Mutual Understanding Between Customers and Employees in Service Encounters

ABSTRACT - Through re-analysis of critical incident data (Bitner, Booms and Tetreault 1990; Bitner, Booms and Mohr in progress), the construct "mutual understanding" between customers and employees emerges as an important underlying factor in determining customer satisfaction in service encounters. It is hypothesized that mutual understanding results when the customer and employee are cognitively similar and/or when their role taking accuracy is high. Role and script theory are relied on to suggest hypotheses for when these conditions leading to mutual understanding are most likely to occur.


Lois A. Mohr and Mary Jo Bitner (1991) ,"Mutual Understanding Between Customers and Employees in Service Encounters", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 611-617.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 611-617


Lois A. Mohr, Arizona State University

Mary Jo Bitner, Arizona State University


Through re-analysis of critical incident data (Bitner, Booms and Tetreault 1990; Bitner, Booms and Mohr in progress), the construct "mutual understanding" between customers and employees emerges as an important underlying factor in determining customer satisfaction in service encounters. It is hypothesized that mutual understanding results when the customer and employee are cognitively similar and/or when their role taking accuracy is high. Role and script theory are relied on to suggest hypotheses for when these conditions leading to mutual understanding are most likely to occur.


While a growing number of firms are realizing the importance of making customer satisfaction a priority (see, for example, Phillips, et al. 1990; Webster 1988), many do not fully comprehend all that it takes to achieve high levels of satisfaction. In service encounters, where interactions between employees and the customer often become part of the service itself in the customer's mind, not only the service outcome but also the manner in which the service is delivered is important to the customer (Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1985). This paper looks at the results of two studies of memorable service encounters in three service industries (Bitner, Booms, and Mohr in progress; Bitner, Booms, and Tetreault 1990) to gain an understanding of the interactions between contact employees and customers that lead customers to distinguish very satisfactory services from very dissatisfactory ones. Based on these studies, it is proposed that mutual understanding between the customer and employee is a major factor influencing customer satisfaction in service encounters. The construct "mutual understanding" is defined; then role and script theory are used to generate hypotheses about when mutual understanding is more or less likely to occur.


In two studies, data were collected on service encounters that are particularly memorable because they are highly satisfying or dissatisfying to customers. Both employees (Bitner, Booms, and Mohr in progress) and frequent customers (Bitner, Booms, and Tetreault 1990) of the hotel, restaurant, and airline industries were asked to describe the circumstances, employee behaviors, and results of the encounters. Employees were asked to put themselves in the customer's shoes and describe incidents that they believed were memorable to the customer, while customers were asked to describe incidents memorable to themselves. A total of 699 customer and 774 employee incidents (approximately half satisfactory and half dissatisfactory in each group) were analyzed.

Throughout the authors' reading of these accounts, one recurring factor that seemed clearly related to customer satisfaction was mutual understanding between the contact employee and the customer. For example, one restaurant customer described an incident involving an extremely long wait for service as highly satisfactory because the waitress apologized profusely and compensated the customer for the bill. In this situation the employee understood how negatively the customer was feeling about the speed of service (even though the customer did not specifically complain), and she acted to change that reaction. In contrast, another restaurant customer recounted a dissatisfactory incident where the waitress refused to move him from a window table on a hot day because there was no table left in her section. Here the employee either failed to understand how uncomfortable the customer was or she failed to act on that understanding. In addition, she did not give the customer an adequate reason for her refusal to comply with his request to be moved, i.e., she was unable to get the customer to understand and accept her point of view.

