&Quot;Professors&Quot;, &Quot;Get-Me-Dones&Quot;, and &Quot;Moochers&Quot;: How Car Salespeople Experience Their Customers

ABSTRACT - Through participant observation and interviews, it was found that car salespeople oftentimes view sales encounters as a struggle between themselves and their customers, with more on the line than commissions. In addition to monetary rewards, the salespeople also strive to control the sales encounter. This quest for control may conflict with both the needs of the organization and those of the customer. A by-product of this conflict is customer-directed hostility, oftentimes based on customers' ethnicity. Implications for consumers' perceptions of service quality in light of these findings are addressed.


Marla Felcher (1995) ,"&Quot;Professors&Quot;, &Quot;Get-Me-Dones&Quot;, and &Quot;Moochers&Quot;: How Car Salespeople Experience Their Customers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 611-616.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 611-616


Marla Felcher, Northwestern University


Through participant observation and interviews, it was found that car salespeople oftentimes view sales encounters as a struggle between themselves and their customers, with more on the line than commissions. In addition to monetary rewards, the salespeople also strive to control the sales encounter. This quest for control may conflict with both the needs of the organization and those of the customer. A by-product of this conflict is customer-directed hostility, oftentimes based on customers' ethnicity. Implications for consumers' perceptions of service quality in light of these findings are addressed.

In her recent book documenting the experiences of McDonald's counter workers and Combined Insurance salesmen, Leidner (1993) argues that in doing their jobs, interactive service workers must successfully align the interests of three parties: customers, management and themselves. Specifically, these front-line workers must learn to satisfy customer demands, adher to management edicts, and "minimize their own discomfort" (p. 7). While the interests of both customers and managers have been addressed by marketing, consumer behavior and management researchers, outside of the sociology of work literature, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the feelings and experiences of service providers.

In this study I focus on one type of service provider, car salespeople. From data gleaned through participant observation and interviews within a car dealership, I argue that a comprehensive examination of the sales process must take into account the experiential aspects of the service encounter from the salesperson's perspective, for the extent to which his/her experiences, interests, and goals align with those of the organization's customers and management will effect customers' perceptions of overall service quality. Just as highly routinized service scripts such as those at McDonald's may lead customers to experience service workers as unresponsive, stupid or robot-like (Leidner 1993), salepersons' perceptions of customer demands as being unreasonable may lead customers to experience service workers as unresponsive, insolent, or elusive.

Selling cars is a highly interactive type of service work, idiosyncratic in a few respects. First, in many dealerships, as in the one studied, the salespeople receieved no base pay, only commissions based on the profitability of cars sold. Second, car salespeople work in a relatively low status job, oftentimes perceived quite negatively by the public. The job provides no "status shield" (Hochschild 1983); many customers who would ordinarily treat higher-status workers with respect are quite ready to express anger or contempt toward car salespeople. It is up to the salespeople to figure out a way to defend themselves from demeaning treatment by customers; to maintain a positive self-concept they need to learn ways to accept poor treatment without taking it personally (Leidner 1993).

In the following sections I expand on the themes which emerged from my study of these service workers; namely, an overall perceived lack of control over the work environment, and the various methods the salespeople grew to rely on in an attempt to increase their control. Many attitudes and behaviors expressed by the salespeople suggested that within their personal objective functions, ontological control played a role equal to if not greater than earnings maximization.


A grounded theory approach was taken to study the salesperson-customer relationship (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Therefore no a priori theories were specified and tested, rather, a theory was inductively derived from the fieldwork experience. A grounded theory is:

... discovered, developed, and provisionally verified through systematic data collection and analysis of data pertaining to that phenomenon. Therefore, data collection, analysis, and theory stand in reciprocal relationship with each other. One does not begin with a theory, then prove it. Rather, one begins with an area of study and what is relevant to that area is allowed to emerge (Strauss and Corbin 1990; p. 23).

