Consumer and Employee Roles in Service Encounters

ABSTRACT - The consumption of services often involves the personal interaction of consumers and service employees. Past services research has focused almost exclusively on the behavior of service employees and excluded the consumer's role in this dual social process. Qualitative in-depth interviews were used to conduct an experiential investigation of how consumers want to participate in their service experiences and how satisfaction develops as a function of their participation expectations. Emergent consumer role themes of "autonomy - mutuality - dependence" and employee role themes of "indifference - cooperation - dominance" that shape the consumption experience are identified and discussed in relation to consumer satisfaction in service encounters.


Michael Guiry (1992) ,"Consumer and Employee Roles in Service Encounters", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 666-672.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 666-672


Michael Guiry, University of Florida


The consumption of services often involves the personal interaction of consumers and service employees. Past services research has focused almost exclusively on the behavior of service employees and excluded the consumer's role in this dual social process. Qualitative in-depth interviews were used to conduct an experiential investigation of how consumers want to participate in their service experiences and how satisfaction develops as a function of their participation expectations. Emergent consumer role themes of "autonomy - mutuality - dependence" and employee role themes of "indifference - cooperation - dominance" that shape the consumption experience are identified and discussed in relation to consumer satisfaction in service encounters.

The personal interaction between consumers and service providers is the heart of most service experiences. Whether the interaction consists of a flight attendant's brief standardized greeting to boarding passengers or entails the personalized attention of a physician during a medical exam, the moment the exchange commences the consumer is simultaneously involved in the production and consumption of the service and becomes an integral part of the service process. The consumer's experience within the service process is an important determinant of his/her satisfaction with the service and facilitates his/her assessment of service quality (Bitner 1990; Bitner, Booms, and Tetreault 1990; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1985, 1988; Surprenant and Solomon 1987). In "pure" services, such as health care, financial planning, and auto repair, where a physical product is not exchanged and the service experience is difficult to evaluate, the interaction epitomizes the service from the consumer's perspective. But even when the focus of the exchange is a tangible object such as clothing purchased in a department store, the interaction can leave an indelible impression on the consumer.

The personal interaction between consumers and service providers has been termed the "service encounter" in the services marketing literature (Czepiel et al. 1985; Shostack 1985; Solomon et al. 1985; Surprenant and Solomon 1987) and has become the focus of attention in recent service quality research (Bitner 1990; Bitner et al. 1990; Surprenant and Solomon 1987). The research on service encounters and the service quality research of Parasuraman et al. (1985, 1988) suggests a number of factors that may influence consumers' satisfaction with services. These factors pertain to both the service outcome and the manner in which employees deliver service to consumers. The factors relating to the interaction between consumers and employees address how consumers expect employees to behave while providing service. However, prior research has not considered how consumers expect to participate in the service process and define their service experience. For example, when some consumers shop for clothing they may want to move freely through the store on their own and avoid interacting with salespeople, while other consumers may welcome a salesperson's advance and want him/her to take an active part in helping them select the right merchandise. Service quality research has focused almost exclusively on the employee's part in the service setting. Thus, the consumer's service experience, including the service encounter, has not truly been viewed as an interactive and dynamic social process. The purpose of this article is to understand how consumers want to participate in their service experiences and how service satisfaction develops through the service encounter as a function of consumer participation expectations.


The services marketing literature has identified three significant characteristics of services - intangibility, inseparability, and heterogeneity - that reveal the human dimension of service delivery and consumption (e.g., Parasuraman et al. 1985; Zeithaml, Parasuraman, and Berry 1985). These characteristics may make it difficult for consumers to evaluate the service offering in the absence of more concrete product attributes (Zeithaml 1981). As evaluation becomes more subjective, consumers are likely to draw more heavily on the total consumption experience, i.e., not only what service is delivered, but also how it is delivered, when assessing satisfaction and service quality. The service employee's perceived performance, including his/her projected attitude and behavior while interacting with consumers, may affect their evaluation process.

