Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Case for Customer Education

By Dr. Edwin N. Torres

As a front line manager, I was trained not to educate the customers. “The customer doesn’t care” I was told by other managers. As I reflect back on these early experiences in light of my reading on the subject as well as my personal research on consumer behavior, I believe the paradigm of keeping customers uninformed is not the best strategy for good customer service. I will lay out the case for educating the customers in a concise manner and use a few examples to illustrate my point. There are three main reasons why customer education is important. First, keeping customers in the dark can lead to unrealistic customer expectations. Second, there is value for the organization in having customers take on some employee roles. Finally, good customers tend to receive better service. I will expand on each of these below.

Not knowing can lead to unrealistic customer expectations

When the customer doesn’t have a clear idea of what to expect; imagination tends to fill the gap. In a recent study, I (along with colleagues) conducted on customer delight and outrage using over 4,000 TripAdvisor postings, many customers complained about walking too much, weather-related events, wait times, the need for planning ahead of time, malfunctioning rides, and many others[i]. To the theme park operator and perhaps to the seasoned park visitor, some of these things would seem obvious “of course, you will have to walk: it’s a big theme park with lots of attractions” one might say. However, not every guest might make this assumption. Therefore, the argument can be made that informing guests ahead of time about such details would help both the theme park and customers in that: a) the guest will be better prepared (e.g. come rested, wear comfortable shoes, take breaks, or even start a routine of walking before vacation begins); b) a more realistic expectation will be created in the customer’s mind.

With regards to waiting in line, most theme park operators have already sought to educate the customer by posting wait times in at the entrance of each attraction. However, are guests aware what an average wait is before they enter the theme park? Will they know that they’ve visited on one of the peak attendance days of the theme park? In a similar vein, several parks allow guest to select some expedited passes (i.e. fastpass and similar terminology) several weeks or months ahead of their visit. To the seasoned visitor, this presents a great opportunity, as they guarantee visit to a certain number of attractions. However, some guests might assume that they can just walk in the park and go in the rides. While guests can still do this, they will not receive the optimal theme park experience, which ultimately hurts their level of satisfaction and subsequently impacts their electronic word-of-mouth and other post-purchase behaviors (e.g. repeat visitation). I do realize that several parks do make some efforts to inform customers about these options, but the need for information still remains as evidenced by the overall patterns of consumer feedback in sites such as TripAdvisor.

Another instance where uninformed customers translates into outraged customers is that of weather-related disruptions. While weather is outside of the control of the theme park operator, it might be worthwhile educating customers as to the likely weather conditions to expect during the time of the year they plan to visit. Many visitors express their awe at the fact that it rains almost every afternoon during the summer season at Florida theme parks. To those of us who live in the area, we might assume that everyone knows that an hour or two of intense rain is to be expected that time of the year. However, to the tourist visiting from a different state or different country, this might not be expected. Can we inform the guest ahead of time that at least one hour or rain is to be expected during the summer season? Would this not help customers be better prepared to handle this (i.e. buy umbrellas and ponchos, plan their day differently for instance- visiting outdoor attractions in the morning while keeping indoor attractions for the afternoons? If we take this to another type of park where weather is even more important, water parks, this information is even more critical. In this manner a family will not expect to come to the park a few hours in the afternoon and expect to witness every attraction inside the water park.

I am aware that a counter argument could be made that in the process of giving customers too much information they might be discourage from visiting altogether. Marketing efforts try to entice guests to visit world-class attractions and to get customer excited about their visit. I believe excitement, thrill, and magic need to be part of how we get consumers to take an interest and subsequently the desire and behavior of visiting the theme park. However, all of these efforts at stimulating guest’s imagination can go in vain if the customer ultimately realizes that the park failed to meet their expectations even if such expectations were unrealistic to begin.

There is value to the organization in having the customer take on some employee roles

The idea of customers helping the organization via some quasi-employee roles is not new. In fact, as early as the 1990’s, Bowers and colleagues advocated for organizations to think of their customers as employees and their employees as customers[ii]. Every business has knowledgeable and highly involved customers who would be thrilled to help the organization continuously improve its operation. Customers can provide other customers with important information and about the theme park via their live and online interactions. Customers can also be engaged in a role as co-marketer, thus helping promote not only the park itself, but also the products and services within the park.

