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Service provider type as a predictor of the relationship between sociality and customer satisfaction.

This study examined the relationship between service providers' sociality usage and customer satisfaction with the service provider. The Service Provider Sociality Scale (SPSS) was administered to 250 undergraduate students enrolled in a small, mid-western college and 194 residents from locales near the college. Whether it was a professional (doctor, hairdresser) or nonprofessional (convenience store clerk, fast-food employee) service provider, regression analyses revealed that "courteous expressions" and "personal connection" socialities were positive for both occupational groups; however, a stronger relationship existed for professional service providers. Nevertheless, regardless of service provider occupational type, courteous expressions explained significantly more unique variance in customer satisfaction than did personal connection socialities. Therefore, the communicative actions of service providers may influence customer perceptions of commitment and affect economic prosperity across service entities.

Keywords: service provider; customer; sociality; communication; customer satisfaction

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Building relationships with customers is an important part of conducting business and, arguably, the existence of most businesses depends on establishing sound relationships with their clientele (Bitner, Booms, & Tetreault, 1990; Gremler & Gwinner, 2000). In many service occupations, providers are required to exhibit favorable behaviors such as friendliness and warmth (Tsai & Huang, 2002). For some service providers, customer satisfaction determines employee compensation. At KFC, for example, "about 35 percent of a manager's annual bonus is tied to the customer satisfaction scores they achieve" (Sivadas & Prewitt-Baker, 2000, p. 73). Therefore, regardless of the motives (sincere effort to meet customer needs, economic incentives, etc.), one could ascertain that the communicative interplay between providers and customers plays a significant role in fostering relational development. Indeed, as Ford (2001) suggested, "From health care to auto repair to banking, to clerical support, service interactions have become a significant part of our daily routines and the nature of these interactions may dramatically impact our overall quality of life" (p. 1).

Given that service interactions play a significant role in our lives, limited research has examined the social aspects of service interactions (Ford, 2001). Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine service providers' sociality, based on different occupational types, and its relationship to customer satisfaction.

Sociality and Satisfaction in Service Interactions

Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo (1983) defined sociality as "performance that encourages a cooperative, social smoothness, void of intense interactions with others" (pp. 139-140). Courtesies, pleasantries, sociabilities, and privacies are respective dimensions of sociality. Courtesies consist of greeting, promoting politeness, or displaying friendliness. Pleasantries include small talk on subjects related to weather, sports, or politics. Sociabilities entail disclosures that lack serious conversational implications, such as those related to sharing gossip and joking. Privacies are more intimate revelations about oneself to others (Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1983).

Socialities range from surface-level communications such as greetings and small talk to deeper levels of more intimate disclosures. Socialities differ from other constructs, including immediacy and interaction involvement (Koermer, Ford, Toale, & Dohanos, 2003). Immediacy entails both verbal (e.g., pronoun choice of we vs. you) and nonverbal behavior (e.g., smiling, direct eye contact) used to reduce psychological distance between individuals (Mehrabian, 1967). In the communication field, immediacy has been primarily regarded as a nonverbal construct (for a summation of this work, see Richmond, McCroskey, & Johnson, 2003). Interaction involvement concerns the extent to which a person is cognitively and behaviorally involved in conversation (Cegala, 1981). This construct relies on listening behaviors associated with perceptiveness, attentiveness, and responsiveness. Therefore, sociality focuses on the range of social interactions between individuals, which is not the primary objective found in the immediacy and interaction involvement constructs.

Researchers have minimally examined socialities in service contexts. Williams and Spiro (1985), for instance, studied salespersons' "interaction orientation" to assess if the providers were friendly. Hester, Koger, and McCauley (1985) examined retail store clerks' greetings, including nonverbal communication related to facial regard and overall tone, while interacting with patrons. Also, scholars have studied grocery store and convenience store clerks' "emotional expressions" (e.g., greetings, thanking behaviors, eye contact, smiling) with customers (Rafaeli & Sutton, 1990). These aforementioned investigations dealt primarily with sociality in the form of courtesies and pleasantries while disregarding more intimate interpersonal aspects of sociality, including sociabilities and privacies.

