Queen's University

Service with an e-smile: Employee authenticity and customer use of web-based support services

Many companies work hard to ensure that service representatives are friendly when interacting with customers. Friendliness, however, is not always enough; customers must believe that service employees are not just acting out a friendly role. In our study, we extrapolated this idea to web-based support services. Integrating IS and marketing perspectives, we suggested that user judgment of human service representatives’ authenticity operate through two mechanisms, system-, and service-representative assessments, to augment a visitor's continuance intention. Data collected from 86 users of a library web-based live-chat service supported this view. The perceived authenticity of the service representatives increased information satisfaction, which in turn increased perceptions of usefulness, and ultimately strengthened the customer's continuance intention. Authenticity assessments also increased the perceived friendliness of the service provider, which in turn increased the visitor's continuance intentions. Implications of this dual-path concept are discussed.

Many companies are now providing customer service and related support online, mostly through instant messaging or “live chat” interfaces. At their best, online support services are an efficient and cost-effective means of providing customer assistance, as they may bolster customer satisfaction by providing instantaneous, around-the-clock access to company products and personnel. Online support can also enhance website interactivity-synchronicity and two-way communication with customers, which are factors improving relationship building in online environments [17].

Although live-chat services have many potential advantages, their actual success depends on their use. Customers typically have several alternative channels through which to seek assistance, including telephone access to service representatives, “shopping” in a local service center or retail outlet, and sometimes by choosing not to act at all. Nevertheless, many customers prefer to use online live-chat support for service-related questions, such as inquiries about order status, company promotional information, and shipping options. Because web-based support services are relatively inexpensive to provide, are easily accessible, and have the ability to enhance customer satisfaction and associated positive outcomes (e.g., continued use, positive word-of-mouth, brand loyalty) [14]; it is important to understand the factors that affect their use.

Thus, company platforms should act simultaneously as technology artifacts and service provision conduits with a complex array of factors that affect individuals’ decisions to use them. We therefore integrated key aspects from the fields of service marketing, cognitive psychology and IS to help in understanding individual reactions to web-based support services. By combining perspectives, we suggest that the usage of web-based support services will be influenced by users’ beliefs about the system, as well as by their assessments of the qualities of the human service provider with whom they interact. Though IS research studies have focused on system-referenced perceptions and considerations as determinants of the decision to use a system [12], we argued that when web-based support services combine technology and human elements, both aspects should be considered in order to develop a better understanding of users’ decisions to employ the services.

One key factor of human service representatives in traditional face-to-face service encounters is their apparent authenticity [8]; i.e., does the representative seem to be genuine? We extended this idea to web-based support services, and suggested that the authenticity of electronically-mediated friendliness displays affect user reactions to, and usage of, web-based support services.

The proposed model was tested and supported using SEM techniques applied to data collected from 86 users of a library web-based live-chat service. Most of the research on service encounters and emotional displays has been done in face-to-face service encounter settings. The recent proliferation of web-based support services, therefore, requires more attention.

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