Study: Easily identifiable personality traits apply to propane industry

February 1, 2008 By    

Businesses experiencing a complaining customer unhappy over a breakdown in service may now have the tools necessary to create an individualized response to suitably resolve the situation, according to a recently released scientific study.


It’s quite possible that a standardized cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to handling customer service complaints may backfire among today’s consumers simply because you have failed to appropriately connect with them. Instead, salvaging a successful business relationship threatened by a service breakdown can best be obtained by taking into account three key personality traits and formulating an appropriate response.

Researchers have been able to categorize three main types of customers – “relational,” “oppositional” and “utilitarian.” Each of them is readily identifiable via verbal cues, providing you the ability to assess the particular situation and implement an effective, individualized solution.

The traits identified by the researchers cut across a universal array of consumers facing a lapse-in-service issue, overriding differences in age, gender, socioeconomic status and ethnic background. (Another co-author, Dr. Gaby Odekerken-Schröder, is an associate professor of marketing at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.)

The study, first published in the Journal of Marketing and subjected to a peer-review process scrutinizing its methodology and conclusions, looked at numerous customer-management transactions throughout several industries.

The results can be applied within the propane industry, where customer word-of-mouth positive referrals or negative rejections can travel like wildfire among neighbors and relatives. A single complaint that’s poorly handled may have a wide impact. “People will believe them more than all the advertising you can do,” says Christensen. “You don’t want to poison the well for word-of-mouth.”

So, rather than scripting a cookie-cutter customer service approach, you can easily learn to rely on the verbal cues you hear to formulate an individual response. “We already understand their signals based on our own experiences,” Christensen reports. “It’s a process of trying to adapt to those characteristics when you talk to them.”

The “relationals” bring to mind the public persona of Oprah Winfrey, says Christensen, although men also commonly fit into this category.

Relationals are “touchy-feely” and may apologize for the predicament even if they bear no fault in the matter. They like to “build relationships” with people and are likely to feel betrayed, thinking you have let them down.

Their voice may display emotion as they seek consolation from you – figurative handholding. The relational customer is best dealt with by issuing a sincere apology before offering any monetary compensation. Express your earnest eagerness to make the situation right and preserve the positive relationship. “If you give them a settlement without an apology they will feel that they’re being ‘bought off,'” Christensen says.

He describes “oppositionals” as “grumpy.” They are overly demanding, aggressive and antagonistic, viewing the transaction as a battle to be won rather than a process for resolving a problem. “The oppositionals are very easy to spot,” he says; they are intent on assessing blame and may get loud.

“The oppositionals are going to be irate and make a big fuss,” Christensen notes, advising you to resist taking the bait by misbehaving yourself. “That’s why you offer them options.”

Your best response is to offer three options of resolution or compensation while avoiding giving in to unreasonable demands. You can ask them, “What can I do to make this right? Here are three choices…” This allows the customer to feel victorious, and “that gives them a feeling of power and control,” he adds.

“The ‘utilitarians’ are like Spock,” says Christensen. They seem distant, cold and calculating, adding up how much time and money your mistake has cost them. For these people, you can keep your apology – but do acknowledge that a mistake was made. “They don’t want you to apologize; they want you to give them some type of settlement.” An apology is likely to come across as “an attempt by you to ‘buy them off with emotion,'” he says. A utilitarian will rationally evaluate the time, effort and inconvenience they have invested, figuring out what they have “lost” and expecting “equal” monetary compensation.

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