In their ethnographic study of an automobile service station, Koermer, Goldstein, and Petelle (1996) discovered that all four sociality types played an important part in creating and sustaining attendant-clientele relationships. However, it was not known whether the sociality dimensions were discrete and what the dimensions' relationships were to outcome variables such as customer satisfaction. Using the Service Provider Sociality Scale (SPSS) to assess customer satisfaction, Koermer, Ford, and Brant (2000) discovered that socialities consisted of two factors: courteous expressions (e.g., "This service person ... used good manners in your presence, seemed appreciative/thankful, asked how you were doing") and personal connection (e.g., "This service person.., told you a joke, discussed your personal likes and dislikes, discussed what you do for work"). The latter sociality factor was a compilation of pleasantries, sociabilities, and privacies. Courteous expressions and personal connection accounted for approximately 75% of the variance in customer satisfaction. However, courteous expressions contributed to nearly half of the unique variance in customer satisfaction beyond that explained by the personal connection factor.

Gremler and Gwinner (2000) examined the relationship between rapport and outcomes related to customer satisfaction, loyalty intent, and word-of-mouth communication. Respondents included bank customers and dental patients who completed a self-report questionnaire used to examine rapport. Results, in part, revealed that two dimensions of rapport--enjoyable interaction and personal connection-were significantly related to customer satisfaction. Worth noting is that the personal connection dimension of rapport examined customer perceptions of mutual liking or caring (e.g., "I look forward to seeing this person when I visit the bank/dental office," "I strongly care about this employee"). The present study regards its personal connection factorial dimension as more communicatively focused.

Gutek (1995) and her colleagues (Gutek, Bhappu, Liao-Troth, & Cherry, 1999; Gutek, Cherry, Bhappu, Schneider, & Woolf, 2000; Gutek, Groth, & Cherry, 2002) have made the distinction between service encounters, service relationships, and pseudorelationships. Service encounters are brief, one-time interactions in which the customer does not expect to interact with the provider in the future. Service relationships entail repeated customer interactions with a service provider resulting in a sense of interdependence between both parties. Pseudorelationships refer to repeat customer contact with a particular organization but receiving such service from different providers within the organization (e.g., making airline reservations with different attendants working for the same airline). All relational types focus on the "way customers respond to service, depending on the way service delivery is structured" (Gutek et al., 2000, p. 319).

Empirical studies of service encounters, relationships, and pseudorelationships have found that customers are more satisfied with their experience in service relationships than service encounters or pseudorelationships (Gutek et al., 1999, Gutek et al., 2000, Gutek et al., 2002). Specifically, the service provider and customer know more about each other, have predictable exchanges, develop personal friendships, and service relationships enhance trust for the customer (Gutek et al., 2000). Ford (2001) examined customer expectations for interactions with various service provider types (dentists, auto mechanics, fast-food employees, bank tellers, food servers). Results indicated that customer expectations for long-term (relationship orientation), short-term (encounter orientation), and personalized service communication (tailored service, designed to meet individual customer needs) varied significantly depending on service occupation types. For example, patrons expected long-term, committed relationships involving personalized service communication from health care providers, auto mechanics, and hairdressers. However, clientele expected short-term relationships with little personalized communication from fast-food employees, supermarket cashiers, bartenders, and convenience store clerks. Ford (2001) further discovered that customers expected courteous behaviors from providers to be kept at a minimum, especially during encounter-oriented service situations (e.g., while interacting with fast-food employees or convenience store clerks). Ford (2003) also discovered that customer perceptions of communication performance were more important in explaining variation in customer satisfaction and loyalty than customer expectations. Simply, customers were not satisfied or loyal to professional service providers who failed to provide personalized service.

Other investigations have examined communication and customer satisfaction in the health care profession. For instance, researchers discovered that patient satisfaction levels were higher when doctors used friendly communication behaviors compared to doctors who exhibited controlling behaviors (Burgoon et al., 1987; Zimmerman, Zimmerman, &Lund, 1996). A similar investigation (Street, 1990) found that patients were more satisfied with dentists who displayed courteous communication behaviors during scheduled office visits.

