Ethics in Customer Service: Critical Review and Research Agenda
***** FORD ******** EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 4, 1996 ************
ETHICS IN CUSTOMER SERVICE:
CRITICAL REVIEW AND RESEARCH AGENDA
Wendy S. Zabava Ford
Western Michigan University
Abstract: Stereotypes of occupational group
ethics may rest largely on communication
experiences in customer service encounters. This
paper identifies domains of unethical service
communication and proposes a research agenda for
examining service ethics. Research is reviewed
which illustrates three categories of unethical
service practices: deception, discrimination, and
depersonalization. Deceptive service includes
sales tricks and false fronts. Discriminatory
service may be gender-based, appearance-based,
sympathy-based, similarity-based, and reactive.
Depersonalized service may include behaviors
showing a lack of commitment and caring for
customers. Research is called for to explore
service ethics among different occupational
groups, investigate effects of unethical practices
on service providers and customers, and identify
characteristics of organizational climates which
foster unethical service norms.
Since the mid-1970s, the Gallup Poll has tracked public
perceptions of the honesty and ethical standards of various
occupational groups. Some groups, such as pharmacists and
dentists, receive consistently high ratings. Other groups,
such as car salesmen [sic] and lawyers, receive consistently
low ratings. Still other groups, including bankers and
journalists, receive mixed ratings. Given these Gallup Poll
results, we may begin to wonder, how did customers form
their impressions of the different ethical standards of
When asked to evaluate the honesty and ethics of
occupational groups, customers are most likely to rely on
their stereotypes of those groups. A stereotype is "a set
of expectations held by the perceiver regarding members of a
social group" (Hamilton, 19%%HC:HAMILTON79:79, p. 65).
According to research by Ford and Stangor (19%%HC:FS92:92),
persons tend to develop stereotypes based on observed
behaviors which are most characteristic of group members
(low within group variation) and most differentiating
between groups (high between-group variation). This line of
thinking suggests that customers will form stereotypes
regarding occupational group ethics if they perceive that
some groups display consistently high standards of ethics,
while other groups display consistently low standards of
As customers develop stereotypes of service providers,
they may rely largely on their communication experiences
during service encounters. Customers who feel they have
been deceived, discriminated against, or treated in an
impersonal manner by a service provider are likely to
perceive that communication has been unethical.
Unfortunately, few studies have been conducted which examine
the extent to which unethical communication practices are
engaged in service interactions or the effects of those
practices. This paper is an attempt to lead the field in
that direction. The specific purposes of this paper are to
identify domains of unethical service communication and
propose a research agenda for examining service ethics.
Domains of Unethical Service Communication
Unethical service communication practices may be
categorized into three domains: deception, discrimination,
and depersonalization. Deception involves giving false
impressions to influence customers. Service providers may
engage in sales tricks or display false fronts to pressure
their customers in a desired direction. Discrimination
involves giving some customers less favorable treatment than
others. Service providers often alter their service
priorities and behaviors toward customers based on specific
characteristics of the customers, such as gender or
appearance. Depersonalization involves treating customers
like numbers, rather than like human beings with unique
needs and interests. Even in highly personal service
contexts, such as health care and legal services, some
providers show a low level of commitment and caring toward
their customers. Prior research illustrates a variety of
forms of deception, discrimination, and depersonalization in
customer service interactions.
In many service environments, the providers are
socialized to consider it appropriate, perhaps even "good
business," to trick or mislead customers. Deception is most
prevalent in sales contexts in which a commonly reinforced
philosophy is to "do whatever it takes to make the sale."
In other contexts, as well, providers exhibit a willingness
to give false impressions of their products or services, or
even of themselves. These false impressions are intended to
influence or pressure the customer in a particular
direction. Two broad categories of deception to be reviewed
here are sales tricks and false fronts.
Sales tricks. Sales tricks involve any techniques
directed more toward making the sale than ensuring that
customers' needs are met. These tricks are common in
service contexts typically associated with "sales," such as
car dealerships, department stores, and telemarketing
enterprises. However, they may be applied equally well by
bartenders convincing patrons to buy more drinks, bankers
persuading clients to consider new savings options, health
care providers influencing patients to comply with treatment
recommendations, or other service interactions in which the
providers hope to influence customers' decisions.
