Service encounter is a somewhat multifaceted experience for the customers that comprises of a number of elements such as interaction with service employees, contact with the physical environment and most significantly, Customer-to-Customer Interactions (CCI) that occur in the presence of several customers with different social orientations in the same service setting. Although Customer-to-Customer interactions (CCI) have become more common than Customer-Employee interactions (CEI) yet the idea of creating relationships between customers has often been ignored by researchers and marketers alike, where there’s always been a prime focus on CEI only. Not only CCI are higher in number but are also more complex and harder to handle because of the multiplicity and heterogeneity of customers involved and less managerial control. Therefore, it is extremely important for companies to better understand how customers interact with one another, what transpires during this proximity and then take steps to curtail the overall negative vibe. In this context, Customer Compatibility Management is a service strategy that can be applied to deal with that inter-client conflict that comes with the diversity and incompatibility in customers who sometimes have to share the same servicescape. According to researchers Martin and Pranter it is ‘a process of first attracting homogenous consumers to the service environment, then actively managing both the physical environment and customer-to-customer encounters in such a way to enhance satisfying encounters and minimize dissatisfying encounters’. They argue that organizations should engage in “compatibility management” to increase the likelihood of the appropriate customer mix and customer-to-customer relationships for a specific service organization. If successful, this effort can help attract new customers and retain the existing ones.

The Importance of Social Environment in Servicescape:

Although the mission statements of companies strongly embrace the idea of creating great customer experience but they often miss out on one of the most important element i.e. creating a suitable social environment. The whole service experience is created by elements that retailer can control and also by elements that are beyond his control. For example, a retailer can exercise his control over service interface, retail atmosphere, price, but they has no control whatsoever over customers’ purpose of shopping or direct and indirect interactions among them. Managing this social dimension is elusive but also very important because customers’ satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their experience is directly influenced by their experience of other customers as socialization is one of the primary expectations at places where there’s offered collective service.

Many industries like airlines, hotels and hospitals deliver services in a shared setting, where customers usually interact with each other and these encounters can be extremely influential to the whole experience. The influence can be positive or even negative. Therefore, in a shared service setting, organizations must be able to effectively handle the social conflict that may also come with this gathering. And that is exactly when customer compatibility management comes in. It is all about managing Customer-to-Customer Interactions (CCI) in a way that is both satisfying and pleasant for them. Retailers like Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret, Harley Davidson are highly emphatic of customer compatibility and that is exactly why they are able to provide customers a great social experience across multiple channels.

Incompatibility among Customers:

Incompatibility Among Customers in UAEFrom their values, age, status, experience to ethnicity or race, there could be several reasons for customers to be incompatible with each other. However, what service marketers can do is anticipate, acknowledge and then effectively manage this heterogeneity i.e. potential for incompatibility in their customers. Companies, that serve numerous customers in one time, must be extremely careful as gathering of a wrong mix of patrons can give rise to inappropriate behavior, thus severely sabotaging both service performance and customer experience. However, customers may also positively enhance one another’s service experience by helping each other out, creating excitement, etc.

The amount of attention by service management might also alter with the number of customers that it deals with. For example, organizations dealing with relatively moderate number of customers like hotels, banks etc. will have to take lower care of customer-to-customer interactions than the establishments that serve hundreds of people like those managing concerts, tourist attractions etc. Nevertheless, there should be a certain limit to the extent of control exercised over customers as too much of restriction can drive them away. The best way to handle the proximity and heterogeneity of consumers during these interactions is compatibility management coupled with proactive managerial facilitation.

Customer Typology and the Need to Manage Customer-to-Customer Interactions:

Customer to Customer InteractionCustomer experience highly depends on their cognitive, affective, emotional, social and physical susceptibilities. Therefore, be it directly or indirectly, customers can certainly affect one another’s experience in a shared environment. For example, crowding or standing too close to others can be uncomfortable, eye contact between strangers may be negatively perceived sometimes, disruptive acts like talking loudly may make some people uneasy or on the positive note, assistance by fellow customers can be pleasing.