Rationale and Research Questions

Both marketing and communication scholars have investigated a plethora of occupational types to determine the role customer perceptions and/or expectations play in influencing relationships with service providers (Ford, 2001; Gremler & Gwinner, 2000). Some of the research has directly examined communication in provider-customer interactions (Ford, 2001; Koermer et al., 2000); however, most marketing and business scholars have focused on communication indirectly, if at all. For instance, the Gremler and Gwinner (2000) study concentrated more on customer perceptions of enjoyable interaction and personal connection rather than on actual behaviors used by the provider. Specifically, their investigation did not focus on communicative acts but rather on perceived "warm and fuzzy" type behaviors (e.g., "The employee creates a feeling of 'warmth' in our relationship"). Another limitation centered on examining overall customer satisfaction with the service organization--bank or dental sample in this case--without knowing whether the service provider was responsible for satisfaction outcomes.

Similar to the Gremler and Gwinner (2000) study that focused on customer perceptions, Ford's (2001) investigation examined customer expectations for interactions with service providers rather than actual experiences per se. It could be that the experiences a customer had with a particular provider were more influential in enhancing customer satisfaction than were her or his perceptions or expectations of what was deemed important.

A second limitation, particularly with marketing and business research, concerns the three types (encounters, relationships, pseudorelationships) of provider-customer relationships as operationalized by Gutek et al. (1999), Gutek et al. (2000), and Gutek et al. (2002). Lacking is a greater understanding as to the role sociality communication plays in fostering relationships between the said parties and subsequent ramifications associated with customer satisfaction. It is true that the limited interactions in encounters and pseudorelationships do not enable the customer and provider to get to know and trust one another like that at the service relationship level. However, if a service provider were to use a simple courtesy expression, that could lead to stronger relational growth between service providers and customers. Therefore, what appears to be more important than service provider-customer relational types is the use of sociality communication to create and perhaps sustain such relationships. When it pertains to service, it is hard to control for individual customer preferences. For example, there are those customers who prefer to swipe a credit card, thus avoiding interaction with the attendant inside. However, there are many services (i.e., family physician, barber, home seller) that require communicative dialogue between the provider and customer. More important, how that provider communicatively interacts with the customer can influence his or her level of satisfaction (Gutek et al., 2002; Koermer et al., 2000).

A third concern centers on a priori research examining both service relationships and personalized service communication, because attention was primarily given to professional service providers such as physicians, dentists, auto mechanics, and hairstylists (Ford, 2001, 2003; Gutek et al., 2000). One would expect more personalized service communication and service-type relationships to be created because of the duration of conversational interactions between providers. Simply, both parties have more time to get to know one another. Similarly, it could be postulated that personal connection sociality usage by the provider would be of more importance in enhancing customer satisfaction than courteous expression socialities. However, customers interacting in limited time durations with nonprofessional service providers (e.g., fast-food employees and convenience store clerks) may be more satisfied with the service because customers expect and/or desire courteous socialities. To date, researchers have not adequately addressed differences across occupational groups. Ford (2003) noted the need to examine both professional and nonprofessional service providers' communication usage because it "would enable the advancement of theories regarding professional communication practices more generally" (p. 193). So, the value of examining sociality usage among professional and nonprofessional service providers is that it will enable researchers to determine if customers have similar communication needs across provider professions and whether customer satisfaction outcomes are influenced as a result. Therefore, given the aforementioned concerns, the following research questions were posed for further study:

Research Question 1: Is the relationship between courteous expression socialities and customer satisfaction different for professional versus nonprofessional service providers?

Research Question 2: Is the relationship between personal connection socialities and customer satisfaction different for professional versus nonprofessional service providers?

Research Question 3: What contributions do courteous expressions and personal connections make in predicting customer satisfaction in professional versus nonprofessional service contexts?

METHOD

Procedures and Participants

Fifty-one undergraduate students enrolled in introductory-level communication courses were recruited to collect data for this investigation. Students were instructed to administer surveys to five fellow undergraduate students and five nonstudents. Students assigned to collect data were not allowed to complete surveys themselves and received extra credit for their recruitment efforts.

Participants were 250 undergraduate students attending a small, midwestern liberal arts college and 194 residents in surrounding locales (N = 444). The sample consisted of 260 women (58%) and 184 men (42%). Participant ages ranged from 18 to 78 with a mean age of 28. Most participants reported they were Caucasian (400), followed by African American (17), Hispanic American (9), Native American (4), and Asian American (2), and 12 were "unspecified." All participants were assured in writing that they would not be identified or listed in the study.

