article]

Employee Behavior Can Build Your Brand (2014) [Article]


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