A grounded theory is developed around a research question which specifies the area of study. The current research began with the question, "What is the nature of the car salesperson-customer relationship, from the perspective of the salesperson, where the monetary reward system is based exclusively on commissions?".

Two types of data were collected to address this question: the researcher's participant-observation among the salespeople, and non-directive interviews with the salespeople. The data were collected across eight consecutive weeks, during the approximately 40 hours the researcher spent within a foreign car dealership. The dealership was located in an affluent suburb of Chicago. All observations and interviews, except one, took place in the center of the dealership where the salespeople congregated when not interacting with customers. The interview with the General Manager of the dealership took place in his private office, which was adjacent to the selling floor. The salespeople were told the researcher was collecting data for a paper on "customer-salespeople interactions".

All of the dealership's salespeople, eight white males between the ages of 35 and 65, were interviewed and observed. The youngest salesperson had been selling cars for less than one year. The other salespeople had been selling cars for between eight and thirty years, most working at this dealership for over ten years.

The commission system was based on the profit generated from selling a car. Salespeople were paid a 20% commission on profits up to $900, and 25% on profits over $900. A fixed overhead of $150 was subtracted from all commissions on the sale of a car, which went the dealer. If, for example, a profit on a car was $1,050, the salesperson's commission was $112.50 (($1,050 x .25)-$150).

Unlike many dealerships, there was a fixed order in which the salespeople took turns waiting on customers. When each salesperson arrived at the dealership each morning, he signed his name on a list. The list specified the order in which the salespeople waited on customers. When a customer either walked into the showroom or called on the phone, the salesperson whose name was at the top of the list was responsible for waiting on or talking with that customer. If a salesperson "missed" his turn either by being on a break, or by not wanting to wait on a specific customer, his name was placed at the bottom of the list.


Perceived Lack of Environmental Control

Overall, the salespeople perceived they had little control over their work environment, where there was only a tenuous connection between their actions and the outcome of a specific sales encounter. They were operating within a highly competitive market, and selling a car is typically a long, multi-stage transaction where the deal can fall through at any point, with little financial risk to the consumer. When questioned about the monthly range of number of cars sold, the salespeople generally agreed it was quite narrow, falling between 17 in a bad month and 20 in a good one. Only two salespeople reported the range to be wider; both attributed the variance to factors they didn't understand, or were outside of their control:

It's been as good as 38 (cars); we had less salesmen then though, we used to have only 3 and now we have 8 ... the worst I ever did was 7 in a month ...The real difference between a good and bad month is traffic. I don't think I do anything different. And you know what they say, you can't sell a ghost. (Mike)

Well, yesterday there certainly was enough traffic in here, but not the right kind. The quality just wasn't good. We can't control that though, it's completely out of our control. I would rather have fewer people, but better quality. (Hank)

The competitive environment within which these men worked contributed to this perceived lack of control. The manufacturer operated five additional dealerships within ten miles. Three competitors operated dealerships within one quarter of a mile. The surrounding neighborhoods were quite affluent, where buyers tended to be well-educated and sophisticated, engaging in extensive pre-search behaviors such as collecting dealer invoice information and reading Consumer Reports. The General Manager described the environment this way:

It used to be that customers were at the mercy of the salesmen, and now the salesmen are totally at the mercy of the customers. People are more sophisticated now, they know more and shop around. It used to be they bought out of loyalty, loyalty to a manufacturer and to a salesman. There's none of that anymore...In the old days salesmen made a lot more money on each sale. People weren't as sophisticated, they didn't shop around and know you could discount shop. (Larry)

Another factor contributing toward this perceived lack of control is the relatively long and complex sales cycle. Customers typically make multiple visits to a dealership before they buy a car. From the salesperson's perspective, many things can "go wrong" between the initial contact with a customer and a car purchase. A customer may spend multiple hours with a salesperson then fail to ask for him on subsequent visits. Or a customer may come back to buy on a salesperson's day off. In either case, it is up to the salespeople involved to "work something out", in terms of splitting commissions. However, this doesn't always occur.