The connection between mutual understanding and customer satisfaction is also evident in the comparison of customer and employee results. The incidents gathered from customers (Bitner, Booms, and Tetreault 1990) were classified into three major groups that could account for all satisfactory and dissatisfactory incidents: (1) employee response to service delivery system failures, (2) employee response to customer needs and requests, and (3) unprompted and unsolicited employee actions. When attempting to use the same classification system for the incidents gathered from employees (Bitner, Booms, and Mohr in progress), it was discovered that 86 encounters (11.1%) did not fit into any of the three groups. These 86 incidents were categorized into one group labeled "problematic customer behavior." In each of these incidents employees perceived the customer's own behavior (such as drunkenness, verbal abuse of employees, breaking laws, and uncooperativeness) to be the source of dissatisfaction. Of these 86 encounters, 83 (96.5%) were dissatisfactory.

Interestingly, in our sample, customers never mentioned such incidents, indicating that they either are unable to see that their behavior is sometimes the cause of a dissatisfactory service encounter (i.e., they lack understanding of the employee or firm's point of view) or they are unwilling to admit such embarrassing incidents to an interviewer. Although these two explanations cannot be sorted out with these data, a reading of the incidents in this group leads us to believe that lack of mutual understanding does play a part. To illustrate, 42 incidents (49% of the problem customer group) were categorized in the subgroup called "pigheaded"/ uncooperative customer. Here the customer is generally rude and uncooperative or extremely demanding; all efforts made by the employee to compensate for a perceived service failure are rejected. These are situations where the employees do more for the customers than could be reasonably expected, yet the customers still are not satisfied. For example, one couple in a restaurant was served their entrees undercooked. The waitress apologized and offered them a new meal plus free drinks and free dessert. The manager also tried to appease the couple, but they left the restaurant angrily. Another example involves a flight where the airline ran out of meals. As a result, there was no dinner for one businessman sitting in the back of the plane. The flight attendant apologized and offered him one of the crew meals. When he refused the crew-meal, she offered him a $25 certificate towards another flight. Though he did accept that offer, he continued to complain and behave in an agitated manner toward the flight attendant. It is unlikely that such customers understand the perspectives of the employee or the firm in these encounters.

We conclude, then, from these two studies of critical incidents, that customer satisfaction can be adversely affected if the employee does not understand the customer or if the customer does not understand the employee. Because the understanding of both parties to the encounter is important, we suggest that mutual understanding positively affects the encounter. On these grounds, the following hypothesis is proposed:

H1: The greater the mutual understanding between service employees and customers during the service encounter, the higher the customer satisfaction with the service will be

It is important to clarify that this hypothesis is intended to convey one factor that may affect satisfaction. Other constructs, such as the amount of effort exerted by the employee and the employee's adaptiveness to the customer's needs, were also apparent in the data. In this paper, however, we explore mutual understanding.

As an additional caveat, we are not arguing that a service delivery factor such as mutual understanding would necessarily overpower service outcome factors. For example, when the service is clearly bad (e.g., the restaurant's food is poorly prepared), employee-customer agreement about the low quality is unlikely to result in a satisfied customer. But mutual recognition of the problem may lead the customer to view the encounter more favorably than were the employee oblivious to his perceptions. On the positive side, mutual understanding between participants may enable the employee to fine tune a successful encounter to further please an already satisfied customer. Such service extras could be a basis for competitive advantage.

The next step in this paper is to define the concept of mutual understanding and explore conditions that make its occurrence more likely.


By mutual understanding we mean that, between two people, the messages received equal the messages sent, with no distortion. Messages can be sent verbally or through gestures and demeanor, and they can be sent and received more or less consciously. It is obvious that perfect mutual understanding is unattainable, but a high level of understanding is desirable if people are to successfully communicate. Miscommunication (i.e., low or zero mutual understanding) is to be avoided because it generally prevents the parties of an interaction from achieving their goals or, at the very least, it increases the costs of interacting. In the service context, Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985) propose that management misunderstanding of consumer expectations (Gap 1) diminishes the customer's evaluation of service quality.

Given that mutual understanding is a desirable goal for service encounters, how do we go about achieving it? A review of the social psychology literature suggests two concepts that help explain mutual understanding: role taking and cognitive similarity. These are two distinct concepts which are, however, strongly interrelated. Each concept is discussed below.