Positive interactions between theme park operators and their customers can foster a sense of trust. Visitors can be encouraged to report any problems with service or deviations from the company’s service standards. In this way, the customer becomes a quality assurance agent for the organization. Finally, customers can help the organization customize or even co-produce unique experiences[iii]. By generating ideas and jointly creating new products and services, customers can become an important asset to the organization. In a prior article I wrote for this magazine titled “Meeting up for a day at the theme park”, I expose how customers are already customizing and creating new and unique theme park experiences even in the absence of the company’s initiative. Online communities and other technologies have served as a catalyst for customers to become more involved. A greater degree of customer involvement can potentially lead to greater satisfaction and more frequency of visitation. There are, of course, some risks involved in increasing the level of customer participation, thus theme park operators need to weigh these against the potential benefits from higher engagement. The proposition of having employees as customers is another vital one for organizations, which perhaps I can discuss in greater detail at another time.

When visitors know how to be better as customers, they will experience improved customer service

You may have heard the cliché “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar”. I wonder how many customers realize this. Better customers often report receiving better service, but in the absence of customer education, how can a customer learn how to be better in their role? In recent years, the existence of customer incivility and its likely consequences has been bought into light[iv]. For those of us who have worked in any service setting, we understand that some customers behave in rude, condescending, and impolite ways. This is by no means a generalization of all customers or even the average customer, but there are a few that either due to personality, circumstance, or choice act in ways that are less than pleasant in the service setting.

In my experience, many organizations are unwilling to educate their employees and customer on this issue, as they fear that prospective customers might sense the organization thinks less of them. In spite of this reality, I believe that effective customer education can empower consumers to be better customers while ensuring they feel appreciated and important. This effort can start by identifying the behaviors that service workers and managers would like their customers to exhibit and then creating effective communications to make customers aware of these. Are there ways in which employees prefer to be treated or addressed? Are there items that guest shouldn’t bring to the servicescape? Is there a way of behaving that will result in expedited service or reduce the probability of mistakes? Could we conceive ways that will promote positive customer-to-customer interactions and reduce negative ones?  Is there a possibility of setting small rewards, upgrades, or complimentary items in order to entice people to become better customers and in doing so, help the organization provide better service?

At times theme park and other service organizations make efforts to educate their customers. Some of this information can be seen in the park’s literature (i.e. maps, time guides), signage in the queues and other parts of the park, safety briefings, and others. Looking at the efforts of the industry, it would appear that several things are being done to instruct visitors while at the park. Therefore, the question I’d like to pose is: what is the industry doing or can do to inform customers prior to visiting? Perhaps literature and promotional materials can be revised, maybe there is an opportunity to create short videos to tell customers more about what to expect, yet it might still be possible to capitalize on the power of our seasoned guests to carry out the message of the organization.

Dr. Edwin N. Torres (Edwin. [email protected]) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida, Rosen College of Hospitality Management. Prior to his current role, Dr. Torres received a Ph.D. from Purdue University. His research, which focuses on consumer psychology, has been published in multiple scholarly journals and presented in multiple conferences.

 

[i] Torres, E.N., Milman, A., & Park, S. (2017). Delighted or outraged? Uncovering key drivers of exceedingly positive and negative theme park guest experiences. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Insights, (just-accepted). http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/JHTI-10-2017-0011

[ii] Bowers, M. R., Martin, C. L., & Luker, A. (1990). Trading places: Employees as customers, customers as employees. Journal of Services Marketing, 4(2), 55-69.

[iii] Prahalad, C. K., & Ramaswamy, V. (2004). Co-creation experiences: The next practice in value creation. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 18(3), 5-14.

[iv] Torres, E. N., van Niekerk, M., & Orlowski, M. (2017). Customer and employee incivility and its causal effects in the hospitality industry. Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management, 26(1), 48-66.

TOP PHOTO: Courtesy Shanghai Disney Resort.

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