Well, it was too bad. Mark should have had 50% of that (commission). You know he did all the ground work. The car was sold when those people left here after talking to him that first night. But when they came back they didn't ask for him, so he doesn't get the commission ... Probably Mark wasn't too happy about it, but he'll get over it. Those things just happen. (Hank)

Sometimes a customer makes a deal with a salesperson, leaves a check as a deposit, then goes to another dealership and buys a car. If this occurs within 48 hours, legally the check hasn't bound the customer to the sale, and it must be returned.

Financing is another hurdle a salesperson must jump; he can strike a deal with a customer who is turned down for credit. Again, in this situation there is little he can do.

Poor Hank. This girl gives him $1000 cash, in his hand, for a Camry. He asks Rich to run a credit check on her and finds out she's bankrupt, and he gives it right back to her. (Jim)

This highly competitive environment suggests car buyers have a large number of alternatives from which to choose; they have multiple places to buy one of multiple kinds of cars, typically over an extended period of time. Emerson's (1962) theory of power-dependence relations predicts that this unilateral proliferation of alternatives will increase the dependence of salespeople on customers, increasing the power of customers, and lowering that of the salesperson. This low power base diminishes the salespersons' status vis-a-vis their customers. Within any relationship, the lower status participant contributes more to the relationship than the higher status one (Hochschild 1983). Furthermore, within our culture the job of selling cars is a relatively low status one; many customers have quite negative a priori attitudes about car salespeople before the sales encounter begins. This is clearly the perception of the salesperson: customers are not to be trusted, for they routinely break deals, lie, and in general, treat them with little respect.

I spent over 2 hours with them last week and they come in here and treat you like you're a clerk at Montgomery Ward making $3.65 an hour. They have no regard for you at all. (Mark)

You know, customers think that car salesmen are the slime of the earth. You can't believe the abuse, what they'll ask us to do they wouldn't ask a clerk at Woolworth's to do. They'll get us to move out cars; I wanna drive this one, I wanna drive that one, and we'll do it cause we have to! (Bob)

Look at them, I'd like to throw them out of here. The guy says to her, "Look at this piece of junk, they just put convertable tops on this crap. Park this in front of your house and watch your property values fall". They haven't even looked at me yet. They won't even look at me. (Rob)

Customer behaviors such as these magnify customer-salesperson status differentials. Asking to test drive multiple cars, failing to maintain eye contact, harshly criticizing cars, breaking deals, and lying to the salespeople about prices quoted at competitive dealerships are customer behaviors which they view as at best annoying, and at worst, unfair attempts to usurp control. Customers would not act this way, they feel, if they viewed the salesperson as being of equal status.


"Getting the Jump" on Customers

To the extent that a salesperson's primary objective is to maximize his earnings, we would expect him to acquiesce to these customer demands, simply ignoring demeaning comments and behaviors. His goal should be to satisfy the customer, in order to maximize the liklihood of a sale. This is not always what occurs. Rather, in many cases the salespeople come to view the sales encounter as a struggle to maintain control over the customer. Making a sale becomes a goal subordinate to the higher-order goal of maintaining control. This struggle was best described by the General Manager:

You know, customers can't make a floormat out of me, they can't use me to wipe their feet on. You've got to lead them; they can't lead you. If a customer takes the lead I stop and come into my office. I leave them right on the floor, in front of a car. Then I motion for them to come into my office; I make them come to me. It's a psychological power thing. And when they start to chisel I say, "look, for the amount of money you want to pay you can't buy this car". They can buy a used car, or another model, but not this one. You have to keep the lead. (Larry)

The salespeople talked extensively among themselves about specific situations in which a customer tried to maintain control during the encounter, but the salesperson ultimately "won". While winning typically entailed a customer buying at the salesperson's price, it certainly was not limited to this behavior. A salesperson could also gain control by "letting a customer walk", refusing to let someone test drive a car, and simply refusing to negotiate at all.