Service Quality

Parasuraman et al. (1985, 1988) propose that consumers evaluate a firm's overall service quality on five underlying dimensions: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy. They developed a multiple-item scale called SERVQUAL that measures perceived service quality by comparing consumers' perceptions of a service firm's performance with their expectations of how firms in that industry should perform along the five service dimensions. This research affirms the importance of the personal interaction between consumers and service providers in realizing service satisfaction. Three of the five dimensions of service quality - responsiveness, assurance, and empathy - relate directly to the interactive nature of services. Furthermore, the reliability of a service frequently depends on employee performance. Service employee performance that falls short of consumer expectations leads to consumer dissatisfaction and poor service quality.

Parasuraman et al. (1988, p. 23) define the three interpersonal service quality dimensions as follows:

Responsiveness - willingness to help customers and provide prompt service

Assurance - knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to inspire trust and confidence

Empathy - caring, individualized attention the firm provides its customers.

Taken together they suggest that service providers must be active participants in the consumer's service experience. However, consumers' expectations about the amount and type of interaction they will have with employees may differ depending on how they want to act in the service. While some service settings may require that employees stay in close contact with consumers throughout the delivery process, at other times consumers may only need to know that an employee is available if needed, i.e., good service can be provided from a distance. Although responsiveness, assurance, and empathy are important factors when consumers assess service quality, the meanings of these dimensions may differ among consumers depending on the way in which they want to participate in the service process.

The Service Encounter

In recent research that focuses on the role of the service encounter in service satisfaction, Bitner et al. (1990) asked respondents to describe specific events and employee behaviors that led them to distinguish between satisfactory and unsatisfactory experiences. The study uncovered three major categories of employee behaviors: employee response to service delivery failures; employee response to customer needs and requests; and unprompted and unsolicited employee actions. Although this study is useful in identifying employee behaviors, it does not address how consumers participate in the service setting, thus leaving an incomplete picture of the consumer's service experience. The interpersonal nature of services suggests that the way in which consumers themselves take part in a service may also influence their satisfaction.

Role Theory

The meaning of service satisfaction can be developed further by understanding the way in which consumers want to present themselves in service encounters. Solomon et al.'s (1985) work on the service encounter proposes a role-theoretic framework for understanding consumer participation in the service environment. They argue that the service encounter can be understood by considering the specific roles consumers and service employees play during their interaction. In addition, they suggest that the roles that are enacted will affect consumers' service satisfaction. However, Solomon et al. stop short of identifying the different roles that consumers and employees may play in the service environment.

Role theory is based on a theatrical metaphor. Consumers and service employees participate within the service encounter like actors on stage reading from a common "service script" that represents each party's expectations of their own behavior as well as the anticipated complementary behavior of each other (Smith and Houston 1983). Their roles encompass a set of learned behaviors appropriate to the particular service setting and depend on situational cues such as each other's attitudes and behaviors. Consumers and service providers must understand each other's position to engage in a satisfactory and stable relationship. Employees must recognize and respond to the different needs of consumers and the way consumers expect to participate in the service. The failure of either consumers and/or employees to adhere to their prescribed roles and scripts may hinder service delivery and result in dissatisfaction with the service encounter. At present the application of role theory to the service encounter remains at a conceptual level, leaving a void in understanding how consumers participate in their service experiences.

In sum, Parasuraman et al.'s SERVQUAL model highlights the interpersonal nature of services in three of its five dimensions. Past service encounter research explicitly recognizes that the interaction between consumers and service employees is an important determinant of consumer satisfaction, but extant research focuses exclusively on employee actions and behaviors, excluding the consumer's role in the interaction. Solomon et al. have recognized the duality of the service encounter by suggesting a role theory perspective, but their work remains at a conceptual level since they have not cashed it out. So, the purpose of this research is to explore the roles consumers enact in service encounters and how their desired actions and behaviors influence service satisfaction.


