Public Release: 

Discounting humanity: Bargain hunters see customer service workers as less human

University of British Columbia

Everyone loves a bargain, but new research suggests some employees may be getting short-changed when it comes to how consumers perceive them when they are price-conscious.

The UBC Sauder School of Business study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that bargain-hunters who adopt a "price-conscious mentality"-- meaning their main goal is to save money and get the cheapest deal-- tend to see employees who they interact with as less human.

"When shoppers focus only on paying the lowest price, they become less attuned to understanding the human needs of others, or even recognizing them," said Johannes Boegershausen, a UBC Sauder PhD student who co-authored the study.

For the study, the researchers conducted several studies. One study showed that consumers used fewer humanizing trait words in reviews of the discount carrier Ryanair than in reviews of the higher-end airline Lufthansa, even after accounting for quality differences between brands.

In another experiment, study participants were either shown photos of a flight attendant wearing uniforms from Ryanair, Lufthansa, or one wearing a neutral uniform. The researchers found that respondents saw the flight attendants from Lufthansa and the non-employee as relatively equally human, but the Ryanair employee was seen in a poorer light.

"We simply varied the brand, and found that people ascribed lower capabilities for experiencing emotions and feelings to the Ryanair flight attendant," said Boegershausen, adding that this subtle dehumanization can take many forms and is not necessarily intentional.

Another experiment had participants interact in a live chat with a rude customer service representative. They were then given the chance to punish the employee through a complaint. The researchers found participants were 18 per cent more likely to give a rating that would lead to disciplinary actions against the employee when shoppers were adopting a price conscious mentality than when they were not.

The researchers say the findings could have implications for owners and management of discount stores, as the problem could affect employee retention.

Previous research has also found employees who experience rude and inconsiderate customer behaviors report higher levels of emotional exhaustion, job dissatisfaction, and burnout. Potentially, those unhappy employees subsequently might mistreat the next customer, who in turn gets angry and mistreats employees, creating a vicious circle for companies and employees alike.

Since discount-based companies such as Walmart and Ryanair are experiencing unprecedented growth, it's important to pinpoint what's going on, said Boegershausen.

"I think most consumers, myself included, are guilty of this at some point. When you really drill down, you don't really recognize that someone is fully human anymore," said Boegershausen. "But it doesn't take much to be human and to let others know you recognize them as human. Everyone has the right to be considered human."

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The study was co-authored by Sauder professors JoAndrea Hoegg and Karl Aquino, as well as Alexander P. Henkel at the Open University of the Netherlands and Jos Lemmink at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

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