Instrumentation

The SPSS is a 21-item instrument (1) that requests respondents to think about the most recent communicative encounter they experienced with a particular service provider. In this investigation, participants were rating a doctor, hairstylist-barber, convenience store clerk, or fast-food employee. Consistent with prior research (Ford, 2001, 2003), doctors and hairstylists-barbers constituted the professional service provider group. Convenience store clerks and fast-food employees composed the nonprofessional service provider group.

Professional and nonprofessional specific provider occupation types were selected for two reasons. One, given the limited duration of interaction (M = 5.67 minutes) between nonprofessional service providers with customers, one could assume that courteous expressions may be more effective in influencing subsequent customer satisfaction--with the individual provider--than personal connection socialities. However, personal connection sociality usage may be more common in exchanges (M = 35.80 minutes) that professional service providers have with customers, thus influencing satisfaction outcomes. A second reason for incorporating these occupational type groups into the study was to better generalize the findings across various service-related entities.

All SPSS items were rated on a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly' disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The instrument consists of two factorial dimensions related to Courteous Expressions and Personal Connection. Previous reliability coefficients ranged from .91 for Courteous Expressions to .94 for Personal Connection (Koermer et al., 2000). In this study, a coefficient alpha of .88 was obtained for Courteous Expressions and a reliability coefficient of .91 for Personal Connection.

Customer satisfaction with an individual provider (professional vs. nonprofessional) was measured using a three-item instrument (Hausknecht, 1990). Participants responded to the following items using a Likert-type scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree): "My choice to use this service person was a good one"; "If I had it to do over again, I would use this service person"; and "I am satisfied with this service person." Satisfaction was assessed as transaction specific with a service provider, not as cumulative satisfaction (Boulding, Kalra, Staelin, & Zeithaml, 1993). Reliability coefficients ranged from .97 (Koermer et al., 2000) to .93 in the present study.

RESULTS

The research questions addressed whether the relationship between courtesy-expression socialities and customer satisfaction was different for professional (e.g., doctor, hairdresser) versus nonprofessional (e.g., convenience store clerk, fast-food employee) service providers. This was repeated via examining personal connection socialities and customer satisfaction to determine if differences existed between said service provider types. In addition, the relative value of courteous expressions and personal connection socialities as predictors of customer satisfaction with service provider occupational types was examined.

Descriptive statistics are presented in Table I. Bivariate correlations revealed that both sociality dimensions--courteous expressions and personal connection-were significantly related to customer satisfaction with the provider regardless of provider occupational type. Next, two sets of additional analyses were performed. In the first set, the criterion variable was customer satisfaction (with the service provider), the continuous predictor variable was courtesy expressions, and the categorical predictor variable was service provider occupation type or professional versus nonprofessional.

In the first set of analyses, two multiple regression equations were created, and in both equations the criterion variable was customer satisfaction. With the first regression equation (the full equation), the predictor variables were provider occupation type (effect coded), courteous expressions, and an interaction term created by multiplying courteous expressions by service provider occupational level. For the full model, [R.sup.2] = .58; F(3,444) = 205.93, p < .0001. With the second equation (the reduced equation), the interaction term was deleted from the full equation. For this reduced model, [R.sup.2] = .56; F(2,444) = 285.90, p < .0001. Thus, deleting the interaction term from the full equation resulted in a decrease in [R.sup.2] of approximately .02. In the full equation, the nonstandardized regression coefficient for the interaction term was statistically significant, B = .4427; t(444) = 4.55, p < .0001. This significant interaction indicated that the relationship between courtesy expressions and customer satisfaction was different for professional versus nonprofessional service providers.

Bivariate regression was then performed to determine how this relationship differed for the two groups. In a different set of analyses, customer satisfaction was regressed on courteous expressions separately for participants rating professional service providers versus those rating nonprofessional service providers. Performing this analysis using just the participants rating professional service providers resulted in the following regression equation: Customer Satisfaction = 1.3998 + 1.2888 (Courtesy Expressions). Subject ratings of nonprofessional service providers resulted in the following regression equation: Customer Satisfaction = .9119 + .8460 (Courtesy Expressions).

The preceding regression coefficients show that the relationship between courtesy expressions and customer satisfaction was positive for both groups. However, the relationship was stronger for professional than for nonprofessional service providers. Next, this entire set of analyses was repeated. The criterion variable was again customer satisfaction; the continuous predictor variable was personal connection sociality and the categorical predictor variable service provider occupational level (professional versus nonprofessional).

