Great deals lead to worse treatment for customer service workers: study

New psychological study looks at the implications of a bargain-hunting mentality

As shoppers search for the best post-Christmas deals, a study by the University of British Columbia has found bargain hunters tend to dehumanize customer service staff.

The study published this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology looked at the implications of a bargain-hunting mentality and found it causes shoppers to be less attuned to the human needs of employees and more likely to report bad service.

“It kind of has this perverse effect of, ‘Oh I’m paying less, hence they’re worth less,’ and the other effect that is, I am so narrowing down on paying the lowest price that I don’t take the time to look around and appreciate what’s going on,” said co-author Johannes Boegershausen, a PhD student at the Sauder school of business.

In one experiment, researchers compared over 2,000 online reviews of airlines Lufthansa and the low-cost carrier Ryanair by looking specifically for more than 100 words that reflect the humanity behind the service, such as friendly, compassionate, kind or helpful.

The humanizing terms were used far less often for Ryanair than the higher-end Lufthansa, even when results were adjusted for differences in quality.

Perceptions of advertising between the two airlines were also tested. Identical ads of a flight attendant branded for both airlines and a neutral non-brand found that people perceived the Ryanair employee in a lesser light.

Boegershausen said it’s believed this is the result of the perceived cost-benefit of the interaction based on market pricing.

The perceptions can also affect how consumers then rate their experience with a customer service agent.

In a test asking consumers to rent a car online that included interacting with a rude employee in a chat room, consumers tasked with finding the best deal were harsher in their review of the chat support.

With car rental or car sharing platforms, such as Uber and Lyft, relying on customer reviews to monitor the quality of their employees, Boegershausen said bargain hunters are 18 per cent more likely to leave a review that triggers a disciplinary meeting for a driver.

“Basically when you shop at price-conscious mentality … you actually perceive the employee as somewhat less human and because of that, when they do something wrong, you punish them more, or you are more likely to punish them,” he said.

The findings are not intended to paint bargain hunters in a bad light, Boegershausen said.

“I think almost every one of us is in that state at some point in their life through, say, a particular sale and it’s not that we’re necessarily particularly bad people, but we can lose sight of what is really important,” he said.

Employers with discount brands should keep in mind that their staff may face greater stress and burnout when facing price-conscious consumers, he said.

Especially during the deal hunting around the holiday season, Boegershausen said.

“It’s a little ironic that Christmas is a celebration of love and that can get lost very quickly,” he said.

“It’s not that much of an extra effort to treat someone with human kindness.”

Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press

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