Role Taking

Drawing on the work of George Herbert Mead, Schwalbe (1988) defines role taking as entering the perspective of the other. We use Schwalbe's work to define role taking as understanding the other's imagery of the external world. This cognitive process of role taking is clearly related to mutual understanding for, if one understands how another person sees an event, one is more likely to understand that person's communications about the event. Schwalbe (1988) asserts that role taking is essential for establishing stable patterns of interaction. Furthermore, when habitualized interaction is not working, role taking is necessary for realigning behavior. Some of the research on role taking shows that this factor leads to more successful negotiation of arbitration disputes (Neale and Bazerman 1983), to building positive counseling relationships (Gladstein 1983), and to satisfaction in romantic relationships (Davis and Oathout 1987).

Role taking captures the idea of customers and contact personnel understanding each other's perspectives even when their own perspectives may be different. Brown and Swartz (1989) conducted research that supports the idea that accuracy of role taking influences customer satisfaction. They gathered data on patient experiences with their physicians and compared them to the physician's perceptions of their patients' experiences. Thirty-three items (e.g., "My doctor hears what I have to say.", "My doctor prescribes drugs and pills too often.") were used to measure perceptions. The differences between physician and patient perceptions were rather large, and the size of the differences was significantly related to overall patient satisfaction. Based on this discussion, the following hypothesis is proposed:

H2: Increased accuracy in cognitive role taking leads to a higher level of mutual understanding between encounter participants.

Cognitive Similarity

There are a number of studies showing that cognitive similarity leads to more effective communication. Argyle, Furnham, and Graham (1981) review some of this research. Typical of the writers in communication, Rommetveit (1974) discusses commonality of cognitive categorization as a prerequisite for mutual understanding and communication. There are, however, several types of cognitive similarity. One type involves two people utilizing the same underlying attribute or dimension in forming judgments of people or events. In a service encounter this might mean that both the employee and customer judge the encounter's quality primarily by the employee's responsiveness to the customer's needs. Runkel (1956) and Triandis (1960) found such similarity related to communication effectiveness, while Landfield and Nawas (1964) found it related to client improvement in psychotherapy.

A different type of cognitive similarity, one which is a major focus of this paper, is role and script congruence. Solomon et al. (1985) argue persuasively that discrepancies between an employee's and customer's role conceptions or scripts for the service encounter can reduce customer satisfaction. For example, if the employee and customer have different ideas of what each other's behavior in the encounter should be, problems in communicating and understanding each other are very likely to arise. Based on this discussion the following hypothesis is proposed:

H3: Cognitive similarity leads to greater mutual understanding between encounter participants .

Relationships Between Role Taking and Cognitive Similarity

Before discussing the concepts of role and script congruence in more depth, we will suggest several ways in which role taking and cognitive similarity are interrelated. First, the more cognitively similar two actors are, the more accurate their cognitive role taking is likely to be (Hickson 1985). The idea here is that role taking is more difficult when the actors use different attributes for evaluating an encounter or when they have incompatible expectations. For example, if a hotel clerk in a preindustrialized country thinks he is providing superb service, he may have difficulty seeing that his relatively wealthy customer from a highly industrialized country is regarding his hotel stay as a gruelling experience. However, if both participants are from the same society and view the encounter similarly, the clerk will be more likely to understand the customer's evaluation of the service. Evidence for this is provided by Biddle (1986), who reviews research that finds role taking positively associated with similarity in the background, training, and outlook of people.

Second, it is also probable that role taking accuracy in an encounter will lead to similarity of cognitive structures relevant to the encounter. In the course of an interaction it is not unusual for people to be influenced by each other. The understanding of another's views often leads us to change our own perspective or interpretation of events. This idea is encapsulated in Deutsch and Gerard's (1955) concept of informational social influence, whereby we accept information obtained from another as evidence about reality. Based on this discussion; we hypothesize a relationship with no dominant causal direction between role taking and cognitive similarity:

H4: Cognitive similarity and role taking accuracy during a service encounter will be positively correlated.