With the full regression equation, the predictor variables consisted of service provider occupational level (effect coded), personal connection sociality, and an interaction term (Personal Connection x Professional/Nonprofessional Provider Type). For the full regression model, [R.sup.2] = .33; F(3,444) = 74.73, p < .0001. Deletion of the interaction term from the full model resulted in [R.sup.2] = .32; F(2, 444) = 106.09, p < .0001. Finally, in the full equation, the nonstandardized regression coefficient for the interaction term was significant: B = .2789; t(444) = 2.91, p < .005. This indicated that the relationship between personal connection sociality and customer satisfaction was different for professional and nonprofessional service providers.

Bivariate regression was performed to assess how this relationship differed for the two service provider groups. Customer satisfaction was regressed on personal connection separately for participants rating professional and nonprofessional service providers. Ratings of just professional service providers resulted in the following regression equation: Customer Satisfaction = 2.8205 + .6868 (Personal Connection); for the nonprofessional service providers: Customer Satisfaction = 3.6280 + .4079 (Personal Connection). As with courteous socialities, the regression coefficients show that the relationship between personal connection sociality and customer satisfaction was positive for both professional and nonprofessional service provider types. Nevertheless, the relationship was stronger for professional service providers than for nonprofessional providers of service.

Multiple regression analyses were conducted to answer the third research question. Customer satisfaction with the professional service provider served as the criterion variable, and both dimensions of the SPSS constituted the predictor variables. A significant multiple regression was produced, [R.sup.2] = .61 ; F(2, 212) = 170.30, p < .0001, with courteous expressions and personal connection accounting for 61% of the variance in customer satisfaction with the professional service provider. Beta weights and uniqueness indices were then obtained to determine the relative importance of courteous expressions and personal connection in the prediction of customer satisfaction with the professional service provider. Beta weights and uniqueness indices are presented in Table 2.

The data in Table 2 indicate that only courteous expressions displayed a significant beta weight at .74, p < .0001. Uniqueness indices further demonstrated that courteous expressions accounted for 30% of the variance in satisfaction with the professional service provider beyond the variance accounted for by personal connection, F(1,212) = 164.78, p < .0001.

Further multiple regression analyses were conducted where customer satisfaction with the nonprofessional service provider served as the criterion variable, and both dimensions of the SPSS constituted the predictor variables. A significant multiple regression was produced, [R.sup.2] = .42; F(2, 226) = 82.66, p < .0001, with courteous expressions and personal connection accounting for 42% of the variance in customer satisfaction with the nonprofessional service provider. Beta weights and uniqueness indices were performed to determine the importance of the SPSS factorial dimensions in the prediction of customer satisfaction with the nonprofessional service provider. Beta weights and uniqueness indices are highlighted in Table 3. Similar to the second table, data presented in Table 3 reveal that courteous expressions displayed a significant beta weight at .61, p < .0001. Uniqueness indices further indicated that courteous expressions accounted for 29% of the variance in satisfaction with the nonprofessional service provider beyond that accounted for by personal connection, F(1,226) = 108.19, p < .0001.

DISCUSSION

This study examined whether the relationship between courtesy expression socialities and customer satisfaction was different for professional (e.g., doctor, hairdresser) versus nonprofessional (e.g., convenience store clerk, fast-food employee) service providers. Regression coefficients indicated that the relationship between courtesy expressions and customer satisfaction was positive for both groups yet stronger for professional than for nonprofessional service providers. Further regression analyses revealed that the relationship between personal connection sociality and customer satisfaction was positive for both professional and nonprofessional service provider types but more significant for professional service providers. However, in both the professional and nonprofessional service contexts, courteous expressions accounted for significantly more unique variance than did personal connection in predicting customer satisfaction.

Researchers have made distinctions between service encounters and service relationships. The former entails customers having a single interaction with providers, whereas the latter implies repeated interactions between the customers and service providers (Gutek, 1995; Gutek et al., 1999; Gutek et al., 2000; Gutek et al., 2002). Moreover, Gremler and Gwinner (2000) suggested that customer satisfaction is influenced by technical and functional quality outcomes. Technical quality concerns "what is being delivered and functional quality deals with the way it is delivered" (p. 91). Of particular interest to this study is functional quality or the interpersonal aspects associated with service (e.g., "The barber engaged in courteous expressions of communication during my haircut").