Service providers who engage in sales tricks tend to
possess a "selling orientation," which was identified by
Saxe and Weitz (1982) as the opposite of a "customer
orientation." While the customer-oriented salesperson
maintains high concern for others and low concern for self,
the selling-oriented salesperson maintains low concern for
others and high concern for self. Selling-oriented persons
are likely to spend little time exploring customers' needs,
but significant time engaging in manipulative strategies to
pressure customers to purchase more than they desire.
Selling-oriented persons are also likely to try to "get the
jump" on customers through suggestive selling (e.g., "Would
you like fries with that?"). By taking control of the
course of their service interactions, selling-oriented
persons are able to direct the interactions toward meeting
their own goals, rather than the customers' goals.
Sales tricks are based on stimulus-response theory, or
the assumption that a salesperson may control the outcome of
a sales encounter by applying a specific sales tactic to
stimulate a desired customer response. Numerous
investigations have evaluated the impact of different types
of persuasive messages (stimuli) on the probability of a
sale (response). For instance, an early study by Brock
(1965) compared two sales pitches in getting customers to
switch paint purchases to a different price level. In one
sales pitch, the salesperson showed similarity to the
customer by saying he consumed the same amount of paint as
the customer. In the other sales pitch, the salesperson
showed dissimilarity to the customer by saying he consumed
20 times as much paint as the customer. The salesperson
followed either pitch with a recommendation that the
customer purchase paint at a lower or higher price level.
Analyses of 88 sales interactions revealed that customers
were more likely to change purchase price levels when the
salesperson gave a "similarity" pitch, even though the
salesperson giving a "dissimilarity" pitch was perceived to
have greater expertise.
Manipulated sales pitches such as those investigated by
Brock (1965) have been widely accepted within the sales
industry. It is common practice for many salespersons to
follow canned pitches to "make the sale," even if these
pitches generate false impressions of the product or of the
salesperson's own behavior or attitude. Some of the most
serious breaches of sales ethics have resulted in lawsuits
against organizations. Boedecker, Morgan, and Stoltman
(1991) identified several deceptive strategies which have
been challenged through the legal system:
Creation of unintended warranties: overstating
product capabilities or making other statements
which may imply or directly suggest warranties for
products or services
Dilution of warning effectiveness: overpromoting
products and supporting their safety with
disregard for manufacturers' warnings, or
discouraging customers from reading warnings
Disparagement of competitive offerings: making
false or libelous statements about competitors'
Misrepresentation of own offerings: making
unsupported or distorted claims about own products
Tortuous interference with business relationships:
using unfair tactics to divert business from
These misleading statements represent extreme, if not
desperate, sales pitches.
Despite the popularity of stimulus-response tactics,
years of research have revealed that no one sales pitch is
universally effective for all sales situations. Weitz,
Sujan, and Sujan (1986) proposed that salespersons should
instead adapt their sales presentation to each customer.
They conceptualized adaptive selling as "the altering of
sales behaviors during a customer interaction or across
customer interactions based on perceived information about
the nature of the selling situation" (p. 175).
Adaptive selling requires more advanced knowledge
structures and information acquisition skills than typical
"canned" sales pitches given to all customers. However, as
an overall sales strategy, adaptive selling still
capitalizes on sales tricks. The goal of the adaptive
salesperson is to identify the unique elements of a selling
situation, then follow a sales approach which best matches
those unique elements. Persons who demonstrate strong
adaptive selling skills are not necessarily less
manipulative; they are merely more scientific in targeting
their manipulative strategies to the specific selling
False fronts. Deception is not limited to manipulative
sales pitches. Service providers in any context who
fabricate images of themselves which do not reflect their
true feelings, behaviors, or attitudes are displaying
another form of deception--false fronts. False fronts are
prevalent in service enterprises. Providers are often told
to "put on a smile for the customer," even if they do not
feel like smiling, or to act as if "the customer is always
right," even if they believe the customer is wrong. As
noted by Albrecht and Zemke (1985), "The service person.may
not particularly feel like being cordial and becoming a
one-minute friend to the next customer who approaches, but
that is indeed what frontline work entails" (p. 114).
Service providers commonly manufacture false fronts
through emotion management. Emotion management was
described by Hochschild (1979) as the "act of trying to
change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling" (p. 561).
Hochschild emphasized the word "trying," arguing that
emotion management is not always successful. A service
provider is engaging in emotion management when there is
inconsistency between emotions the provider feels and
emotions the provider attempts to display toward customers.