In summary, we suggest that customer satisfaction is positively influenced by mutual understanding which, in turn, depends on role taking accuracy and cognitive similarity. We also propose that the concepts of role taking and cognitive similarity are connected by reciprocal on-going relationships during the interaction that takes place in a service encounter. These relationships, along with those discussed throughout the remainder of the paper, are diagrammed in the Figure.

The next step in this paper is to explore the perspectives of role and script theory for insight on when mutual understanding in the service encounter is more or less likely. Hypotheses for future research on the service encounter will be generated from these analyses.


Roles and Scripts

According to Biddle (1986), role theory focuses on three major concepts: (1) role behavior, the patterned and characteristic activities of a person occupying a particular position, (2) social position, the part or identity that is assumed by social participants, and (3) role expectation, the standards for role behavior that are understood by everyone and generally adhered to by role performers. In this paper, the term role will be used to encompass all three of these concepts -- behavior, position, and expectations.



Role expectations are connected to specific positions, not to the people themselves; one person can occupy any number of social positions over time, and behavior will be expected to change accordingly (Sarbin and Allen 1968). Inherent in the concept of roles is the notion of complementarity; that is, a role only exists in relation to other, complementary roles (e.g., father and daughter, physician and patient, customer and sales clerk). The occupants of roles that are directly associated with a focal person's role are called that person's role-set. (Katz and Kahn 1978). For example, a waiter's role-set would include his customers, coworkers, and boss.

The fact that each role implies other related roles is an important one, for it means that people who are enacting roles are interdependent. Such interdependency implies that, for successful role enactment, people need to be able to predict how other role players will behave (Solomon, et al. 1985). To help ensure that role occupants will behave properly, role expectations are often communicated, or sent, from role-set members to the focal person. The acts that make up role-sending are both informational and attempts at influence. These acts need not be continuous, however, because role occupants have often been previously socialized into their roles (Katz and Kahn 1978).

Abelson (1981) defines a script as a hypothesized cognitive structure that, when activated, organizes one's comprehension of event-based situations. Scripts without sequence information are called weak scripts, while those that include learned associations between prior and consequent events are called strong scripts. Each script includes a number of roles. A strong script, then, is a structure that describes appropriate sequences of role behaviors in a particular context (Schank and Abelson 1977). Scripts are assumed to define expectations that function both as behavioral guides and as norms for the evaluation of people's performances (Smith and Houston 1983).

According to Schank and Abelson (1977), strong scripts generally handle stylized situations, situations that are largely predetermined and stereotyped. Many service encounters, such as those between bank teller or hotel desk clerk and customer, have strong scripts. In standardized situations scripts specify behavior very clearly. Yet, if it is elaborate enough, a script can also handle interferences, events that prevent normal script enactment. Schank and Abelson describe two types of interferences: (1) obstacles, which occur when an enabling condition is missing, and (2) errors, which occur when the action is completed with the wrong result. An example of encountering an obstacle would be arriving at a restaurant hoping to begin a dining-out script and learning that there are no available tables. It would be an error if the waiter brought a different entree than the one ordered. There are often role prescriptions for overcoming obstacles or for correcting errors, but sometimes an actor will give up and leave the scene instead of completing the scripted performance. Scripts grow by adding prescriptions to overcome obstacles and errors. Occupational role members generally need elaborate scripts to successfully perform their roles. Since customers add variability, the service provider who interacts with customers frequently needs particularly elaborate scripts.