Qualitative in-depth interviews were used to study consumer roles in different service settings. The in-depth interview method used in this study combined the critical incident technique (Flanagan 1954; Bitner et al. 1990) with an existential-phenomenological interview approach (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989, 1990). The motivation for this approach was to go beyond the straightforward critical incidents and gain a more thorough understanding of the consumer service experiences. The critical incident technique reveals what events occurred, while existential-phenomenology provides a means of interpreting and understanding the experience.

The present research was based on the verbatim transcripts of twenty-eight qualitative in-depth interviews conducted with undergraduate students at the University of Florida who were enrolled in an introductory marketing course. Each interview was conducted by the principal researcher and lasted between thirty and forty-five minutes. The interviews were tape recorded and later transcribed verbatim by the researcher.

Each interview began with the question, "Can you think of a time when you had a particularly satisfying or dissatisfying experience with a service business?" The purpose of the initial question was to focus the interview on descriptions of specific consumer service experiences from which critical incidents could be discerned and thematic descriptions of consumption experiences would emerge. Additional questions arose from the ensuing dialogue and were largely driven by the informant's responses to ensure a first-person description (see Thompson et al. 1989).

During the interview, informants were free to describe satisfying and/or dissatisfying service experiences with any service business. Informants often talked about more than one experience. The majority of their consumption experiences occurred in restaurants and retail stores. Consistent with the principles of emergent design, the research evolved into a study largely confined to these two settings. The focus on these two service environments is not surprising given the informants' demographics and the university town setting where the interviews were conducted. However, restaurants and retail stores form a substantial portion of the American service economy. The format of the interview was designed to be very flexible to allow the informants to fully discuss their personal service experiences, including their own attitudes and behaviors.

The verbatim interview transcripts were the data from which thematic descriptions of consumer service experiences unfolded through an interpretive process (Denzin 1989; Thompson et al. 1989, 1990). Thematic description required careful readings of each transcript to understand individual informant's service experiences from a first-person perspective. The individual transcript analysis revealed that informants view their service experiences as a dynamic interactive process comprised of their own participatory views and behaviors as well as the service employees' attitudes and behaviors. After the transcripts were analyzed individually, the separate interviews were related to each other and common patterns or themes were identified emerging from informants' discussions of their service experiences. The interpretation sought the discovery of convergent themes across divergent consumption experiences. An emic approach to interpretation was followed that attempted to describe the recorded experiences from within the informant by using his/her own terms rather than the researcher's (Denzin 1989; Thompson et al. 1989, 1990).

An Experiential Portrayal of Service Encounters

The Figure presents the consumer's view of the service encounter as a lived meaningful experience that encompasses much more than a discrete monetary transaction. The service encounter is symbolized by the major interpretive themes that emerged from the interviews: 1) "autonomy - mutuality - dependence" portraying the roles consumers play while receiving service and 2) "indifference - cooperation - dominance" describing the roles that consumers see employees enacting while giving service. These themes are interrelated and emanate from consumers' descriptions of the meaning of satisfaction in service encounters. The emergent themes will be described individually and then synthesized in relation to consumer satisfaction. To provide a clearer understanding of the consumer's own consumption experience, illustrative excerpts from the interviews will be offered within the thematic descriptions.

The Figure depicts the service encounter as a social process that encompasses the exchange between consumers and employees in the service environment. At the core of the service encounter resides consumer satisfaction arising from the fusion of giving and receiving service during the personal interaction between consumers and service employees. The emergent roles identified in the transcripts give credence to Solomon et al.' s use of role theory to understand the service encounter and consumer satisfaction. Informants often discussed the roles they expected service employees to play while giving service in relation to their own roles while receiving service. Their first person description of themselves in their service encounters gives a more thorough understanding of consumers' service experiences. The service encounter is a dual undertaking, not just driven by consumers' expectations about employee behaviors. Consumers are active service participants, with their own expectations about how they want to experience a service.