Researchers McGrath and Otnes identified and developed a typology of roles that customers mostly play in an interactive environment. Customers can be help seekers, helpers, competitors, disrupters, passive bystanders, aggressors and complainers, etc. Likewise, the ever-pervasive internet culture has introduced yet another type of customers called ‘lurkers’. “A Lurker is typically a member of an online community who observes, but does not actively participate. Lurkers make up a large proportion of all users in online communities. Lurking allows users to learn the conventions of an online community before they actively participate, improving their socialization when they eventually de-lurk”, say the experts. Moreover, conduct of customers who try to destroy the experience of other customers in an attempt to sabotage the company by resorting to abusive and dysfunctional behavior has been identified by the researches as jaycustomer behavior, deviant customer behavior or aberrant customer behavior.

Taking into account the typology of customers, their varying social inclinations and the typical service settings, compatibility management is extremely important in places where there is;

  • Close physical proximity among customers
  • Likelihood of verbal interaction among customers
  • Engagement in various activities
  • A service environment that attracts heterogeneous customer mix
  • Sharing of time, space or utensils with one another
  • Wait-time involved

Recommendation for Managing Customer Incompatibility:

As mentioned earlier, there can be several types of customers. They can be pleasant, helpful, inconsiderate, gregarious, violent, crude or rowdy. Therefore, ineffective socialization of customers may lead to inappropriate behavior and could result in negative outcomes for them, the employees and even the company itself. And since customers with disparate characters have to share the same service environment at many occasions, companies need to manage incompatibility by drawing similar customers and then handling customer-to-customer interactions. Moreover, it’s also important to create and enforce rules, train employees, reward appropriate customer behavior and measure and statistically analyze CCI.

  1. Attract A Homogeneous Customer Mix:
    Researchers propose that service providers can implement customer compatibility by focusing on appropriate customer selection and market segmentation. If the customer groups are fairly homogeneous, unfriendly experiences due to customer incompatibility can be significantly curtailed. Companies can manage customer mix by grouping compatible customers together e.g. by assigning certain time for certain customers or by offering multiple sections like smoking and non-smoking and family areas, etc.
  2. Establish Rules:
    Businesses can manage the mix of customers by specifying codes of conduct for customer-to-customer interaction. For example, some restaurants visibly warn their customers by putting up “don’t smoke” or “quiet please” signs or some have separate sitting arrangement for families etc. Likewise, in the internet culture, posting customer reviews on web- sites, commenting on blogs or having a say in chat rooms is all about virtual customer-t-customer interaction. That is why many online communities and renowned news sites have specific guidelines for posting as well as replying to messages.
  3. Train Employees:
    Employee intervention is very important to manage situations that arise out of incompatibility. For example, in case there is a disrupter causing inconvenience to other customer or if there’s a dispute between customers, employees should be professionally trained to handle and resolve the situation.
  4. Measure and Analyze CCI:
    Companies should regularly survey and calculate the extent, nature and impact of CCI. Customer satisfaction surveys focus on service quality and employee performance, but usually don’t take account of customer-to-customer interactions, which is equally important. Companies ought to measure the frequency of these interactions, the level of satisfaction they proffer and their effect on perceptions and behavior of customers.

Best Practices:

  • Marriott’s has created different sub-brands for different types of customers. Developing a range of sub-brands for different traveler sub-segments has been an important part of Marriott’s brand planning. The Courtyard sub-brand is for business travelers while the Residence Inn sub-brand aims at extended stay lodging. Some of Marriott’s sub-brands closely tied to it while other sub-brands have a little or no reference to Marriott’s ownership e.g. The Ritz-Carlton brand.
  • Harley-Davidson established the Harley Owners Group (HOG) in 1983 which consists of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts where the members are selected on the basis of their shared interests or characteristics i.e. if they share a passion for biking, the Harley Davidson brand, enjoy travelling or how they consider themselves as different from car-drivers. According to researchers, “The HOG Posse brand community is customer centered, as the existence and meaningfulness of the community is in customer experience rather than in the brand around which that experience revolves. HD riders want to be part of it and share their feelings about the rides, which consist of about 500 participants.” So, the HOG is made up of its members and relationships among them.