Like yesterday a man and his son come in here. The son was ready to walk from the beginning. But I got the father to listen for about 20 minutes. They didn't buy though, they thought they could get a better price. So I let them walk. (Jim)

Get them out of here, I mean it. What the hell are they doing? They are deciding between a coup and a four-door; two totally different cars. A decision like that they can't be serious about buying; either you have a family and need a four-door or you don't. They can't possibly be making that kind of decision. I don't want them in here causing trouble, walking around just creating traffic. I want to get them out of here. (Larry)

He told you he won't be able to buy a car until next month and you let him test drive? I wouldn't let him touch a car with a story like that. (Bob)

The struggle between service providers and customers has been documented across many types of occupations including waiters (Mars and Nicod 1984), jazz musicians (Becker 1951), domestic car salespeople (Miller 1964), bus drivers (Richman 1969), strippers (Boles and Garbin 1974) and cocktail waitresses (Spradley and Mann 1975). Leidner (1993) describes the Combined Insurance salesperson training program, which explicitly recognizes the need for salespeople to control customers, who are "raw materials to be manipulated, not superiors to be obeyed" (p. 122). Whyte (1946) in his study of restaurants notes,

The first point that stands out is that the well-adjusted waitress does not simply respond to her customers. She acts with some skill to control their behavior. The first question to ask when we look at the customer relationship is, "Does the waitress get the jump on the customer, or does the customer get the jump on the waitress?" (p. 109)

From a service provider's perspective, virtually any kind of behavior can signal an attempt on behalf of a customer to control the service encounter. From the customer's perspective, as well as the perspective of the organization, these behaviors are likely to be viewed as totally appropriate. For example, bus drivers resent when passengers flag them down by waving instruments such as umbrellas rather than their arms (Richman 1969), and jazz musicians resent when audiences request certain types of songs (Becker 1951). Vendors become especially annoyed when shoppers are careless with merchandise, require high levels of assistance during busy times, seem impatient, and exhibit "difficult" dispositions (Prus 1989). McDonalds' counter workers prefer customers who "know how to play their part", and resent those who seem to disregard the workers' concern for speed (Leidner 1993). In the current study, the car salespeople strongly resented being asked to test drive multiple cars, and customers who brought other dealers' advertisements with them into the showroom.

Regardless of customers' motives for engaging in these behaviors, service providers perceive each as being inappropriate attempts by the customer to maintain control of the sales encounter. However, given their occupational role, they feel they have no alternative but to acquiesce. As Hochschild (1983) notes:

... in the public world of work, it is often part of an individual's job to accept uneven exchanges, to be treated with disrespect or anger by a client ... where the customer is king, unequal exchanges are normal, and from the beginning customer and client assume different rights ... the ledger is supposedly evened by a wage (p. 85).

Customer Taxonomies

For a salesperson to maintain control and in general, to feel effective within his work environment, it becomes extremely important for him to be able to identify early-on in the sales process those customers who are most likely to allow him to do so. The question becomes, which customers are most likely to allow him to "get the jump"? Which person will actually buy a car? This prediction is an extremely difficult if not impossible one. In an effort to bring order to this uncertain, ambiguous work environment, the salespeople developed an elaborate customer taxonomy. The function of this taxonomy is to provide causal explanations of customer behavior, increasing the perceived predictability of their work environment (Davis 1959).

The taxonomy is based on two types of customer cues. First, customers are classifed as soon as they walk through the showroom door, before engaging in any conversation whatsoever. This initial classification is, by necessity, based on purely physical attributes such as gender, dress, age, and most often, ethnicity. Cues such as these have been labelled by previous reseachers as primary and secondary traits (Mars and Nicod 1984), transaction-defining cues (Rafaeli and Sutton 1989), and "body gloss" (Goffman 1971). For the car salespeople, the most commonly used physically-based categories were "hindus" and "dots" (Asian Indians), "chinks" (Orientals, typically Koreans), "blacks", "homosexuals", Russian Jews, and "professors". "Professors" are customers who visibly carry information with them, typically Consumer Reports and various newspaper ads. The behaviors associated with these categories are derived from pre-existing cultural stereotypes, as well as the stories, myths, and folklore of fellow salespeople. "Chinks" are seen as tough negotiators, outdone only by "hindus". Russian Jews are aggressive and argumentative, and shop around. "Blacks" are bad credit risks, while "homosexuals" are good ones, trading in "clean cars in good condition".

