You can find more information on the main page in English go to ESMT Berlin Homepage

Press release

Berlin, October 11, 2017

The customer is not always king

The service sector is not without rules. Sometimes the customer must also compromise.

Service sector workers are often required to enforce certain rules. Researchers in the "International Journal of Research in Marketing" reported how this affects their relationship with customers.

Prof. Johannes Habel from ESMT Berlin, Prof. Sascha Alavi, formerly at the Université Lausanne in Switzerland, today from Ruhr University Bochum, and Prof. Doreén Pick from the Merseburg University of Applied Sciences cooperated on the study.

"The concept of the customer as king is a norm that has been held for a long time," said Alavi. "But in the service sector, this is not always the case. As a rule, the customer must be taken by the hand." Everywhere, people rely on the guidance of service personnel, such as security screeners at the airport, fitness trainers, or hotel staff. If a customer disturbs others by being too loud in the hotel, for example, the staff must intervene. Only in this way can a company guarantee a smooth service process in the long term.

Self-image threatened

Many people, however, take offense to the intervention of service staff if it is deemed inappropriate. "Customers who are referred to rules often feel that their self-image is threatened," explained Alavi.

"Although the customer is probably the most important component in the service process, it has not yet been investigated how service employees can implement company rules in order to integrate the customer and provide a satisfactory service," said Habel, explaining the motivation for the study.

The researchers conducted two large-scale field studies, in which they examined customers' reaction to actual enforcement of a service rule. More than 6,800 people participated in the study. They were given descriptions of various scenarios in which service employees interact with customers in a hotel. Participants were expected to imagine themselves in the respective situation and use a questionnaire to indicate how they felt about the employee's behavior.

Empathy instead of aggression

According to the study, it is crucial that service staff explain why they are enforcing a rule. It is also important to the customers that employees express empathy and understanding for their situation and personhood. A raised voice or an aggressive approach will not be well received. "An inexperienced service employee easily commits the mistake of threatening a customer's self-image by enforcing rules in the wrong way," said Alavi. "This must be avoided."

Another conclusion of the study: high-quality service needs rules enforcement. This is because customers who behave correctly express greater customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

Original publication

Johannes Habel, Sascha Alavi, Doreén Pick: When serving customers includes correcting them: Understanding the ambivalent effects of enforcing service rules, in: International Journal of Research in Marketing, 2017: DOI: 10.1016/j.ijresmar.2017.09.002

Joint press release of ESMT Berlin and Ruhr University Bochum

Press contacts

Yasmin Lindner
Sales and Marketing Department
Faculty of Economics
Ruhr University Bochum
Phone: 0234 322 33 66

Martha Ihlbrock
Corporate Communications and Marketing
ESMT Berlin
Phone: 030 21231 1043

About ESMT Berlin

ESMT Berlin was founded by 25 leading global companies and institutions. The international business school offers a full-time MBA, an executive MBA, an executive MBA/MPA, a master’s in management, as well as open enrollment and customized executive education programs. ESMT focuses on three main topics: leadership and social responsibility, European competitiveness, and the management of technology. ESMT faculty publishes in top academic journals. Additionally, the business school provides an interdisciplinary platform for discourse between politics, business, and academia. The business school is based in Berlin, Germany, with Schloss Gracht as an additional location near Cologne. ESMT is a private business school with the right to grant PhDs and is accredited by the German state, AACSB, AMBA, EQUIS, and FIBAA.