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What Happens When Companies Emphasize Employee Effort Versus Talent

What Happens When Companies Emphasize Employee Effort Versus Talent

Fine F. Leung, Sara Kim and Caleb H. Tse

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, our 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. We further propose customer-helping behaviors as downstream consequences of relationship expectations and find that effort (vs. talent) attribution is more likely to induce customers’ word-of-mouth and idea provision behaviors.

Our 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.


Our 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, we show that the effect of performance attributions on relationship expectations has consequences for customer-helping behaviors that offer managerial insights. Specifically, we gathered empirical evidence suggesting 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, our research findings offer insights into how firms can motivate these customer-helping behaviors using communications messages. Based on our findings, 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. We believe our proposed effect of performance attributions on relationship expectations can 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. We suggest that 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.

Read the full article.

From: Fine F. Leung, Sara Kim, and Caleb H. Tse, “Highlighting Effort Versus Talent in Service Employee Performance: Customer Attributions and Responses,” Journal of Marketing, 84 (May).

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Fine F. Leung is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Faculty of Business, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong.

Sara Kim is Associate Professor of Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

Caleb H. Tse is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.