Once the salesperson begins interacting with a customer, he is able to adjust his initial physically-based classification, making finer distinctions based on idiosyncratic customer behaviors. Thus, the second phase of the customer classification process is based on cues derived from the customer-salesperson interaction. Customer categories derived this way are "moochers", who take a lot of the salesperson's time, "get-me-dones", who had been denied credit at multiple dealers and simply want to buy a car with guaranteed credit and low monthly payments C with little or no regard for the ultimate price of the car, "know-it-alls", who do extensive research before reaching the dealer and let the salesperson know it, and "tire kickers", who physically bang the cars around and ask a lot of questions. "Moochers", "know-it-alls", and "tire kickers" are represented across all physcially-based categories; e.g., a "moocher" is just as likely to be a Russian Jew as he is to be a "chink". The only exception is "get-me-dones", most often "blacks from the South Side".

One of the most compelling aspects of this taxonomy is that while the salespeople quite explicitly spoke of it amongst themselves, when posed with the questions, "How can you tell a good prospect from a bad one?", or "How can you tell whether or not a customer will buy a car?" the answer was always, without exception, "You never can tell". Any salesperson who thought he could infer a customer's behavior based on one of these categories, they explained, would be ineffectual, and wouldn't last in the business very long. Every salesperson had a repertoire of stories, replete with examples of situations in which he had misjudged a customer. The theme of every story was, "people who look like they won't/can't buy a car sometimes do". The following is prototypic of the stories they told:

... one day this big guy comes in wearing this really wrinkled, dirty pinstripe suit. He was a mess. He says he wants to see an Electra. Now this was a really expensive car. So I think to myself, if this guy can afford an Electra, I can afford the Sears Tower. So I ask him if he has a trade-in ... (it's) a Cadillac with 600 miles... we had to give him money on the deal, figuring the trade-in and all. You just never know. (Jim)

Mars and Nicod (1984) in their study of waiters also comment on the prevelance of these types of stories among restaurant waiters:

There is a wealth of folklore in the industry about eccentrics who have none of the defining traits C either primary or secondary C that is appropriate to their particularly high status. Stories are told of well-known lords, politicians and actors who appear in restaurants ragged, dirty, drunk or using crude language. These, which are impossible to authenticate, point up the anxiety that waiters experience in making their assessments on relatively little evidence (p. 61).

It seems that instead of updating or even abandoning their classifications in the face of contradictory evidence, service providers tend to rely on "... posterioir reconstructions and rationalizations" that conform with their preconceived stereotypes (Davis 1959, p. 163).

Salespeople classify customers, rightly or wrongly, to bring order and structure into an otherwise uncertain environment. Specifically, classification allows a salesperson "... to identify who people are, anticipate their behavior, and plan strategies for performing (his) role" (Spradley and Mann 1975, p. 63). Each customer category has associated with it specific customer behaviors; taxonomies help the salespeople choose appropriate selling strategies to match these behaviors. "Hindus" and "get-me-dones" both signal to the salesperson that he should start with a high asking price, while Russian Jews, "professors", and "know-it-alls" signal lower, more competitive ones. It is "worth it" for a salesperson to spend a lot of time with a "get-me-done" or "homosexual", because there is likely to be a high payoff; however, a salesperson only wastes time trying to sell to a "moocher".

