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A case study on service recovery: Frontline employees’ perspectives and the role of empowerment

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Abstract

The aim of this study was to improve our understanding of how frontline employees cope with service recovery situations and recover from them. It also takes a closer look at employee empowerment. This work represents a qualitative case study, and investigates the topic from the perspective of frontline employees. Data collection is implemented by interviewing the case hotel’s frontline personnel. A content analysis method was utilised to analyse the collected data. The findings suggest that the support of colleagues is more crucial in coping with service recovery situations and recovering from them than the support of managers. Personality traits also play a role. A theoretical scheme of the service recovery process from the perspective of frontline employees is developed from the analysis of the interviews. The findings indicate that written instructions would assist employees in service recovery situations.
© 2016 Satu Schumacher, Raija Komppula published by De Gruyter Open
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.
DOI 10.1515/ejthr-2016-0014
received 30 June, 2015; accepted 20 July, 2015
Abstract: The aim of this study was to improve our under-
standing of how frontline employees cope with service
recovery situations and recover from them. It also takes
a closer look at employee empowerment. This work rep-
resents a qualitative case study, and investigates the topic
from the perspective of frontline employees. Data collec-
tion is implemented by interviewing the case hotel’s front-
line personnel. A content analysis method was utilised
to analyse the collected data. The findings suggest that
the support of colleagues is more crucial in coping with
service recovery situations and recovering from them than
the support of managers. Personality traits also play a
role. A theoretical scheme of the service recovery process
from the perspective of frontline employees is developed
from the analysis of the interviews. The findings indi-
cate that written instructions would assist employees in
service recovery situations.
Keywords: Service failure, Service recovery, Employee
recovery, Empowerment, Frontline employee.
1 Introduction
Service recovery refers to all actions, which an organisa-
tion takes when it attempts to reconcile service failures
(Grönroos, 1988; Black & Kelley, 2009). The literature
has mainly taken a marketing view of recovery (Johnston
EJTHR 2016; 7(2):117-127
*Corresponding author: Raija Komppula, University of Eastern
Finland, Business School, P.O.Box 111, FI-80101 Joensuu, Tel. +358
50 4387 475, Email: raija.komppula@uef.fi
Satu Schumacher, University of Eastern Finland, Business School,
P.O.Box 111, FI-80101 Joensuu
Research Article Open Access
Satu Schumacher, Raija Komppula*
A case study on service recovery:
Frontline employees’ perspectives and the role of
empowerment
& Michel, 2008) and the impact on customer satisfac-
tion and future purchase intentions has been the major
concern (Black & Kelley, 2009). Many research have
shown that an adequate service recovery strategy can
result in various positive outcomes (Smith & Karwan,
2010; Wilson, Zeithaml, Bitner & Gremler, 2008), such as
improved perceived justice and increased value perceived
by customers (Chang & Hsiao, 2008), creation of positive
word-of-mouth communication (Swanson & Kelley, 2001),
increased post-failure levels of satisfaction and purchase
intentions (Maxham III, 2001), and increased customer
loyalty (Komunda & Osarenkhoe, 2012).
Michel, Bowen and Johnston (2009) define service
recovery as an integration of actions that the company
takes ‘to re-establish customer satisfaction and loyalty
after a service failure (customer recovery), to ensure
that failure incidents encourage learning and process
improvement (process recovery) and to train and reward
employees for this purpose (employee recovery)’ (p. 267).
Research on service recovery has mostly focused on the
perspective of customers, referring to the external level of
service recovery (Johnston & Michel, 2008). Prior research
has shown that complaining customers highly value apol-
ogies (Bradley & Sparks, 2009) and the authenticity, com-
petence and active listening skills of contact employees
(Gruber, 2011). The study of McQuilken (2010) suggests
that when employees show a high degree of effort in failure
situations, evaluations of trust among customers are rein-
forced. Prior research has also indicated the effects of a
company’s recovery response to other-customer failure.
Recent studies in the field of hospitality have
approached service recovery from several perspectives.
