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Press Release from the Journal of Marketing: What Happens When Companies Emphasize Employee Effort versus Talent 

Matt Weingarden

Chicago, March 4, 2020 — Researchers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, University of Hong Kong, and Nanyang Technological University published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that examines the different effects on customer outcomes when firms attribute their service employees’ competent performance to dedicated effort versus natural talent.    

The study, forthcoming in the May issue of the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Highlighting Effort versus Talent in Service Employee Performance: Customer Attributions and Responses” and is authored by Fine F. Leung, Sara Kim, and Caleb H. Tse.   

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Firms often attribute their service employees’ competent performance to either dedicated effort or natural talent. Yet it is unclear how such practices affect customer evaluations of service employees and customer outcomes. In a new study in the Journal of Marketing, the research team finds that consumers expect a more communal and less exchange-oriented relationship when a service employee’s competent performance is attributed to dedicated effort rather than natural talent because effort (vs. talent) attribution leads consumers to perceive the employee as warmer. The study further proposes customer-helping behaviors as downstream consequences of relationship expectations and finds that effort (vs. talent) attribution is more likely to induce customers’ word-of-mouth and idea provision behaviors.  

These findings offer practical implications because firms can highlight either effort or talent as the primary source of service employees’ competent performance to induce a customer relationship expectation that corresponds to their service propositions. For instance, firms that emphasize communality in their services (e.g., Disneyland, Starbucks) can attribute their employees’ performance to effort, leading consumers to expect a more communal relationship with these employees. In contrast, if these firms attribute employee performance to talent, thus inducing a more exchange relationship expectation, the discrepancy between consumers’ relationship expectations and their actual service experience may hurt service satisfaction.   

These findings also demonstrate that, depending on whether a firm attributes its service employees’ performance to effort or talent, consumers will pay attention to different types of service employee information to reflect their expected relationships with the employees. This helps guide firms in designing marketing materials. For example, when firms want their consumers to pay attention to a service employee’s personal (job-related) information, they might want to attribute the employee’s performance to effort (talent).  

Moreover, the researchers show that the effect of performance attributions on relationship expectations has consequences for customer-helping behaviors that offer managerial insights. Specifically, the empirical evidence suggests that marketers can implement effort or talent attributions in their communication messages to influence customers’ actual word of mouth (WOM) and idea provision behaviors. Marketers regard WOM, electronic WOM in particular, as one of the most significant developments in contemporary consumer behavior due to its ability to influence the way consumers make purchase decisions and impact sales. Marketers are also increasingly involving customers in idea generation for new products, because such a tactic can enhance new product financial performance. As firms strive to achieve these marketing goals, this research offers insights into how firms can motivate these customer-helping behaviors using communications messages. Firms are advised to attribute their employees’ performance to effort, rather than talent, when they want to encourage customers to share firm information on social networks or to suggest new products or services. The proposed effect of performance attributions on relationship expectations may also influence other types of customer-helping behaviors, such as participating in firm activities and helping other customers.    

What factors shape consumers’ expectations about their relationship with a service employee is an important practical question because it can have significant consequences on consumer outcomes. While it is true that firms can develop communal relationships through other methods—for example, by generally treating customers well and satisfying them—these tactics require actual interactions with customers. Communication messages that do not involve interactions with customers also can move customers’ relationship expectations along the communal-exchange continuum, in turn influencing consumer behaviors. Service firms and marketing practitioners can utilize this knowledge about highlighting effort and/or talent when designing website communications, print advertisements, and social media strategies or when evaluating the effectiveness of their current communication strategies.

Full article and author contact information available at:  https://doi.org/10.1177/0022242920902722

About the Journal of Marketing 
The Journal of Marketing develops and disseminates knowledge about real-world marketing questions useful to scholars, educators, managers, policy makers, consumers, and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM has played a significant role in shaping the content and boundaries of the marketing discipline. Christine Moorman (T. Austin Finch, Sr. Professor of Business Administration at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University) serves as the current Editor in Chief. 
https://www.ama.org/jm

About the American Marketing Association (AMA) 
As the largest chapter-based marketing association in the world, the AMA is trusted by marketing and sales professionals to help them discover what’s coming next in the industry. The AMA has a community of local chapters in more than 70 cities and 350 college campuses throughout North America. The AMA is home to award-winning content, PCM® professional certification, premiere academic journals, and industry-leading training events and conferences.  
https://www.ama.org

Matt Weingarden is Director, Integrated Academic Content, a role which includes serving as publisher and managing editor of the AMA's four scholarly journals, as well as managing the AMA's numerous academic conferences and academic community initiatives.