A recent academic article returned me to the issue of how older consumers differ in their reaction to service failures. I have talked about this in previous Newsletters (#039). It is impossible to run a service operation consistently and perfectly. There are too many moving parts. Service employees are human and can have good days and bad days. Other customers in the setting are part of the experience. If they are a noisy party, drinking too much, in the restaurant everyone suffers. The individual consumer who receives the service can be in different moods.
Firms have to create and maintain a whole environment. This can be in the real world or a virtual one. This is a complex task and involves physical settings and complex operational processes. It often involves back office teams. They are easier to manage than a front line team. They can be organized better than customers who are “partial employees”. Things can still go wrong.
If things do go wrong then the firm wants to have a chance to put it right. There is lots of evidence that a failure corrected well can result in happy customers. Indeed they can be happier than if the firm had “done it right first time”. Many experiences happen on “autopilot”. We have had lunch so often in a local café that the experiences all blend together. After the meal if we are asked to remember details of it, we cannot. A service failure may be unpleasant but it does snap us out of autopilot. If we engage we can perceive the quality of the service.
This came from Laura Carstensen. The theory argues that as mortality becomes real motivations change. Future Time Perspective (FTP) becomes shorter. Managing emotional states becomes more important. Older people will avoid distressing situations. They manage their lives to be full of happier experiences. They seem to do this in a conscious way. Their reactions to a service failure will vary. They will depend on the expectation of what engaging in “problem solving” will involve. Will it be positive, not only in outcome but also in process? In general the prediction would be an older person would disengage.
Wisdom grows with age.
In the psychology literature wisdom is well defined and comes in three parts. The first is cognitive. Expertise in seeing patterns and categorizing grows with age. Older people tend to see larger patterns then their younger selves. In a service failure an older person will see more of the root causes. At least at an intellectual level they might be more forgiving. The second part of wisdom is reflective. This is a willingness to look at issues from different perspectives. It means questioning one’s own thinking and behaviour. In any failure there are multiple points of view and mitigating factors. The final piece of wisdom has been called compassion. Older people have more concern for other people and for their feelings.
All three parts of wisdom can influence our reaction to a service failure. Older people may well see the service failure from the perspective of the firm. They will cognitively understand the problem. They are more capable of taking the other persons point of view. They will be concerned with the wellbeing of the person taking their complaint. Obviously all this requires a lot of emotional and intellectual effort. This may conflict with their “efficient decision making”. They can be efficient because they have made these decisions many times before. Engaging moves consumers out of autopilot.
Emotional Intelligence (EI)
The theory of emotional intelligence was first developed in the 1990’s It was popularized in a book in 1995. It suggests a two part model. Someone high on EI can recognize , understand and manage their own emotions. They can also recognize and influence the emotions of others. They can reason about their own and other people’s feelings. That gives them the ability to give good feedback. They can deal better with challenging situations. They should be good at coping with others and at persuasion.
It is not surprising that older adults score higher on emotional intelligence. An older person has a lifetime of learning and knowledge. They can draw on this when understanding emotions. They can use their EI to increase their subjective wellbeing. This would help as their future time perspective shrinks with age.
When faced with a service failure a high EI person is better equipped. They understand their own emotions. They can disentangle their anger and frustration from the problem to be solved. They can understand the “emotional labour” of the complaint handler (Newsletter #062). They may have confidence in their ability to negotiate a better solution. All this suggests that they would be more likely to engage in joint problem solving to find a solution.
The researchers looked at the relationship between these different constructs. They were trying to predict whether someone would engage in joint problem solving. Their sample were older people. Some findings are not surprising. Wisdom seems to be a precursor for EI. It, in turn, is a good predictor of “Problem Solving Propensity”. Wisdom and EI overlap in ideas so the results seem obvious. There is a strong direct relationship between Wisdom and Problem Solving Propensity. An older “wiser” person is more likely to cope with a “complaining” session. They would have higher expectations of success
Unsurprisingly FTP can increase Emotional Intelligence. This is consistent with the management of emotions. What is surprising is the lack of any kind of a direct relationship between FTP and engagement in service recovery. In the previous Newsletter I argued that the relationship would be negative. If life is too short why engage in a service recovery? "Move on and change suppliers". Not only is there no negative relationship there is no relationship at all. It does influence it indirectly through EI in a positive direction.
The research confirms last weeks Newsletter. The “old” are not some homogeneous group. They do not march in unison to the beat of chronological time. The stereotype collides with the facts. Older people vary dramatically across all these different constructs. There are different segments. People are at different stages of the changes to their FTP. They have different levels of Wisdom and Emotional Intelligence. Managing service recovery requires a service provider to have high levels of EI themselves. Understanding all the permutations that constitute a “consumer” requires those skills.