Predicting Mutual Understanding Through Roles and Scripts

With this foundation in mind, we now turn to the question of how these role and script concepts can be used to examine the amount of mutual understanding between service providers and customers. In the following sections the term mutual understanding encompasses role taking accuracy, cognitive similarity, and their reciprocal connections, as discussed above. Research on role taking has found both similarity of backgrounds and frequency of interactions positively related to role taking accuracy (Biddle, 1986; Hickson 1985). It is also a straightforward assumption that for two people, background similarity and interaction frequency increase their cognitive similarity (e.g., Triandis 1960). Similarity of background can be along lines such as home country, social class, educational level, subculture, age, gender, etc. People with similar backgrounds tend to have experiences that lead to a high level of role and script agreement. In addition, when people have interacted frequently in the past, they are likely to have established mutually acceptable reciprocal role behaviors. In both these situations, where there is a high level of pre-established role agreement, there is less need for role expectations to be communicated. Therefore there is less chance for miscommunication than when backgrounds are different and the role occupants have not interacted before. The following hypotheses are therefore proposed:

H5: The more similar the backgrounds of the service provider and customer are, the greater their mutual understanding about the service encounter will be.

H6: The more frequently the service provider and the customer interact, the greater their mutual understanding about the service encounter will be.

Because role behaviors are interdependent, their successful enactment requires that the people involved have similar expectations of what the appropriate role behaviors are. Strong scripts provide detailed information about what behaviors should occur and when they should be enacted. A person with a strong script is what Katz and Kahn (1978) would call a "self-sender," that is, a role-sender to himself. Since strong scripts arise for situations that are largely predetermined, there is more role agreement and less need for role-sending between participants than when scripts are weak. This leads to the following hypothesis:

H7: Mutual understanding in service encounters will be greater when both customers and employees hold strong scripts.

Scripts can vary in complexity in addition to strength. One of the ways scripts increase in complexity is by including prescriptions, or subscripts, for handling interferences. Experience is a factor here, for role participants that are highly experienced have more elaborately developed scripts. They are prepared to reach their scripted goals in spite of errors or obstacles. The ability to enact subscripts to overcome interferences should make mutual understanding more likely. Indirect evidence is provided by Leong, Busch, and John's (1989) research showing that effective salespeople have more elaborate, sophisticated sales scripts than less effective salespeople. The following hypothesis is therefore proposed:

H8: Mutual understanding in service encounters will increase when participants have a greater number of strong subscripts for handling obstacles and errors.

Because the roles in a script are complementary rather than the same, role expectations can at times lead to misunderstanding. This is because a role sensitizes its participant to features of the environment that are important for successful role behavior (Leigh and Rethans 1984), and different roles require different behavior. For example, a waitress needs to attend to some details of the environment, such as signals from the cook and other customers waiting to be served, that the customer safely ignores. In the process, she may miss gestures of disapproval that a customer makes as she delivers the order to the table.

Because a script is a cognitive structure, there will inevitably be some differences between all people's scripts, but differences are likely to be larger between those who occupy different roles. As evidence, Katz and Kahn (1978) cite a number of studies showing a relationship between role occupancy and attitudes, values, behaviors, and perceptions. So we would expect two waitresses to have more similar restaurant scripts than a waitress and a customer would have. Following from this, we would also expect that experience with the complementary roles of a script would increase the mutual understanding of the role occupants. For example, the waiter who often eats out himself would be likely to view the restaurant encounter more similarly to his customers than a waiter who always eats at home. This effect would be strongest for the waiter who does not let his occupational identity be known to-the restaurant's employees when eating out; such a person will be treated like "an ordinary customer" and experience more fully the complementary role. This leads to the following hypothesis:

H9: Amount of experience with the complementary role of the service encounter is positively related to mutual understanding about the service encounter.

An additional way that misunderstandings may arise stems from role conflicts between the participants in a scripted encounter. Although the roles of a script are basically complementary, the cooperation that this implies is rarely perfect. There may, in fact, be situations where the role occupants work against each other. An example of this is the struggle for control that can occur even within scripted events. In her study of supermarket cashiers, Rafaeli (1989) found both customers and cashiers vying for control of the check-out process. Customers believed that they had some right to control the speed and accuracy of the process since they were paying for the service, while cashiers felt they needed to retain control to do their jobs properly. A more extreme example is the situation created when management rewards employees for the number of customers processed while customers want more time and attention from employees.