Emotion management may begin with the management of
facial expressions. Tidd and Lockard (1978), for instance,
demonstrated significant effects of smile manipulations in
service encounters. In their experiment, a cocktail server
approached 96 customers with either a "maximal smile" (mouth
corners turned up enough to expose teeth in a broad smile)
or a "minimal smile" (mouth corners turned up noticeably,
but with no teeth showing). The 48 customers she approached
with a maximal smile left a total of $23.20 in tips, while
the 48 customers she approached with a minimal smile left
only $9.40 in tips. These results indicate that displaying
false smiles may be advantageous to service providers.
Service providers may also manage their touching
behaviors to secure desired responses from customers. In a
study by Crusco and Wetzel (1984), three food servers varied
their touching behaviors while returning change to 114
restaurant patrons. When servers touched the customer's
palm, they received an average tip of 16.7%. When they
touched the customer's shoulder, they received an average
tip of 14.4%. The tip size achieved in these two touching
conditions was significantly greater than the average tip in
a "no touch" condition, at only 12.2%. The servers were
able to successfully manipulate their touching behaviors,
conveying degrees of closeness or affection toward
customers, to increase their tips.
Emotional displays may also be managed on a
corporate-wide basis. Sutton and Rafaeli (1988) described
efforts of a chain of convenience stores to encourage and
reward employees who "acted friendly" in customer service
encounters. Employees were required to greet customers,
smile at them, make eye contact, and say thank you. Those
who managed their emotions consistently with organizational
policy could win prizes.
False fronts are also displayed when services offered
are of a more personal nature, such as health care, banking,
or hairdressing. In such "personal" service contexts,
service providers are likely to apply verbal strategies and
conversational tactics which suggest a closer relationship
between them and their customers.
One example of false fronts displayed in banking
contexts is "programmed personalization." As described by
Surprenant and Solomon (1987), programmed personalization
occurs when providers "give the impression of personalized
service by encouraging small talk, using customers' names,
and so on. It often is accomplished by the embellishment of
routinized actions with personal referents to make each
person feel like an individual, not 'just another customer'"
Surprenant and Solomon (1987) conducted an experiment
to determine the effects of alternative service strategies
on customer evaluations of service. In their analyses of
the effects of programmed personalization, they found that
customer subjects who experienced high programmed
personalization provided significantly higher ratings of the
employee's sociability, the bank's warmth, and satisfaction
with the friendliness of the service interaction than
subjects who experienced low programmed personalization.
However, subjects in the high programmed personalization
condition also provided significantly lower ratings of the
employee's competence, the bank's trustworthiness, and
satisfaction with service effectiveness. These findings
suggest that service providers who engage in false fronts
may be perceived as more courteous, but less ethical and
Parkinson (1991) also investigated false fronts in a
personal service context--in this case, among hairdressers.
He developed a personality questionnaire which included five
items reflecting deceptive impression management, which
Parkinson described as the perceived distance between
hairdressers' personal beliefs and their social performance.
These items required hairdressers to rate their level of
agreement with such statements as "I may deceive people by
being friendly when I really dislike them" and "I'm not
always the person I appear to be." Correlational analyses
revealed strong relationships between impression management
and other measures of personality and psychological
well-being. Specifically, Parkinson found that hairdressers
who reported engaging in more deceptive impression
management also reported greater levels of social anxiety,
identified as "discomfort in the presence of others"
(Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975, p. 523). Hairdressers
reporting more impression management were also less likely
to engage in empathic perspective-taking, or "the tendency
to adopt the psychological point of view of others" (Davis,
1983, pp. 113-114). In addition, these hairdressers were
more likely to experience negative psychological symptoms
and dissatisfaction with their jobs.
In all, Parkinson's (1991) findings reveal potentially
harmful consequences of false fronts. The findings suggest
that hairdressers who display deceptive fronts toward
customers may feel uncomfortable around the customers, may
be less able to relate to customers' point of view, and may
become psychologically unhealthy and dissatisfied with their
work. However, Parkinson also found that hairdressers who
truly identify with their work role and are able to express
emotions which are "spontaneous" and "natural," rather than
"forced," are more successful in their jobs.
A second domain of unethical service is discrimination,
or providing less favorable service to specific groups of
people. Service discrimination may be gender-based,
appearance-based, sympathy-based, similarity-based, or
Gender-based. One of the most commonly studied bases
of service discrimination is the gender of the customer.
Feminist theories of communication suggest that women will
generally receive less desirable levels of service than men.
