The most recent issue of the Journal of Service Management features an article by Ruth Bolton, Anders Gustafsson, Janet McColl-Kennedy, Nancy Sirianni and David Tse proposing that businesses look at the specific customer experience as a differentiation strategy. As they point out in “Small Details That Make Big Differences: A Radical Approach to Consumption Experience as a Firm’s Differentiating Strategy”, many businesses compete in the same space: similar products, prices, locations, experiences. When looking at process improvement, they often look at efficiency and effectiveness across the board. Rather than doing that, Bolton et al suggest that they look at small differences that have an outsized effect on the customer experience.
Bolton uses an aged care home facility as an example. They installed an espresso machine in their wards in order to have each resident greeted in their room each morning with a high quality coffee of their choice. This small act has an outsized effect on customer perceptions of their experience; and therefore is an efficient and effective way of increasing customer satisfaction. Moreover these small differences can carve out a specific place in the market for a firm, and are tangible evidence of a greater value proposition (in this case about the care they take with their residents).
Is authenticity a differentiating strategy?
Bolton et al discuss authenticity specifically in terms of emotional engagement. They posit that a service can be efficient and effective; but without an emotional connection, customers will not develop an affinity to the brand. And that won’t happen without an authentically delivered emotional component, emotionally engaged and passionate staff, a “human touch”. Authenticity as a differentiator is not a new idea. The literature on authenticity, specifically from a service perspective is growing (and is, in fact, one of the reasons for this blog). From an evidentiary perspective, it is hard to quibble with Bolton et al.
There are issues that arise out of authenticity’s role in what is otherwise an interesting and relevant article. First, authenticity is not a “small differentiator”. Unlike the other examples they cite in the article (the coffee), is a massive thing, which is difficult to implement. It may have an overall effect but that may be hard to measure.
Regardless of that, lets say that authenticity is achievable as a point of difference in the market. Let us assume that there are a growing number of firms putting authenticity, emotional engagement and delight on the customer agenda. Imagine customers are moving through their lives, gravitating their consumption experiences toward the emotionally engaging, favouring vendors who have energetic, passionate, caring, staff. Ideally, this emotional labour is factored into the cost of the service. Let us assume that firms can therefore link amount of “emotional taxation” in their service to revenue growth or market share.
A world such as this creates expectations. We know that people, whether at work, at home or on social media, are rewarded socially more for being happy than being human. This “positive bias” referred to in earlier blogs is the authenticity firms are looking for. After all, customer service agents, are not encouraged to be authentically grumpy are they? And yet, positive bias is antithetical to authenticity. Authenticity is not the smooth run of a joyful customer journey. It is the bumpy ride of the different people in the process and their different personalities.
The challenge for workers to be authentic, but perfect and pleasant, is the elephant in the “authenticity room”. Although Bolton’s paper is not one about the broader assumptions and impacts of authentic emotional engagement in the transactional world, it does pose the question: Do we want a smooth manufactured one or a bumpy authentic one?