Zeithaml, Berry, and Parasuraman (1988) discuss management commitment to service quality as a major factor influencing customer perceptions of service quality. Firms that emphasize cost reduction and short-term profit over customer service set up systems where employee and customer goals will surely conflict. In this sort of situation where there is competition between the participants, one would expect misunderstandings and miscommunications between employees and customers to flourish. Evidence is provided by Shaw and Costanzo (1970), who cite several studies finding greater communication difficulties in competitive than in cooperative groups. The following hypothesis can be drawn from this:

H10: The level of goal compatibility between customers and employees is positively related to mutual understanding about the service encounter.

In summary, roles and scripts exert a powerful force towards standardizing expectations, behavior, and perceptions of behavior. To the extent that all goes smoothly in a service encounter, the employee and customer are thought to be reading from a common script (Solomon et al. 1985), and the customer is likely to evaluate the encounter positively. But roles and scripts also allow for divergence in perspectives. To the degree that a customer's expectations in an encounter are not met and role-sending communications do not correct the situation, the customer is likely to- view the service as a failure. Employee factors such as lack of experience on the job, lack of experience with the customer, and goals that are not customer-oriented can lead to misunderstanding and low customer satisfaction. Customer factors such as lack of script knowledge or inflated role expectations can produce the same negative results.


From a theory-development point of view the hypotheses suggested above contribute to our basic understanding of consumer behavior, particularly for consumption situations such as service encounters, where social interaction plays a part in product evaluation. In such situations the outcome of the consumption experience is highly dependent on human behaviors, and customers will evaluate not only the final outcome, but also the process by which the outcome was delivered. It is suggested here that the process and outcome of service delivery (and thus, satisfaction) will be enhanced through mutual understanding. Role and script theories provide a strong theoretical base for predicting mutual understanding. It is likely that the mutual understanding construct would apply to satisfaction in other consumption situations beyond the service encounter, as for example, in sales situations.

In addition to contributing to theory development in consumer behavior, the hypotheses in this paper all have practical implications for managing service encounters. For example, if support is found for the hypothesis that similarity of backgrounds is positively related to mutual understanding, this would lead to the recommendation that firms recruit contact personnel whose backgrounds match those of their customers or target markets. To the extent that this is not possible, training whereby employees are exposed to detailed descriptions of the ways their customers think about service encounters in their industry could help bridge the gap. If support is found for the hypothesis that frequency of interactions between encounter participants is positively related to mutual understanding, then managers would be advised to set up systems for allowing repeat customers to deal with the same employee whenever possible. If it is found that strong, complex scripts facilitate mutual understanding, then service firms might invest in training and communications to strengthen the scripts of their employees and potential customers, and to help them develop subscripts for dealing with obstacles and errors. If experience with the complementary role is important, then perhaps employees should be asked, as part of their ongoing training, to play the role of a customer periodically. Finally, if goal compatibility is important, then managers should examine carefully what they are asking of their employees and how employee rewards are structured, to see whether these are in line with customer goals.

The above discussion is clearly limited by lack of empirical data from service encounter contexts. While the critical incident data suggest the general importance of mutual understanding, the specific hypotheses have not been tested. This is clearly the next, necessary step.

In addition, the hypotheses presented are based on previous research in a variety of contexts. The same results cannot be automatically assumed for service encounters, however. It could be argued, for example, that most service encounters are low involvement settings where mutual understanding has relatively little impact on customer satisfaction. Since critical incident research samples memorable encounters, such research may tap those encounters where involvement is exceptionally high. For this reason, the hypotheses suggested here should be tested in the more typical service encounter context.


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Lois A. Mohr, Arizona State University
Mary Jo Bitner, Arizona State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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