However, empirical investigations have produced mixed
Several studies have investigated gender as a predictor
of provider courtesy, addressing the basic question: "Do
men receive friendlier service than women?" Research by
Rafaeli suggests the answer is "yes." Rafaeli (1989b)
observed 11,716 check-out encounters in grocery stores and
found that clerks generally presented more courteous
gestures toward male customers, including greetings, smiles,
eye contact, and thanks. Rafaeli and Sutton's (1990)
observations of 194 check-out encounters also showed that
clerks displayed more courteous behaviors toward male than
female customers. However, Rafaeli and Sutton further
determined that female customers experienced friendlier
interactions overall. Store clerks were generally perceived
as more pleasant and more attentive throughout their
interactions with female customers. Etienne (1994), in her
analysis of 112 grocery check-out encounters, and Ford
(1995), in a separate analysis of 237 grocery check-out
encounters, observed no significant difference in nonverbal
courtesy displayed toward female and male customers. These
four studies, when examined together, do not show a
consistent pattern of discrimination in courteous service
based on customer gender.
Research on service priorities has produced more
consistent results. The studies have shown that
differential treatment in service encounters may begin with
the timing of that familiar phrase, "Can I help you?"
Zinkhan and Stoidan (1984) found that male customers
received preferential treatment in service initiation. They
observed check-out encounters in department stores in which
clerks were approached by two customers simultaneously and
were, therefore, faced with the dilemma of determining which
customer to serve first. Observations of 162 clerks showed
that 62% gave greater priority to male customers when
approached by male and female customers simultaneously.
Female customers received priority in 23.5% of encounters
and neither received priority in 13.5% of encounters. (In
the latter instances, either no one received service within
a reasonable length of time or the clerk initiated the
encounter by asking, "Who was first?")
In Zinkhan and Stoidan's (1984) study, priority for
male customers held up across a range of research
conditions. Men received service priority regardless of the
gender of the clerk, the gender of the department (male
products, female products, neutral products), or the type of
store (high price, moderate price, low price). In follow-up
interviews with clerks, the researchers learned that clerks
justified the priority given to male customers with several
explanations. Most popular was the statement, "I saw that
person first," which could be related to the male's more
prominent size or to the mere novelty of seeing a male
shopper. Other explanations often reflected gender role
stereotypes, including beliefs that men are "more serious
buyers," "easier to deal with," and "need more help than
women" (p. 693).
Appearance-based. Service providers are also likely to
engage in discriminatory practices based on customers'
appearance. Stead and Zinkhan (1986) conducted an
investigation to determine whether Zinkhan and Stoiadin's
(1984) findings regarding service priorities for men would
hold true under different conditions. They observed 300
clerks in department stores and found, similarly, that 61%
gave greater service priority to male customers when
approached by male and female customers simultaneously. The
researchers also determined, consistent with Zinkhan and
Stoiadin's findings, that men received greater priority
regardless of the gender of the clerk or department. In
addition, Stead and Zinkhan found that men in business dress
were even more likely to receive service priority over
women. When in business dress (coat and tie), men received
priority in 67.3% of encounters; when in casual dress (jeans
and shirt), they received priority in 54.7% of encounters.
Women's dress did not significantly influence their
likelihood of receiving service priority. Stead and
Zinkhan's study revealed a pattern of discrimination among
service providers related to the professional appearance of
Krapfel (1988) also examined the relationship between
customer appearance and service treatment. He performed a
laboratory investigation to examine variables which might
influence service providers' responses to customers'
requests for reimbursement for damaged products. He
recruited 112 clerks from department stores to watch
videotapes of service encounters during which a female
customer attempted to obtain reimbursement for a damaged
comforter. The clerks then responded to questions
concerning their perceptions of the customer and how they
would respond to her. Krapfel found that the well-dressed
customer was significantly more likely to receive a full
refund or exchange than the poorly dressed customer.
Discrimination based on customer appearance is not
limited to dress. Pauley (1988) conducted research on
service initiation in shoe stores and found additional
biases in how quickly providers offered assistance to
customers. Research teams observed 181 customers entering
shoe stores in an urban shopping mall. They rated the
customers as either "fat" or "nonfat" and measured how many
seconds it took for providers to wait on the customers.
Results showed clear discrimination against heavier
customers. On average, service providers approached
"nonfat" customers within 16.61 seconds, but waited 29.67
seconds before approaching "fat" customers. Sympathy-based.