The congruence between the service employee's role and the consumer's serves as a "measure" of good service and a source of consumer satisfaction; as such this congruence notion is quite compatible with Parasuraman et al.'s service quality model, which measures the gap between consumers' expectations and perceptions of service performance. This research extends Parasuraman et al.'s model by identifying consumers' expectations about their own roles and their accompanying expectations about employees. The interpersonal dimensions of service quality are not products of the service firm, but rather are dynamic processes that occur within the service encounter. Consumers' expectations about employee behaviors are framed by how they want to participate in the service.

The Consumer Role of Dependence

One experiential role for some consumers is being dependent while receiving service. The theme of dependence arose during informants' discussions of consuming a service in which they have limited knowledge or expertise. The dependent consumer feels vulnerable and uncomfortable in the service setting and needs the service employee to provide guidance and assistance during consumption as illustrated in the following interview excerpts:

"I felt more secure because I'm getting a service done that I have no idea about. He made me feel at ease like he was in control, like he knew what was going on. When you don't know anything about something you want to feel that way. You know like a doctor should make you feel that way. It's the same kind of thing." (wf, early 20s)

"When you buy a tennis racket there's a lot of stuff you want to know. At first I was nervous to ask this guy. He's a pro. What if I ask him a stupid question. Will he think I'm an idiot or something. I didn't want to ask him any questions. Then he started talking to me, explaining about the tension of the racket, stuff like that. He made me feel more comfortable right away. It makes you feel more comfortable to ask questions." (wm, early 20s)



The dependent consumer wants the employee to take an active role and participate in his/her service experience. The dependent consumer particularly values the three dimensions of service quality - responsiveness, assurance, and empathy - that are strongly affiliated with the service employee's role in the service delivery process. In the preceding passages, service satisfaction is judged by the service employee's ability to respond to the needs of the consumer and facilitate the consumption experience. The employee is expected to not only help the consumer by providing knowledge about the service, but also must be reassuring and empathetic to make him/her more comfortable and at ease in the setting.

The Consumer Role of Autonomy

In contrast to the dependent consumer stands the autonomous consumer. The theme of autonomy was revealed most frequently in informants' descriptions of shopping in retail stores, where they indicated a desire to be on their own while shopping for clothing. Self service is an essential and desired part of their consumption experience.

The following interview excerpts illustrate autonomy:

"When I'm shopping I like to look on my own and not feel like there's someone looking over my shoulder. Some people like attention and help, but I personally don't. I like to look on my own. I like to look for bargains or sale items. I can't go in there and buy whatever they show me." (wf, early 20s)

"I don't like to be crowded. If I'm going to a clothing store where I know what kind of clothes I like, I don't like someone around me who's like, oh this will look good on you, because I know what's going to look good on me and what I like." (wf, early 20s)

The autonomous consumer wants independence- to be free to make decisions and choices on his/her own. The consumer knows what he/she likes to buy and shopping becomes a personalized experience where the consumer is in control, freely moving throughout the store, devoid of any outside interference. An autonomous consumer expects employees to be responsive to his/her desire for independence by backing off and giving the consumer space to shop, although the employee should stay on the periphery and be ready to serve if needed. The autonomous consumer may need employees to perform procedural tasks, such as opening a fitting room or ringing up a sale.

This view of responsiveness differs sharply from Parasuraman et al. (1988), who describe responsiveness as the employee's willingness to help consumers and provide prompt service, suggesting a proactive and highly visible position in the service setting.