Most a priori investigations, particularly in marketing, have examined communication indirectly between the provider and customer (see Koermer et al., 2000). However, in the communication discipline there has been some research conducted on personalized service. Ford (1999) operationalized personalized service as "tailored service, or service that attempts to address the unique needs of individual customers" (p. 343). Communicative behaviors associated with the construct include service providers who respond to customers, identify specific needs, actively listen, offer advice, and share information. Subsequent research by Ford (2001) revealed that customers had higher expectations for personalized service communication from professional providers (e.g., physicians, nurses, auto mechanics) than from nonprofessional service providers such as bartenders, fast-food employees, and cashiers.

Results of the present investigation differed from Ford's (1999, 2001, 2003) research in several important ways. First, the personalized service construct focused primarily on communication between the provider and customer related to the product or meeting specific customer needs. However, the sociality construct examines more directly the interpersonal or relational exchanges that occur between the service provider and customer. Second, this study found that courteous expressions were a significant predictor of customer satisfaction with the professional (doctor, hairdresser) occupational group. Given that the interaction with a doctor or hairdresser or barber would be more extensive and perhaps less mechanical than with a fast-food employee, one might expect the personal connection dimension to be of more importance than courteous expressions. However, this was not the case, and the present results differed from Ford's (1999, 2001, 2003), suggesting that customers value more personalized service from professional service providers.

Why the difference? A possible explanation for this outcome could be attributed to a paradigm shift in customer service interactions. For example, traditional long-term service relationships, in which the provider and customer get to know one another interpersonally, are being replaced with periodic service encounters and pseudorelationships (Gutek et al., 1999; Gutek et al., 2000; Gutek et al., 2002). Hence, "professional services are increasingly being offered with an emphasis on speed and efficiency, and little, if any, attention to relationship development between an individual provider and customer" (Ford, 2001, p. 3). Given this focus on brief interpersonal encounters between professional service providers and customers, it makes sense that patrons place importance on courteous forms of communication. At a minimum, then, courteous expressions promote an immediate bond or create "connections" that subsequently enable the professional service provider and customer to build a service relationship in which a sense of identity, particularly for the customer, is promoted.

Regarding the second research question, it was discovered that personal connection socialities influence customer satisfaction with professional service providers. This finding is somewhat consistent with Ford's (1999, 2001, 2003) work on customers expecting personalized service from professional providers as well as that of Gutek et al. (1999), Gutek et al. (2000), and Gutek et al. (2002) on service relationships. Customers in this study spent on average 36 minutes interacting with professional service providers such as doctors and hairstylists or barbers. Therefore, because of greater conversational durations, one would expect the professional service provider to engage in forms of communication beyond simple courtesy expressions (commonly used at the onset or end of most conversations). For example, the author and her or his barber will often talk about politics and the weather while services are being rendered. It is because of this personal connection form of sociality that the author is a highly satisfied customer.

Indeed, one would expect that as customer-provider relationships evolve beyond a single exchange, personal connections would play a more significant role in service relational development. Some researchers have suggested the opposite, however. Specifically, they have suggested that extended service provider-customer communicative transactions do not necessarily result in both parties knowing each other (Siehl, Bowen, & Pearson, 1992). Nevertheless, as Gremler and Gwinner (2000) correctly noted, "mutual interest existing on a more personal and relational level is likely to build stronger bonds between customers and employees" (p. 92).

Finally, in both professional and nonprofessional service contexts, courteous expressions were found to be stronger than personal connection in predicting customer satisfaction. As suggested earlier, this could be attributed to the pseudorelational dynamic of mass-producing services prevalent in many 21st-century organizations. In essence, then, you have the McDonaldization (Ritzer, 2004) of the service sector occurring. For example, as a young boy the author went to the family physician in town. Presently, he does not see the same doctor every time for medical visits at a large family physician practice. So perhaps the paradigm shift from establishing a personal connection-type sociality with a sole service provider is being replaced with quick courteous expressions common in service organizations where the customer is exposed to multiple service persons.