Social Technology Drives Customer-to-Customer Interactions Today:

Technology has unlocked a new dimension for customers to interact with other customers. Apart from interacting in physical service situations, customers can easily air their concerns to millions of other customers through social platforms and online communities. It all started in the 1980s with Usenet newsgroups, then in the 1990s the inclination of sharing experiences multiplied with the introduction of web-based forums and bulletin boards. And today, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and YouTube have amplified customers’ ability to share experiences and interact with each other even more. On the positive side, many companies have even created customer-to-customer support forums, where expert customers can interact and assist other online customers. Unlike the customer-created online communities, the company-created communities allow businesses to directly access customer-to-customer interactions.

The Impact of CCI on Customers and Businesses:

Customers’ interactions with fellow customers are often trivial and forgettable to them and do not leave a lasting impression on their minds. However, there may occur some volatile situations where other customers can either leave a long-term positive or negative impact. In this context, negative interactions can have greater impact than the positive ones. For example, a customer might be affected more by an unruly passenger cutting in the line and denying him his turn than the one who would have helped him with his baggage. Yet, it does not mean that positive interactions have no significance whatsoever. But in order to be profoundly effective than a negative encounter, positive encounter has to be extremely positive.

Social Technology for Customer Interaction

Negative interactions have a direct negative effect on the company’s bottom-line as it can possibly ruin the experience of other customers and decrease their loyalty, lower employee morale and increase employee turnover, and sometimes even result in damage to company property.

Recent news by Vancouver Sun reveals customer behavior as follows: “Customers are more than willing to punish other shoppers who ignore the rules of good conduct by leaving displays askew or breaking into a lineup, said recent PhD graduate Lily Lin. They are also willing to punish businesses if employees don’t intervene when shoppers go bad.” Likewise, foul customer conduct in airline industry, like using the seat-back pocket as a garbage bin, elbow-to elbow cramming of customers who don’t take care of their surroundings, ruins the experience of other customers and leads to lower satisfaction and loyalty.

Moreover, the word-of-mouth about such interactions also affects the bottom-line as customers have the power to shape other customers’ expectations, perceptions and behavior (loyalty) when they share their stories of the treatment or service they received from a company. The effect becomes even stronger when they swap stories on a social platform, thus majorly affecting other customers’ loyalty.

UAE’s Tourism Industry: Islamism and the Cultural Incompatibility:

UAE Tourism IndustryAlthough the UAE tourism boom dates back to the eighties, yet it legitimately continues to hold its ‘œtourist-trap’ status. Apart from its commercial and political repercussions, the third important aspect of tourism in UAE is the diversity of cultural mix that often gives rise to social clash. The ever-increasing influx of tourists from all parts of the world has helped people of UAE learn about other countries’ cultures and foreigners’ social orientations. On the other hand, the tourists also get an idea of UAE’s culture and values. However, on the murky side, conflict occurs when diverse cultures and UAE’s conservative rules collide. For example, several Emiratis believe that Western tourists’ values interfere with their religious and national morals, where jeans, short skirts or low-cut dresses, public displays of affection and drinking or being drunk is frowned upon by Emiratis and is considered to be an offence. Foreigners touring Dubai could be fined or jailed for cultural misdemeanors like holding hands in public, swearing, harassing women with a prolonged stare or wearing inappropriate clothing.

”Just one person needs to take offence and to make a complaint and you can be in serious trouble and be held in custody for a long time if you challenge the charge,” said Radha Stirling, founder of the non-profit organization Detained in Dubai, which helps people in legal difficulty in the United Arab Emirates. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns on its website that de facto relationships, homosexual relationships and acts of adultery and prostitution are subject to severe punishment. ”It is also against the law in the UAE to share the same hotel room with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or closely related,” DFAT cautions. ”These laws apply to residents as well as visitors.”