The Consumer Role of Mutuality - The Employee Role of Cooperation

The emergent themes of mutuality and cooperation are discussed together to emphasize their close interrelationship. It is difficult to tease apart differences in the meaning of mutuality and cooperation since the two themes flow together within the interview dialogue. Mutuality represents the consumer's role in the service encounter, while cooperation describes the service employee's role. The themes of mutuality and cooperation emerged for the most part while informants were describing satisfying service experiences. Consumers received their desired service with the mutual cooperation of the service employee. The service encounter takes on an air of synergy and coordination as exhibited in the following two passages:

"It's satisfying because of the interaction by the waiters. They make the fondue at the table. They explain all the different ingredients that they are putting in there. It makes you feel important since they're taking the time to talk to you. It's the interaction rather than at a place where they just come and take your order and then come back with your food." (wf, mid 20s)

"I went to a car stereo place. The person there like totally helped me. I could tell he wasn't just trying to get me to buy the most expensive one. He was looking for what I wanted. He didn't immediately start showing me top of the line things. He said, what was it about your old car stereo that you liked? What features were the most important to you? That made me feel comfortable that he was not just trying to make a buck. He was really looking to get what I wanted and needed." (wf, early 20s)

These passages reveal a sense of care and concern for the consumer by the service employee. The consumer is given a sense of status and importance that results from the service employee's treatment. The relationship moves beyond the mere interaction of consumer and service employee to a mutual process of human cooperation and coordination. The roles of mutuality and cooperation may come closest to representing the ideal of service quality. Consumers and service employees understand their roles and work together in giving and receiving service. Informants' satisfying experience arose from interacting with employees who were responsive, assuring, and empathetic while providing service (Parasuraman et al. 1985, 1988).

The Employee Role of Indifference

The theme of indifference describes service employees who are disinterested in giving service. The term service employee is a misnomer since the person is on the job, but is barely doing his/her job of serving consumers. Consumers often need these employees to provide assistance, information, or solutions to problems as illustrated by the following interview excerpt in which the informant had received an incorrect airline ticket through the mail and was attempting to resolve the problem over the telephone:

"When I spoke with the travel agent she wasn't nice at first. At first she seemed kind of mad and she was kind of silent on the phone. She was doing something with her computer and she didn't really say anything. I didn't think the problem would be resolved. She never said anything until I asked her. She wasn't very accommodating since it was more like I was asking the questions. I was trying to figure things out more than she was. She just said, oh and then she just got silent. I didn't know what she was doing or anything like that. If she had just been a little bit more reassuring. If she had talked a little bit more." (wf, early 20s)

Instead of facilitating the service delivery process, indifferent employees complicate the situation. The employee is insensitive to the needs of the consumer and conducts his/her business in a very impersonal manner, disregarding the human element of the service encounter.

The following passages further illustrate employee indifference:

"I know I'm pretty much dissatisfied with a lot of places because a lot of the people are just standing around talking and they're not doing their job. When I walk into a store I expect to be acknowledged. I expect them to at least say hi, how are you doing? Do you need any help or anything? Then I can let them know if I need any help or not. If I'm not acknowledged that's a turnoff. Most of the time I'll just walk out because they should be there to help me. They should be happy that I'm there." (wf, early 20s)

In this situation indifference is evidenced by a lack of attention and courtesy to the consumer before she has experienced the tangible aspects of the environment. The indifferent employee can affect a consumer's service experience regardless of the consumer role assumed. A dependent consumer will expect help throughout his/her service experience, while an autonomous consumer who prefers to look for clothing on his/her own will be dissatisfied if he/she can not make a purchase because the cash register has been left unattended.

The Employee Role of Dominance

The emergent theme of dominance is used to describe the over zealous service employee who gives "too much" service, to the point of creating a dissatisfying service experience. The service employee has crossed the consumer's perceived threshold of service attention and responsiveness as expressed by two informants:

"Always going by, but not necessarily asking you if you need anything, but going by so if you need to ask them for something, you can get it. It's also overkill if they're asking you too often. There's a fine line there when they are helping too much or not helping enough. Somewhere between those two they need to be." (wm, early 20s)

"I don't like it when people are over polite to me, but at the same time I want them to respect me for going to their service. Just be conscientious, that customers are people and that they're serving people and that's their job. They should be respectful and nice, but they don't have to be overly going out of their way. Because that can also make me feel uncomfortable." (wf, early 20s)

Both of these experiences occurred in restaurants, the predominant settings for the emergence of employee dominance. The waiter/waitress can be termed the "pesty" employee who will not go away and would like to take a seat and join the consumer for dinner rather than giving service. The service employee no longer gives good service, but hinders service delivery through inappropriate behaviors that may not be apparent to him/her. The actions of the service employee could be characterized as "consuming the consumer" in his/her endeavor to provide what is thought to be good service and dominate the service setting.

