An exploratory study in the business-to-business professional service industry
This thesis refines a broadly-accepted relationship marketing paradigm, which assumes that customers engage in long-lasting relationships with (service) firms. It is proposed that this assumption, although appealing, is likely too coarse in the services marketing context. Many instances exist which are indicative of relationships forged between clients and employees. In these instances, client-firm relationships appear to be favorable by-products of relationships formed between the client and the professional; the firm does not appear to be the core target or object of the relationship. Misinterpretation of the object of the relationship (employee vs. firm), likely does not pose a threat under everyday business conditions, still, it likely results in customer-base erosion in service-employee defection scenarios.
Both the existence and the relative strength of customer-employee relationships are explored. The study is directed at a group of small and medium sized Dutch accountancy clients. It tests the extent to which customer commitment cast at employees influences overall customer commitment and intention to stay in the business-to-business professional services industry.
The study is guided by three objectives. a) Determine if service employees be considered as objects for customer commitment b) If so, determine the extent to which customers’ commitment to the service employee influence customers’ commitment to the service firm and the intention to stay with the firm, and c) Unveil antecedents likely to influence customers’ commitment to the service employee and service firm.
Two quantitative models are used. Both models together provide a broad overview of clients bonding behavior in the b2b professional services industry. The first model acts as a basis, it is a direct replication of recently proposed model by Hansen, Sandvik and Selnes (2003). It is referred to as the ‘HSS’ model and studies client relationships under everyday conditions. The second model extends the HSS model. It is referred to as the ‘extended’ model. It introduces the employee as alternative loyalty-object. Furthermore it includes a group of potential antecedents, likely to
either stimulate employee-aimed commitment or firm-aimed commitment. The extended model studies client behavior under a condition of service employee defection. The respondent is asked to determine his intention to stay with both the service employee and the service employee as a whole, under a virtual scenario in which his accountant leaves the accountancy firm.
The combined findings of both models suggest that a) In the current setting, although technically part of the firm, clients mainly forge relationships with service employees and not with the professional service firm as a whole. Individual professionals tend to form the main object of loyalty, and not the firm as a whole as b) Both calculative and affective commitment directed at the employee strongly influences the amount of calculative and affective commitment directed at the professional firm and c) In everyday situations, service employee-directed affective commitment has both a strong direct and indirect influence on loyalty whereas d) When a professional service employee defects from his professional service firm, both affective commitment directed at the professional service firm and affective commitment directed at the professional service employee, increase customers intention to defect with the service employee. That is, although the customer pleads affectively committed to the firm he signals loyalty to the service employee and not to the professional firm as a whole.
Several implications for both theory and practice are forwarded. From a theoretical stance, theory should regard employees as separate commitment objects next to the object firm. Furthermore theory could introduce additional objects in order to increase their understanding of relationships between two businesses. From a managerial perspective, managers should first and foremost welcome client-employee bonds. Still, at the same time, they should develop an awareness regarding strong customeremployee relationships. Companies should be able to point out key relational members and put high amounts of effort in retaining these employees. As a surrogate companies can erect, employee and clients oriented switching barriers. Still, it is quite likely that these barriers actually work counter-productive as they can result in customer dissatisfaction. Companies should therefore be very careful when applying them.
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