In recent years, several tourists and expatriates have borne the brunt of UAE’s conservative rules. In 2010, a British couple were arrested and sentenced to a month in jail for kissing in public in Dubai. Then in 2009, an Australian tourist was arrested when he allegedly said “What the f—?” to a plainclothes police officer who had grabbed his arm at Dubai Airport. The man was penalized with several months’ stay in Dubai and was let go with a fine. An online campaign called UAE Dress Code was started by two Emirati women that demanded foreigners to respect local sensitivities by dressing up less provocatively. Recently, a drunk tourist was sentenced to two months in prison and fined Dh2,000 on account of illegally consuming alcohol. In 2012, dress code and behavior had become such an issue for Emiratis that implementation of a federal law was considered necessary.

These laws and rules are deemed to be too repressive for the tourists sometimes. “Dubai, like the rest of the United Arab Emirates, is a repressive state, that tries to hide behind religious piety and modernist glitz”, says Tanya Gold, a writer at The Guardian, UK. “Makes sense to access the government website for rules though. You never know which ‘progressive’ country is going to have a law against breathing air, walking on two legs, or drinking water in a public place”, says a traveller. “I haven’t travelled for many years and stories like this ensure another many years. While I believe in being mindful of other cultures – and as a married non-drinking well-covered woman I should be okay – I loathe such overreaction to small transgressions”, vents a foreigner woman. “Archaic laws and treating women as lesser beings will not be tolerated”, yet another foreign view about Islamic culture at the UAE, which is often considered too restrictive by non-Muslims.

Laws governing profane language, clothing and even wearing shoes prevail in many different parts of the world. Like in the Vatican City, entering museums and churches requires shoulder coverings and skirts or shorts to the knee. The Australian states of Queensland and Victoria have strict laws against swearing. These laws might make it a little harder for tourists to mingle with the local environment and they may hope for a little flexibility in general regulations, yet it’s also incumbent upon the tourists to respect these local regulations.  Hamad Ahmad Al Rahoumi, a member of the council from Dubai, told Gulf News: “There has to be respect for the people in the UAE. Residents and tourists should dress modestly and not spread their bad habits for our children to see and imitate.” Moreover, in Ramadan, tourists should abstain from alcohol, dancing, eating or singing in public places during the day, just out of respect for the residents’ beliefs. “We are not asking residents or tourists to veil their faces or hair but we are asking them to comply with our norms and traditions,” FNC member Hamad Ahmad al-Rahoomi told Reuters.

Laurent Chaudet, the general manager of the Pullman Mall of Emirates hotel, said: ”Australians might think of Dubai as an ultra-modern destination, but they need to remember that it is a Muslim country with traditional values. The simple advice would be to wear respectful clothing, avoid drunkenness and use of foul language, and respect the culture of the people here.” Moreover, Paul McGrath, the managing director of Australia’s largest independent travel company Creative Holidays, ”I’d say that people just have to be conscious and mindful of the cultural differences. Be aware and be informed and there really isn’t that much of a problem. They are lovely people, gracious and gentle …”

Many establishments and governments now consider it important to familiarize the tourists with the do’s and don’ts while visiting a country. Qantas Airline requests passengers travelling to Asia, the US or the UAE to check the Australian government’s Smart Traveller website so they are fully informed of local laws and customs beforehand. Plus, they provided cultural training to the staff before their alliance with the Emirates, according to which customer issues with UAE passengers may be best solved by a man. Abu Dhabi Tourism Police have released a behavioral and ethics guide that gives a detailed account of the rules for the tourists visiting the Emirates. Brig Gen Omair Al Mihiri, deputy director general of police operations, said, “The pamphlet was prepared to educate tourists on rules of public behavior. It includes trends and behavior which is uncivilized and would make them subject to prosecution.” Moreover, in order to ensure safety of their Jewish passengers, Qantas doesn’t let them leave the airport because of Arab League’s boycott of Israel.

Moreover, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is the United Nations agency that is all about promoting responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. According to resources, “UNWTO is an international tourism organization that supports tourism as a driver of economic growth, environmental sustainability and offers leadership and support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide. It encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism to maximize the contribution of tourism to socio-economic development, international understanding, peace, prosperity and universal respect, observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. UNWTO’s membership includes 155 countries, 7 territories and over 400 Affiliate Members representing the private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations and local tourism authorities”.