“The good, the bad, and the local”: How employee accents affect customer participation in intercultural service encounters

Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Dr Vasileios (Bill) Davvetas is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Leeds University Business School. His research interests focus on: marketplace (anti)globalization; immigration and marketing; global crises, consumers and institutions; strategic firm orientations; and consumer decision-making.

Vasileios (Bill) Davvetas

Two important trends in today’s marketplace are the shift towards a service economy, and the increase in global immigration. Service industries (eg travel, hospitality, and retail) currently account for 65% of the global GDP and 51% of employment globally. More and more service posts across industries are staffed with migrant workers who end up interacting with local customers. Consequently, service encounters increasingly become intercultural as local customers and service employees have different ethnic origins and cultural backgrounds.

In these intercultural service encounters, customers use different cues to identify the ethnic origin of the employees serving them. One prominent cue is the employee’s accent. Even if the employee looks similar to the local customer or speaks the local language fluently, a person’s accent often gives away their ethnic origin and reveals their cultural background.

However, people often have preconceived notions and stereotypes associated with foreign accents. When local customers hear a foreign accent, they might make assumptions or judgements about the employee’s abilities or the quality of service they will receive. This possibly explains why intercultural service encounters are reportedly perceived as worse than same-culture ones by local customers.

Our research

More and more services nowadays incorporate elements that actively involve customers. Service providers often try to involve customers in the service delivery process as this leads to higher customer satisfaction, loyalty, and profitability.

Against this background, we investigated how an employee’s foreign accent influences the customer’s willingness to contribute to the service encounter by offering effort, knowledge, or information which would improve their experience (ie what we call “customer participation”).

To do so, we conducted four experiments. The rationale behind these experiments was to test how customers respond to the same service instructions or inputs delivered by the employees depending on whether they had a local or a foreign accent.

To achieve this, we used professional voice actors who read a service delivery description in the participants’ local language either with the local accent or a foreign accent that they could authentically imitate. We gave some participants the local accent version and some others the foreign accent version. Importantly, we considered the distinction between foreign accents that are positively perceived by local customers (eg French) and foreign accents commonly stereotyped in a negative way by them (eg Serbian).

After listening to these audio recordings, participants were asked to judge the service employee they listened to along several dimensions (eg how dynamic, attractive, warm, or competent they appeared). They also reported their willingness to cooperate with the employee in the service delivery process, or consider alternative ways of receiving the service, eg by using a self-service machine.

Our studies covered three different service types (baking, air travel, guided meditation) and recorded customer participation in terms of both intention and actual behaviour.

Our findings

Local customers are less willing to cooperate and contribute voluntarily when the service employee has an unfavourable foreign accent compared to a local accent. When customers are served by an employee with a negatively connoted accent, they often prefer to take matters into their own hands by switching to a self-service option, if available.

Worryingly, this preference for self-service persists even in situations where customer input is required, meaning that some customers are willing to sacrifice service quality to avoid interacting with an employee who has a negatively stereotyped accent.

The reason behind this behaviour lies in the stereotypical judgements customers make about service employees based on their accent. Customers tend to judge service employees whose accent they dislike as inferior, less attractive, and less dynamic than those who speak with their local accent.

Surprisingly, this negative perception does not happen when service employees speak with a foreign, yet favourable, accent. In these cases, the judgement about the service employee is just as positive as those with the local accent.

Not all is bad though! There are ways to reduce the negative stereotyping of service employees with a foreign accent. First, by offering customers more control over the service situation. When customers are offered the opportunity to take charge of key steps, they are less influenced by the employee’s accent because they feel that they can achieve a satisfactory service outcome through their own efforts.

Second, by boosting customers’ desire for personal interaction and a humanlike service experience, some customers overcome their stereotypical judgements. This is because they see the value of interacting with a human employee as more important than the negative stereotypes they might hold for their ethnic origin.

Practical implications

Our findings guide service practitioners with a large share of immigrant employees on how to recruit and train staff, and how to design intercultural service delivery systems that promote customer participation and limit the threat of ethnic stereotyping.

Specifically, our findings suggest that service managers should carefully assign, support and train employees with foreign accents. This does not mean relegating them to back-office roles or discriminating against them on the basis of their accent. Instead, inclusive staffing and training policies should elevate their service skills (eg communication, complaint handling, customer orientation etc.) to help them overcome potential stereotypical judgements.

We also advise practitioners to consider offering self-service alternatives when their services involve activities that can be completed by a customer without the presence of an employee. Beyond the well-known cost efficiencies of this strategy, it also eliminates the risk of accent-based stereotyping biases and resulting service quality issues in intercultural encounters.

Finally, our findings urge service managers to carefully balance the service activities that must involve interaction with a human employee with those that can be performed at the customer’s discretion. By giving customers the option to handle certain tasks themselves, concerns relating to accents can be eliminated.

However, such efforts should be done after also considering consumers who value a humanized service experience. For these customers, enriching services with interactive elements and eliminating impersonal processes can neutralize the negative consequences of stigmatized accents.

Finding the sweet spot between these two alternatives appears critical for service providers that rely on immigrant employees to deliver services to stereotype-prone customers.

Read the paper: “The Influence of Employee Accent on Customer Participation in Services”, Journal of Service Research. David Bourdin, Christina Sichtmann, and Vasileios Davvetas.

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