Limitations

One possible limitation in this investigation was the lack of delineating between short- and long-term provider-customer relationships. For instance, depending on the medical practice, it is possible to see a different physician (pseudorelationship) during any health-related visit. Therefore, one area of research would be to explore the relationship between provider sociality usage (i.e., courteous expressions, personal connections) and customer satisfaction related to the service encounter, service relationship, or pseudorelationship (Gutek et al., 1999). For example, does a single service encounter, where sociality communications are used, influence the customer's overall satisfaction with the provider? Moreover, an interesting line of research to pursue concerns the notion of expectancy violation (Burgoon & Le Poire, 1993). What happens to customer satisfaction when we initially perceive a service provider as being less than genteel; then, over time, that service provider "warms up" unexpectedly?

Next, although the age of the sample in this study ranged from 18 to 78 (less than 9% were older than 50), this could have, nevertheless, influenced the findings. Perhaps older customers place more value on personal connections, whereas younger, college-aged customers prefer courteous expressions. This is an issue that can be addressed in future studies. However, this study purposefully sought a diverse sample so the findings could be generalized beyond that of just using a convenience sample of college students.

A third potential limitation with this study is that the SPSS is culture specific to the United States. It is indeed possible that certain service language used in the United States might offend Europeans or confuse Asians. In France, for example, the service provider rarely engages in courteous expressions or personal connections, for that matter. Therefore, an interesting venue for further research would include the types of sociality communication that may or may not be important in intercultural contexts beyond what we in the United States may expect.

Fourth, this study did not examine whether courteous expressions or personal connections play a role in other customer outcomes such as loyalty and word-of-mouth referrals (Gremler, Gwinner, & Brown, 2001). Researchers have determined a nexus in customer satisfaction predicting customer loyalty; for instance, customers returning to the same automobile salesperson to purchase their next car, recommending a particular grocery store to friends, using the same consulting firm on a repeat basis, and returning to the same hospital because of prior satisfactory experiences (Ford, 1995; Gotlieb, Grewal, & Brown, 1994; Patterson, Johnson, & Spreng, 1997). (2) Moreover, Koermer et al. (2000) found that satisfaction predicted loyalty, using undergraduate college students as "customers." However, it remains to be determined whether sociality communication influences customer loyalty and word-of-mouth communication using a more generalized sample beyond undergraduate college students.

Finally, this study did not examine whether satisfaction with the individual service person results in ramifications for the service organization. Perhaps, then, satisfaction with service providers' use of sociality may influence a customer's satisfaction with the organization (e.g., "Because a barber was courteous, I am likely to be satisfied with this business establishment").

Implications

This study strongly supports the contention that customers were more satisfied with professional service providers (doctors, hairstylists or barbers) who engaged in both courteous expressions and personal connection forms of sociality. Moreover, findings revealed that regardless of the service context (i.e., professional vs. nonprofessional), customers expect service providers to be courteous. Usually, most conversations begin or end with a courtesy expression and include some form of personal connection content. Even brief service encounters between professional service providers can lead to service relationships. The constructs do not have to be mutually exclusive. The important point is that sociality communication can play a pivotal role in moving the provider and customer from mere encounters to higher degrees of relational development. As Ford (2001) noted, "service interactions are first, and fundamentally, communication exchanges" (p. 24). Hence, a value of this investigation is that it reveals a set of common communication practices that are applicable particularly to professional service providers.

Nevertheless, there are situations in which the customer may have little desire to communicatively interact with a provider, finding the relation-building aspects intrusive (Adelman, Ahuvia, & Goodwin, 1993; Goodwin, 1996; Gremler & Gwinner, 2000; Gutek et al., 1999). Likewise, others have suggested that customers are inundated with service organizations attempting to build relationships with them and that many customers regard such efforts as meaningless (Fournier, Dobscha, & Mick, 1998). However, the author concurs with Gremler and Gwinner (2000), who suggested "that in most exchanges customers still desire an enjoyable interaction with the service employee" (p. 100). For example, when the author purchases gas with a credit card there is not a need for communicative interaction with the service provider. However, when getting his car serviced, an expectation exists for the professional service provider to use, at minimum, courteous expressions and/or some form of personal connection-type communicative behaviors. Pertaining to courteous expressions, the author's mechanic usually says things such as, "How are you today, Professor?" or when leaving, "Come back and visit anytime, and remember that you do not have to wait till something on your car needs service to visit." With personal connection sociality usage, the automobile mechanic talks about politics, world events, family matters, or asks how the author's job is going. In turn, the author perceives the provider to be very enjoyable, thus positively influencing customer satisfaction with him and the business.