Service providers may even be discriminatory when serving
customers for which they feel sympathy. Stiles (1995)
investigated whether convenience store clerks were
consistent in asking for identification when selling
alcoholic beverages to under-aged customers with or without
wheelchairs. She arranged an experiment in which a
20-year-old male confederate attempted to make alcohol
purchases at 20 different convenience stores. The
confederate visited each store twice, once in a wheelchair
and once without a wheelchair. When in a wheelchair, the
confederate was "carded" only once out of 20 visits. When
walking, the confederate was "carded" 15 out of 20 times.
Stiles argued that the significant difference in treatment
of wheelchair-bound and walking customers reveals that the
"sympathy effect," a propensity to respond positively toward
persons with physical disabilities, does influence behavior
in "real world" settings. The clerks preferred to respond
to physically disabled customers with sympathy rather than
with negative or unfavorable treatment. Follow-up
interviews, however, revealed that the clerks believed they
treated physically disabled persons just like everyone else.
Similarity-based. Customer gender, appearance, and
visible disability are not exclusive predictors of service
discrimination. Providers are also likely to be influenced
by the degree of perceived similarity between themselves and
their customers. In these instances, favorable treatment is
typically granted to those customers who behave or otherwise
appear to be similar to the providers.
Evidence of similarity-based discrimination is found in
McCormick and Kinloch's (1986) research. McCormick and
Kinloch conducted 293 observations of White and Black clerks
in check-out encounters at grocery stores and discount
stores, noting the race of customers served, as well as
whether the clerks were overall more friendly or
perfunctory. Each clerk who was "pleasant, cheerful, smiled
at the customer, bantered or chatted with him or her, and
was generally agreeable" was classified as friendly (p.
552). Each clerk who was "reticent, acted bored, avoided
eye contact, and did not initiate or avoided 'chitchat'" was
classified as perfunctory (p. 552). McCormick and Kinloch
found that White clerks were more likely to be friendly with
White customers and perfunctory with Black customers. Black
clerks were more likely to be friendly with Black customers
and perfunctory with White customers. The researchers
concluded that the racial situation, rather than the race of
the clerk, predicted the friendliness of service.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that customers
were equally likely to seek service from clerks of a
different race as they were to seek service from clerks of
the same race, despite actual differences in the service
Further evidence of similarity-based discrimination is
found in the study by Krapfel (1988) on variables
influencing service providers' responses to customers'
requests for reimbursement for damaged products. Beyond his
determination that providers were more likely to grant the
requests of well-dressed customers than poorly dressed
customers, Krapfel found that providers were also more
likely to grant requests when they perceived the customer's
interaction style was similar to their own interaction
style. Customer confederates in the experiment displayed
one of three manipulated interaction styles (nonassertive,
assertive, or aggressive) when asking to return merchandise
in a videotaped segment. The 112 salespersons who served as
subjects in the study, observing and responding to the
videotape, completed measures indicating whether they would
have acted the same as the customer they observed, as well
as how they perceived the customer's style, whether they
felt the customer's request was legitimate, and how they
would respond to the customer. Results indicated that
salespersons were more likely to perceive the customer's
request as legitimate and subsequently comply with the
request to the extent they felt the customer behaved as they
would have behaved in the same situation.
Reactive. A final basis of service discrimination is
grounded in the transactional model of communication, which
suggests that communication involves the simultaneous
exchange of messages among participants. Service providers
continually interpret and react to cues from customers while
sending messages to the customers. As a result, they are
likely to alter their communication style discriminatively
in response to how the customer is communicating with them.
Hester, Koger, and McCauley (1985) presented evidence
of reactive discrimination in their service research. They
followed customers from one purchase to another in a
shopping mall and found stable individual differences in how
sociable the customers were. Some customers used greetings,
conversation, farewells, smiles, positive facial regard, and
an overall friendly tone to build rapport with service
providers. Others were more routine or unfriendly in their
verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Customers who were more
friendly tended to receive friendlier service in return.
Those who were less friendly tended to receive less friendly
service in return.
Krapfel's (1988) study also illustrates reactive
discrimination. In predicting salespersons' responses to
customer requests to return merchandise, he found that these
responses were more positive not only for well-dressed
customers and customers with interaction styles similar to
their service providers, but for customers who were less
aggressive as well. Salespersons tended to perceive the
less aggressive customers as having more legitimate requests
and, in reaction, were more likely to comply with these
requests than those of the more aggressive customers.
