Do Customers Need Your Respect to be Satisfied?


Companies are obsessed with customer satisfaction. But maybe they should measure whether patrons feel valued

Happy business owner hanging an open sign at a cafe.

The late Rodney Dangerfield told his first “no respect” joke in a tiny Manhattan nightclub in the early 1960s. “I get no respect,” he groaned in his New York drawl. “When I was a kid, I played hide-and-seek. They wouldn’t even look for me.” The crowd erupted, and the sweaty, self-deprecating comic was on his way to making a wildly successful career out of the patented premise. 

What was it about that line that connected so strongly with audiences? Fellow comedian Jack Benny believed it was that everyone could identify with feeling disrespected. “That’s into the soul of everybody,” he said.

Those who study human behaviour might not use the word “soul”, but they probably agree that part of what attracted audiences to Dangerfield’s hook was the need to feel valued.

“Feeling and being valued by others is a fundamental human goal, and you don’t need to look far within the psychology literature to see that,” says Laurence Ashworth, Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Marketing at Smith School of Business.

A lack of respect

When Ashworth started reading more about respect and value, however, he discovered how little these were considered in the context of customer service, consumer behaviour and marketing. Given his interest in the social and emotional influences of consumer decision-making, he wanted to help change that.  

In particular, Ashworth was interested in the role that respect plays in marketing’s central aim: customer satisfaction. Studies show that satisfaction can lead to loyalty, positive word of mouth and a willingness to pay. It can even boost profitability and stock market performance.

As for what affects whether a customer is satisfied or dissatisfied, research points to a range of factors. Most fit into one of three categories: how customers evaluate the product or service; how they assess any secondary services involved in the transaction; and what prior expectations they bring to the transaction.

While central to satisfaction, these categories do little to capture that central human craving for respect, says Ashworth. Thus, he wondered: Do customers need to feel respected in order to be satisfied?  

Studies of value

To find out, Ashworth devised two studies with Maureen Bourassa, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Saskatchewan.  

The first study tested whether respect or disrespect spontaneously emerged in the written descriptions of over 300 customers’ highly satisfactory or dissatisfactory experiences. The second study surveyed more than 3,000 people. It examined whether their perceptions of respect could explain their feelings of satisfaction beyond the three traditional categories of satisfaction (i.e., product and service factors, expectations).

In both studies, participants were asked to recount satisfying or dissatisfying consumer experiences. These ranged from product failures to poor restaurant service. “We found that it really is a wide range of things that people can infer respect from,” says Ashworth. “It can be very direct interactions where it’s clear someone doesn’t value you very much. But it can also be indirect things, like a product that failed shortly after a warranty expired.”

In the end, Ashworth and Bourassa found that feelings of respect or disrespect did spontaneously emerge from satisfying or dissatisfying customer experiences, appearing in 43 per cent of recalled incidents. They also discovered that those feelings exerted a substantial impact on customers’ overall satisfaction (after controlling for those traditional causes). The results were published in a European Journal of Marketing paper.  

Measure up

So it appears that respect plays an important role in customer satisfaction. How, then, do organizations determine what customers deem respectful or disrespectful?

“That really is the million-dollar question,” says Ashworth. The studies didn’t examine the causes of respect and disrespect, but Ashworth says measurement is key. “We were looking at the consequences of respect, and organizations could at least initially approach it in the same way by trying to identify the correlates of perceived respect. What kinds of things in a customer survey, for example, seem to be correlated with inferences of respect?”

Plus, adds Ashworth, the act of simply trying to measure respect can signal to the entire organization the importance that company leaders place on respect. And that, in turn, can lead to employees showing more respect to customers, which can then result in higher customer satisfaction. “You may not be able to answer the question of what precisely you need to do to create perceptions of respecting customers, but it does orient the organization towards that as an outcome.”   

Employee intuition 

Besides, it can be counterproductive to be too precise when trying to address respect, says Ashworth. The goal may be to make customers feel valued. But when organizations micromanage exactly how employees do that, customers may feel less valued.

Take, for instance, what happens when a company relies too much on scripts when dealing with customer calls, says Ashworth. Scripts are there because organizations want to improve service performance. But the impersonal nature of scripts can prevent reaching the true pinnacle of service performance. “I think the same is likely to be true with respect. If you tell people you have to do these five things specifically to create respect, I am certain that you're probably not taking full advantage of your employees’ abilities to actually create respect.”    

Which brings Ashworth to a final takeaway: because respect is so important to humans, we all have an intuitive sense of how to convey it and how to interpret it. In other words, rely on your employees’ own understanding of how to make customers feel valued.

“What organizations need to do is find a balance between being too open-ended about telling employees they need to satisfy customers and too specific with directives about communicating respect,” says Ashworth. “Most of us know what it means to be respectful and disrespectful, so in most cases it’s likely enough to just ask your employees to really focus on making sure that they convey respect to customers.”  

Rodney Dangerfield must be nodding his head somewhere.