"I think when they check back with you too often and they have to be all flowery about everything, I think that's a turnoff. We're there to eat and I'm not there to socialize with my waiter. I really felt like he was interrupting us all the time. We'd be in a conversation and he'd come up or we'd be taking a bite out of our sandwich and he'd come on up. He was always there, running back, checking on us. Kind of like he was hovering, watching us." (wf, mid 20s)

This last passage reveals that the service employee may believe that consumers will equate increased attention with good service and make additional purchases in a store or leave a larger tip. Employee dominance may result from pressure from management to increase sales, especially in a commission based sales job, and it also raises the question of how adequately the employee has been trained in providing service quality. Perhaps the employee was told no more than to be friendly or check often on your customers' tables, leaving it to the employee's discretion to determine the meaning of "friendly" and "often".


The emergent themes of autonomy - mutuality - dependence and indifference - cooperation - dominance provide an interpretive first-person understanding and description of the roles assumed by consumers and employees in the service encounter. The service encounter is a dynamic process that for the consumer is much more than a static exchange of money for a particular service. Interpersonal roles are at play that influence consumer satisfaction. The compatibility between consumers and service employees' interactive modes is a strong precursor to judgments of satisfaction. None of the twenty-eight informants described their service experiences without at least some mention of the service employee, reaffirming the notion that the service employee is an integral part of the service delivery process (e.g., Bitner et al. 1990; Parasuraman et al. 1985, 1988).

Limitations and Future Research Needs

The main limitation of the study is that most of the informants' service experiences occurred in restaurants and retail stores. Although these two settings are prominent service industries, further research is needed to determine if the emergent role themes identified in this research are found across different service settings. The amount of employee involvement required to provide the service may affect the roles consumers' assume and their accompanying expectations of employees' roles. The restaurants and retail stores discussed by informants are settings where a tangible product is exchanged and interaction with employees occurs on an intermittent basis. Future research should examine service settings where the focus of the service is more intangible and employee interaction is a more significant part of the service experience.

While this research identifies the roles consumers and employees assume in restaurants and retail stores, further research is needed to develop a model of how roles develop contingent on situational and individual factors. Consumer knowledge is one factor that emerged from informants' descriptions of their service experiences that influences consumer roles and their expectations of employees' roles. Research currently being conducted by the author indicates that store loyalty and goals while shopping (i.e., looking for a specific item, browsing, shopping for fun) may also affect consumers and employees' roles.


This research offers a finer grained understanding of the interactive roles that consumers and employees perform while in the service environment and reveals that consumer satisfaction develops not only through the expectations consumers have about employees, but also through the expectations that they have for themselves. Past research on the service encounter has focused almost exclusively on employee behaviors during the service delivery process. The emergent role themes identified in this research give insight into an overlooked aspect of service quality research, the way consumers want to participate in their service experiences. In addition, the emergent roles form a basis for building role theory into the understanding of consumer service satisfaction. Consumers see themselves as active participants in their service experiences and view the service encounter as a dual process. Consumer roles are lived out during the service encounter and service satisfaction develops during the interaction between consumers and employees.

This research extends the service quality research of by Parasuraman et al. by indicating that the interpersonal dimensions of service quality are not outcomes of the service firm, but instead arise during the interaction between consumers and service employees. Consumers have expectations about their own roles, and thus service firms can not just tell employees to be responsive, assuring, and empathetic. Employees must live out these dimensions during the service encounter, in conjunction with the roles consumers expect to play.


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Michael Guiry, University of Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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