The third domain of unethical service practices is
depersonalization. Depersonalization involves treating
customers like numbers, rather than human beings. In some
service interactions, such as interactions with cashiers,
order takers, receptionists, and counter clerks,
depersonalization may be the preferred form of service since
the provider and customer are likely to share a mutual goal
of completing the transaction quickly and routinely.
However, in more specialized and personal service
interactions, including interactions with health care
providers, educators, lawyers, beauticians, technical
consultants, and high-end retail salespersons, customers may
require more personalized service approaches to ensure their
needs are being met. Never-the-less, personalized service
is not always achieved. Providers commonly display a low
level of commitment and caring toward customers.
Lack of commitment. In many service contexts,
providers are expected to commit sufficient time, energy,
and expertise to adequately determine customers' needs and
meet those needs. However, research in health care and
other professional service contexts reveals they often do
One of the clearest illustrations of service providers'
lack of commitment to customers was presented by Waitzkin
(1985). Through analyses of 336 doctor-patient
interactions, Waitzkin determined that service providers may
withhold information from their customers. One goal of the
study was to measure the amount of time committed to
information sharing. Waitzkin found that doctors, on
average, only spent a mean of 1.3 minutes sharing
information (median 0.6 minutes), though they perceived they
had spent a mean of 8.9 minutes sharing information in these
interactions. The doctors also underestimated their
patients' information needs in 65% of the interactions, as
indicated through comparisons of questionnaire items
completed by doctors and patients after the interactions.
Waitzkin (1985) collected additional data focusing on
the technicality of doctors' information transmittal.
Doctors' explanations were typically characterized as
spontaneous. That is, 71% of the explanations were offered
spontaneously, rather than in response to patients'
questions. In addition, 72% of the explanations were at the
same level of technicality as the patient's question.
However, only 12% of the explanations were identified as
"multilevel," provided in the form of a technical statement
followed by the same statement reworded in nontechnical
terms. These findings suggest that level of technicality is
of concern, but not of as great concern as actual time
committed to sharing information.
The technical nature of information shared in
professional services is a common concern of researchers.
In one study, Thompson and Pledger (1993) tested physicians'
ability to select words appropriate for conveying
information to their patients. The study was based on a
list of 50 medical terms which a panel of 10 physicians
indicated they normally use with patients, including such
terms as "chronic," "sutures," "edema," "diuretic," and
"acute." Interviews with 224 adults (71% with college
degrees) revealed that many terms were not as familiar to
patients as the physicians believed. None of the terms was
identified correctly by all subjects. The average
proportion of subjects who possessed vague or incorrect
knowledge of a given term was 28%. Several terms were
misunderstood by as many as 60-80% of subjects. Thompson
and Pledger's study suggests that professional service
providers may have difficulty selecting words which match
their customers' level of understanding.
A lack of commitment to personalized communication with
customers is also evidenced in professional sales contexts.
Olshavsky (1973) analyzed transcriptions of 40 complete
sales transactions involving the purchase of a refrigerator
or color television. He found that salespersons expended
surprisingly little effort orienting themselves to the
customers' needs. No salesperson asked more than two
question to identify the customer's needs. In 24 (60%) of
the interactions, the salesperson did not ask even one
question of the customer. Further evidence of a lack of
commitment to customers was found in records of the
"evaluation phase" of the sales encounters, during which
time a salesperson and customer typically exchange
information or comments about alternative products available
for purchase. Olshavsky found that salespersons dominated
the evaluation of products. Salespersons made approximately
65% of the references to product attributes. Salespersons
also tended to select the order and number of alternative
products to evaluate.
Commitment to personalizing services offered can be
avoided in many situations by relying on service scripts.
Scripts are mental schemas which specify sequences of
behavior or routines to be performed in given situations.
Ashforth and Fried (1988) described how scripts may be
learned gradually as individuals gain experience in
performing their roles until eventually the scripts are
performed automatically or mindlessly. Once a service
provider is able to automatically follow a script, that
provider is no longer inclined to provide more personalized
service. Indeed, scripts are so common in telephone service
contexts that many employ computer technologies, such as the
switch/computer integrating systems described by Brooks
(1992) and the voice response systems described by Draper,
Arend, and Diamond (1989). When commitment to
personalization is replaced by scripts, there is often
little need for humans to be involved at all.
