Employee-Customer Linkages: A Social Identification Perspective in a Hotel Industry Context

Article excerpt

This article addresses the concept of employee-customer linkage research and proposes the addition of social identity theory as an important consideration in managing employee-customer interactions and customer satisfaction. Following the creation of a conceptual model, this study used an employee questionnaire based on the incorporation of service climate (SERV*OR) and employee identification factors. A total of 314 individual surveys were collected from four hotels in Australia. Hierarchical regression analysis was conducted to determine the effects that demographic factors, service climate and different levels of employee identification would have on predictions of customer satisfaction. Service climate factors most closely linked to customer-centric organisational practices were the significant predictors of customer satisfaction perceptions, as was employee identification at the superordinate (company)level. The framework proposed and the findings of this study provide management with useful information about the important role of service climate and the way in which managers can capitalise on employee identification to enhance organisational practices.

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The quality of employee-customer interactions (also known as 'service encounters') has been recognised as a key strategic competitive weapon for service organisations (e.g., Kelley, 1992; Mattila & Enz, 2002). In many cases, customer-contact employees are the first and only direct representation a customer has of a firm--customers often base their impressions of the firm on the service received from these employees (Hartline & Ferrel, 1996; Hartline, Maxham III, & McKee, 2000; Kandampully, 2002). It is therefore important for service managers, particularly in the hospitality industry, to understand, and then find ways to effectively manage, these interactions.

Employee-customer interactions have been examined from many perspectives in the literature. For example, some researchers suggest that the quality of interactions is determined by human variables--including motives, attitudes and social habits--of both the service provider and the customer involved in the exchange (Lockwood & Jones, 1989). Others suggest that service encounters vary on three dimensions: temporal duration of the interaction, emotional content and spatial proximity (between customer and service provider) (Price, Arnould, & Teirney, 1995). Still others view service encounters from an emotions perspective (Mattila & Enz, 2002).

Regardless of the perspective, one conclusion that can be drawn is that managers cannot directly control every service encounter. Compounding this challenge are some of the commonly understood unique characteristics of services. Such characteristics include inseparability, where the customer cannot perceive the difference between the production and delivery of a service (Lovelock & Wirtz, 2004), and the relative heterogeneity of services, which suggests that service delivery, because of the human element, can result in no two services being identical (Schneider & White, 2004). Some current thinking (e.g., Vargo & Lusch, 2004) questions the merit of differentiating good and services management, suggesting instead that a services management and marketing perspective is the more 'dominant logic' for all management and marketing thinking. This logic suggests that service encounters will increase in importance as traditionally goods-based firms utilise service for competitive advantage.

The human factor in service delivery remains one of the great challenges for managers of service. One way forward is to identify elements of a work environment, as perceived by employees, which are linked to critically important organisational outcomes. A body of research known as linkage research examines these links (e.g., Johnson, 1996; Schneider, White, & Paul, 1998; Wiley, 1996; Wiley & Brooks, 2000). …