During the course of the fieldwork, multiple salespeople were observed refusing to wait on customers, by "passing" on their turn. In all cases, the salespeople made this decision based on purely physically-based cues, before any interaction had taken place at all. Instead of waiting on these customers they preferred to watch television. Jim's reaction was prototypic of this scenario: when an Indian man and woman walked into the dealership he looked at them and said, "I don't want anymore; I give up". When questioned about this behavior the salespeople in all cases reported that the customer would only "waste my time". The categories into which they had classified the customers suggested that regardless of the selling strategy chosen, a car would not be sold. Watching television would, in their eyes, have a higher payoff.

Customer-Directed Hostility

The emic terms used to categorize customers by the car salespeople as well as by service providers within other occupations are typically quite derogatory. Negative terms such as "chink", "know-it-all" and "moocher" were used by the car salespeople to describe their customers. Waitresses refer to bar patrons as "hands" and "bitches" (Spradley and Mann 1975), jazz musicians refer to audience members as "squares" (Becker 1951), bus riders are called "briefcase and jam-butty men" by drivers (Richman 1969), airline passengers are known as "irates" and "discount people" to flight attendants (Hochschild 1983), waiters refer to restaurant patrons as "punters" and "prostitutes" (Mars and Nicod 1984), taxi riders call their fares "slobs" and "yokels" (Davis 1959), and Disneyland ride operators label demanding patrons "ducks" (Van Maanen and Kunda 1989). Van Maanen (1978) theorizes that in order to be deserving of such negative labels, the customer has to have violated a norm "sacred in the occupational culture"; he terms these types of customers "assholes".

Classifying customers into derogatory groups (known only to the salespeople) represents one level of customer-directed hositility. Hostility takes another form when it is more explicitly manifest within a sales encounter:

Did you smell those Nigerians? Man, every time they got close to me I had to move away. Maybe they think B.O. smells good or something. And he's a doctor! I wouldn't let him get near me with than smell, man! (Jim)

Look at those two. They make me sick. I'm doing her a favor by the size of that rear end. (He had taken away a box of cookies, intended for the salesmen, which the customer had started eating) ... If that man was on fire I wouldn't piss on him to put it out. Look at him with his crazy wife; typical Midwesterners, crackpots both of them. (Mark)

Not too many "dots" today. You know, Hitler had the wrong idea with the Jews. He should have left the Jews alone, they're OK. He should have gotten rid of all the "dots"... they're the only ones I can't take. I was the only person who stood up and cheered when Ghandi died in that movie. They come in here and are $2-3,000 off everytime...I just won't wait on them. (Steve)

Referring to a customer as a "dot" or "chink" to a fellow worker is one thing; moving away from them because they "smell bad", jerking cookies away because "her rear end is too big", or simply refusing to wait on a customer is quite another. In the first two scenarios, the salesperson explicitly acted on his hostility in a manner that was potentially perceptable to the customer. In the third scenario, the hositility is so great, that the type of service this salesperson would give any Indian walking into the dealership could be questioned. Had these customers been asked to assess these service encounters, it is likely that they would have judged the attitudes of the salespeople to be less than satisfactory. This is key, given the findings of Bitner, Booms and Tetreault (1990):

... it is not the quality of the core service or failure to address a special need or request that causes dissatisfaction, but rather the assessed character or attitude of the service employee (p. 81).

The hostility exhibited by the salespeople toward their customers is a typical reaction to situations in which a person is prevented from obtaining a desired outcome (Wortman and Brehm 1975). From the salesperson's perspective, customers serve as obstacles to multiple desired outcomes: money, self-efficacy and control. Derogatory customer-labelling and hostile behaviors are further attempts by the salespeople to exert control within their work environment.


This research takes a descriptive approach to understanding sales encounters. The findings suggest that a comprehensive examination of the sales process must take into account the intrinsic, experiential aspects of the sales encounter C from the salesperson's perspective. Salespeople are not exclusively motivated to maximize their earnings, but also to improve the quality of their sales and work experiences. A salesperson realizes important non-pecuniary rewards when he "passes" on a customer and opts instead to watch television, sells at "my price", "allows" a customer to leave the showroom, and labels someone a "moocher".