Lack of caring. Depersonalization is also often
demonstrated through providers' lack caring or consideration
for their customers. In health care contexts, numerous
investigations have shown that the provider's empathy,
relational communication, or "bedside manner" is strongly
related to patient satisfaction with the provider and with
the quality of service, as well as patients' information
recall and likelihood of complying with treatment regimens.
However, few studies have presented descriptive data to
illustrate the extent to which caring communication
behaviors are engaged or avoided by service providers.
Service providers in a variety of occupations are able
to avoid caring for customers by strictly adhering to
bureaucratic rules and procedures during service encounters.
These providers are "all business" and are therefore less
inclined to engage in small talk or other behaviors which
are not essential for "processing" customers quickly. The
providers effectively distance themselves from customers by
maintaining a formal, impersonal posture and following
bureaucratic routines. When pressured by customers to drop
their formal routines, many are conditioned to respond, "I'm
just doing my job."
Government organizations are most notorious for their
bureaucratic approach to service. However, Katz and Danet
(1973) presented a collection of readings in their book,
_Bureaucracy and the Public_, which demonstrates the
prevalence of bureaucratic practices among a wide variety of
service providers, ranging from bus drivers and police
officers to bank tellers and nurses.
One study which focused on the use of bureaucratization
as an approach to customer service was conducted by Goodsell
(1976). Goodsell researched the extent to which postal
clerks in Costa Rica and the US adhered to bureaucratic
communication norms with customers. His observations of
service providers were based on three norms which govern
interpersonal encounters in bureaucracies, as identified by
Katz and Danet (1973): affective neutrality, specificity,
and universalism. Affective neutrality refers to emotional
detachment from customers--maintaining a neutral tone,
rather than displaying positive or negative emotions.
Specificity is strictly limiting communication in service to
essential business and universalism refers to the practice
of treating all customers equally.
Goodsell (1976) found that postal clerks in both Costa
Rica and the US tended to conduct service encounters in a
bureaucratic mode. The clerks did not typically greet
customers or respond warmly when customers greeted them.
Approximately 53% of Costa Rican clerks and 44% of US clerks
continued to display an unemotional, officious, or
discourteous demeanor when giving instructions to customers
on how to send packages. The clerks also tended to stick to
"official business." Only 16% of Costa Rican clerks engaged
in nonessential talk, compared to 48% of US clerks.
Further, in managing customer disagreements concerning
postage rates, only 22% of Costa Rican clerks took time to
explain reasons for denying customers' requests, while 75%
of US clerks elaborated on reasons for denying requests.
As a test of adherence to the bureaucratic norm of
universalism in customer service encounters, Goodsell (1976)
"manipulated" the status of customers and observed whether
postal clerks treated customers of high status differently
than customers of low status. Four male observers, who
posed as customers in the service encounters, each played
either a high-status or low-status role in their respective
countries. Goodsell found clear evidence of status
differentiation in the clerks' treatment of the customers.
For instance, postal clerks in both Costa Rica and the US
were significantly more likely to display a positive
demeanor in responses to customers who disagreed with
postage rates if the customers were of high status. The
clerks were also more likely to elaborate on reasons for
denying postage rate adjustments when the customers were of
high status. Universalism, as a norm of bureaucratic
treatment, was not upheld among most postal service clerks.
Many engaged in discriminatory service practices.
Further demonstration of a lack of caring in customer
service is evidenced among those service providers who are
regularly called upon to listen to customers' personal
problems. Cowen (1982) found that hairdressers, lawyers,
and bartenders are often expected to give social support to
customers as "informal helping groups." In an analysis of
surveys among providers in these three professions, Cowen
found they do frequently engage in response strategies
similar to those used by mental health professionals,
including offering support and sympathy, presenting
alternatives, or just listening. However, some do not.
Lawyers reported offering support and sympathy, but were
also prone to be more directive, such as by asking
questions, giving advice, and pointing out consequences of
bad ideas. Some service providers in all three categories
admitted to offering disconfirming responses which might
free them from the responsibilities of nondirective support,
such as telling customers to "count their blessings," trying
not to get involved, trying to change the topic, or trying
to get customers to talk with someone else.
A lack of caring in customer service may also be
demonstrated by making customers wait. Abrams, Numeroft,
and Hendin (1987), in their examination of service in
hospitals, indicated that patients who have to wait for
treatment tend to feel helpless, isolated, and angry, and
may perceive the hospital as lacking a caring attitude.