As noted earlier, customers desire enjoyable interactions with service providers (Gremler & Gwinner, 2000). Professional service providers who engage in sociality forms of communication via courteous expressions and personal connection are making the customers' experiences enjoyable. Of course, the more enjoyable the experience, the more likely the customer will be satisfied. Indeed, retail scholars have suggested that identifying and satisfying customer needs resulted in greater customer retention (Day, 1994; Sivadas & Prewitt-Baker, 2000). Moreover, personalized service encounters influence customer perceptions of service quality, satisfaction, commitment, and purchase intentions (Mittal & Lassar, 1996; Wilson & Mummalaneni, 1986). In turn, meeting customer needs may result in economic prosperity for certain types of businesses, especially those that rely heavily on face-to-face interaction with their clientele.
Table 1. Means, Standard Deviations, and Intercorrelations for
Sociality Dimensions, and Customer Satisfaction Among Provider
Occupational Groupings (N = 444)

                                                             Inter-
                                                         correlations *

Variable                                   M      SD     1      2     3

Professional (doctors, hairdressers,
  n = 215)
    1. Courteous expressions              5.54   1.04
    2. Personal connection                4.27   1.42   68 *
    3. Satisfaction with provider         5.75   1.71   78 *   56 *
Nonprofessional (convenience store
  clerks, fast-food employees, n = 229)
    1. Courteous expressions              4.30   1.09
    2. Personal connection                2.32   1.29   46 *
    3. Satisfaction with provider         4.57   1.45   63 *   36 *

Note: Decimals omitted from correlations. * p < .0001.

Table 2. Beta Weights and Uniqueness Indices in Multiple
Regression Analyses Predicting Customer Satisfaction
With the Professional Service Provider (n = 215)

                        [beta] Weight (a)     Uniqueness Index (b)

Predictor               [beta]      t        Index        F

Courteous expressions    0.74     12.75 *     .30       164.78 *
Personal connection      0.06      1.11       .002        1.0

(a.) Standardized multiple regression coefficients obtained when
customer satisfaction with the professional service provider was
regressed on the two predictor variables.

(b.) Indicates the percentage of variance in customer satisfaction
with the professional service provider accounted for by a predictor
variable beyond the variance accounted for by the remaining predictor
variable.

* P < .0001.

Table 3. Beta Weights and Uniqueness Indices in Multiple
Regression Analyses Predicting Customer Satisfaction
With the Nonprofessional Service Provider

                         [beta] Weight (a)    Uniqueness Index (b)

Predictor                 [beta]      t        Index      F

Courteous expressions       .61     10.66 *     .29     108.19 *
Personal connection         .08      1.43       .005      2.0

(a.) Standardized multiple regression coefficients obtained when
customer satisfaction with the nonprofessional service provider was
regressed on the two predictor variables.

(b.) Indicates the percentage of variance in customer satisfaction
with the nonprofessional service provider accounted for by a predictor
variable beyond the variance accounted for by the remaining predictor
variable.

* p < .0001.


NOTES

(1.) As noted in the Koermer, Ford, and Brant (2000) study, the original Service Provider Sociality Scale (SPSS) consisted of 24 items. Twelve items each reflected the factorial dimensions of Courteous Expressions and Personal Connection. A follow-up confirmatory factorial analysis study examined the factorial structure and validity of the SPSS. This resulted in a 21-item scale (Koermer, Ford, Toale, & Dohanos, 2003). The present investigation utilized the same data set as noted in the confirmatory investigation. However, the focus was assessing service providers' sociality usage along professional and nonprofessional occupational types to determine its influence on customer satisfaction.

(2.) The opposite holds true as well. Specifically, customers who were dissatisfied with service providers and/or their respective organization conveyed their dissatisfaction to relatives and friends (Singh, 1990). Economically, even a single negative customer experience results in 10% of customers switching retailers (Sivadas & Prewitt-Baker, 2000).

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Chas D. Koermer (Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1991) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre, Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio. The author thanks Jim McCroskey, Larry Hatcher, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Chas. D. Koermer, Department of Communication, Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, OH 44017; phone: 440 826-3766; e-mail: ckoermer@bw.edu
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