It is the salesperson's attempt to realize these non-pecuniary rewards that can lead to the discrepancy between an organization's service specifications and its ultimate delivery. The dealership's 100% commission system is unable to squelch a salesperson's intrinsic need to maintain control and to feel effective within his work environment. At times, these needs conflict with those of the organization and the customer (Leidner 1993). A by-product of this conflict is negative, customer-directed hostility. It is at this point that the potential is greatest for a customer to experience a quite negative sales encounter.

There is ample evidence that service providers' negative feelings toward customers "leak out" both intentionally and by mistake (Hochschild 1983; Leidner 1993; Sutton 1991). Negative feelings can be expressed in a multitude of ways, some barely perceptable by customers, and others quite explicit. Flight attendants report they are most likely to let their true (negative) feelings surface when flights are crowded with demanding passengers, and they are required "... to make personal human contact at an inhuman speed" (Hochschild 1983, p. 126). A refusal to smile or a curt reply to a customer request can signal a negative emotion, as can "accidentally" spilling a drink on a particularly demeaning passenger. Disneyland employees report using tactics such as the "seatbelt squeeze", "a rapid cinching up of required seatbelt such that the passenger is doubled over at the point of departure and left gasping for the duration of the ride", and the "seatbelt slap", "an equally distinguished gesture by which an offending customer receives a sharp, quick snap of a hard plastic belt across the face" (Van Maanen and Kunda 1989; p. 67). Both taxi drivers (Davis 1959) and bus drivers (Richman 1969) report intentionally "missing" customers they don't like, or making them "run for it".

The display of negative emotions by service providers can have profound effects on customers' assessments of service quality. Customers were not interviewed as part of this project, therefore, we do not know their perceptions of specific sales encounters. However, we are able to do some speculation. It is not likely that, if questioned, the Nigerians would report they didn't buy a car from Jim because he had unusually high requirements for interpersonal space maintenance, or that the "Midwesterners" would report not buying because Mark jerked the cookies away from them. It is possible, however, that they would report not buying because they just didn't feel comfortable with or trust the salesperson; attitudes formed by the salespersons' behaviors.

Though the current study focused on a sales organization, there are implications for all organizations that employ high-contact workers. During the Industrial Revolution organizations realized the importance of product standardization, learning how to design manufacturing processes to reach this goal. A service-based economy, however, creates a new set of demands: the standardization of human interaction (Leidner 1993). Despite organizations' attempts to control employees' behaviors, they sometimes choose to act in "unstandardized" ways. It is ultimately the service provider's decision whether or not to act pleasant, indifferent, or even hostile toward a customer.

The standardization of highly interactive service work can have both positive and negative effects on employees' attitudes and behaviors. Hochschild (1983) points out the largely negative consequences of such standardization, such as workers losing control of their "real" emotions and feelings. Leidner (1993) notes, however, that for McDonald's counter workers, the memorized scripts they were instructed to use with customers "... apparently seemed a lifeline rather than a constraint" (p. 116). Likewise, the scripts and "feeling rules" Combined Insurance salespeople memorized as part of their intensive Positive Mental Attitude training helped to shield them from personalizing customer insults and rejection.

In order to provide high levels of service in an efficient, effective way, an organization must first identify all interactions, no matter how fleeting, a customer may have with contact personnel (Olivia, Oliver and MacMillan 1992). The next step is to determine the role each encounter plays in influencing customers' judgments of service quality. To the extent that a particular service encounter is deemed important, employees occupying that contact position need to be selected and trained accordingly. The most important finding to come out of this research is that organizations need to explicitly acknowledge the inherent, very human conflict between employees and customers. Specifically, they need to recognize that the needs of their employees may not always be congruent with a "customer is king" mentality. Future research needs to address exactly how, and in what form this recognition should occur.


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Marla Felcher, Northwestern University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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