However, Piper (1989) found that customers and providers do
not perceive waiting time the same. In a survey of 450
patients and 55 physicians representing outpatient clinics
of a hospital, 83% of the patients felt that waiting time
was the biggest problem in the clinic, while only 9% of the
physicians cited waiting time as the biggest problem. In
addition, patients and physicians disagreed on the maximum
amount of waiting time tolerable. Piper found that 87% of
patients felt the maximum waiting time should be 30 minutes
or less. Among physicians surveyed, only 27% felt the
maximum wait should be 30 minutes; 54% felt it should be 60
minutes. This study clearly illustrates the potential for
service providers and customers to hold different standards
for caring in customer service.
Deception, discrimination, and depersonalization, as
domains of unethical service, have not yet been
systematically examined by communication researchers. The
following research agenda is proposed for exploring
occupational ethics as a function of communication behaviors
exhibited in service encounters, for determining the variety
of outcomes of unethical service practices, and for
assessing the aspects of organizational climates which are
likely to promote unethical service practices.
Exploring Unethical Service Practices among Different
To date, little is known about the extent to which
unethical service communication standards are engaged by
service providers. This is because few studies have been
conducted with the goal of describing unethical practices
among providers representing different occupational groups.
As a result, we are unable to offer explanations for why
some groups have traditionally been stereotyped as having
low ethical standards relative to other groups.
A first proposed line of research is to assess the
unethical service norms of various occupational groups.
Many questions may be addressed, such as the following: How
often are deceptive, discriminatory, and depersonalized
service communication practices engaged by members of
different occupational groups? Which occupations rely most
on deception? on discrimination? on depersonalization? Is
there a relationship between observed communication
practices and customer stereotypes of the ethics of the
occupational groups? Are changes in unethical service norms
associated with changes in perceived occupational ethics?
What might providers in occupations associated with low
ethical standards learn about communication from those in
occupations associated with high ethical standards?
Investigating Effects of Unethical Service Practices
Approaches to communicating with customers are
frequently evaluated in terms of their direct and immediate
benefits to the individual or organization. For instance,
the effects of deceptive sales tricks and false fronts on
customer purchases and tips are well-documented (Ford &
Etienne, 1994). However, additional effects of these
unethical service practices have generally been ignored. As
a result, salespersons, health care providers, food servers,
beauticians, and others are often encouraged to rely on
communication behaviors which may produce tangible outcomes
with no consideration of the ethics of the communication
Unethical service practices may affect providers and
customers in a variety of negative ways. Ashforth and
Humphrey (1993) proposed that service providers who are
expected to perform behaviors inconsistent with their
personal identities may experience serious personal
problems, such as low self-esteem or depression. This idea
was supported in research by Parkinson (1991) which examined
the psychological consequences of deceptive impression
management on hairdressers. In addition, Ford and Etienne
(1994 suggested that potential long-term negative effects of
manipulation on customers, yet unexplored, may counter any
short-term positive effects achieved in terms of sales,
tips, or other measured outcomes. Research has yet to
determine whether customers may experience dissatisfaction
and lower commitment to organizations which engage in
unethical service practices. It is important that further
research be conducted to examine the wide range of potential
effects of unethical service communication on both providers
Examining Organizational Climates which Foster
Unethical Service Practices
A third line of research is to examine the ways in
which organizations foster unethical service norms. Might
occupational ethics be linked to recruiting and hiring
strategies, training and socialization, performance
standards and appraisals, and reward systems? Do strong
organizational leaders, through the inspirational messages
they deliver and the day-to-day behaviors they model,
promote a culture which embraces unethical service
practices? Are communication campaigns, training programs,
and other organizational interventions effective for
instituting changes in organizational cultures and climates,
and fostering new service communication norms.
Service practices are a reflection of the values and
ethics of society. Our support for and tolerance of
particular service practices within occupational groups
conveys much about the ethical standards we have accepted.
Therefore, it is important that further research be
conducted to enhance our awareness of unethical service
practices and their effects on society, and to identify the
means through which unethical service norms have been
established and reinforced, and can be potentially
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Wendy S. Zabava Ford (PhD, University of Maryland,1992)
is an Associate Professor of Organizational Communication.
in the Department of Communication at Western Michigan
University in Kalamazoo, MI 49008.
University E-Mail: Ford@Wmich.Edu
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