Lee, Singh and Chan (2011) and Pranic and Roehl (2012)
focused on the perspective of customer recovery. Lee et
al. (2011) emphasise the importance of explaining and
apologizing in the relationships with aggrieved custom-
ers. Pranic and Roehl (2012) state that the level of com-
plainant’s affective/cognitive responses and the level of
subsequent complaint satisfaction are determined by
how the complainant perceives empowerment during
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118Satu Schumacher, Raija Komppula
service recovery. From the perspective of process recov-
ery, the study of Lee et al. (2011) indicates that most of the
service failures occur during guest arrival and departure
and in the food and beverage services. According to their
results, the most commonly implemented means of recov-
ery were some form of compensation (e.g. discounts or
room upgrades), prompt explanations of the situation to
the customers and apologizing. The very few studies from
the perspective of employee recovery in the hotel field
have paid attention to how customer aggression affects
the employees (Karatepe, Yorganci & Haktanir, 2009) and
factors that decrease (Kim, Yoo, Lee & Kim, 2012; Karatepe
et al., 2009) or increase (Karatepe, 2012; Kim et al., 2012)
service recovery performance.
Johnston and Michel (2008) recognise the key role of
frontline employees in the service recovery process, as
they are usually the targets of customer complaints, but
sometimes the employee may not even be authorised to
solve the failure (Bowen and Johnston, 1999). Although
the perspective of employees on the service recovery
process is an important aspect, it has received surprisingly
limited attention in research into service recovery (Suh,
Barker, Pegg & Kandampully, 2005). Additionally, to the
best of our knowledge, except for the study of Bowen and
Johnston (1999), all the other studies on employee recov-
ery represent a quantitative research approach, lacking
the voice of the employees. In earlier studies, the data are
collected from employees of four and/or five star hotels
(Karatepe et al. 2009; Kim et al. 2012), which are often
large in size. Hence, in this study, a qualitative approach
is applied, aiming to achieve further insights into the per-
sonnel’s perceptions and feelings on service recovery.
Additionally, our case study represents the most common
type of business in the hospitality industry, namely a
small privately owned hotel in a lower price bracket.
Frontline employees play a crucial role during both
service delivery and service recovery (Boshoff & Allen,
2000). They are the link between the company and cus-
tomers, having an understanding of the constraints due
to the company budget and being the closest observers
of customers’ demands. Therefore, frontline employ-
ees provide the best insight into the execution of service
recovery processes in practice. Grönroos (2007) states
that it is important that frontline employees are empow-
ered, skilled and authorised to use the needed sources of
information, the compensation system and support from
supervisors if needed.
The objective of the study at hand is to increase our
understanding of the frontline employees’ perspective on
service recovery and the role of employee empowerment
from the viewpoint of the personnel. We present findings
of an exploratory case study, in which the personnel of the
hotel were interviewed to answer the main research ques-
tion: How do frontline personnel perceive service recov-
ery situations within the case hotel? The research process
involved three sub questions, the first of them aiming to
determine the current state of service recovery implemen-
tation at the hotel. Then, the level of management support
and empowerment was studied. Finally, the last sub ques-
tion was how frontline personnel cope with service recov-
ery situations.
2 Theory
2.1 Employee recovery
The findings of Johnston and Michel (2008) show that
service recovery procedures seem to have a greater impact
on employees and process improvement than on the cus-
tomers. Boshoff and Allen (2000) point out that service
recovery can actually be a win-win-win situation for cus-
tomers, frontline employees and the service company, as
an effective service recovery can turn aggrieved custom-
ers into satisfied ones, help the employees enjoy their job
more and allow the company to benefit from long-term
customer relationships and decreasing costs. According
to Michel, Bowen and Johnston (2009) implementing an
effective service recovery, especially requires investment
into long-term customer relationships, and employees’
continuing development to deal with various failures.
The internal level of service recovery, which includes
the perspective of an organisation and its employees, will
be the main interest of this study. As Johnston and Michel
(2008) did, we use the term employee recovery to define
the internal perspective of service recovery. According
to Bowen and Johnston (1999): ‘internal service recov-
ery refers to what the organisation does to make internal
customers, that is, front-line employees, feel ‘’whole’’
after external recovery episodes’ (p. 119). The authors
continue that internal service recovery focuses on recov-
ering employees from the negative feelings that failure
situations may cause and strengthening employees’ confi-
dence in the ability to satisfy customers in the future. Prior
research has found a positive correlation between the
employees’ and customer’s perceptions of how well they
recovered, the employees internally and the customers,
externally (Bowen & Johnston, 1999; Yoo, Shin & Yang,
2006). Cook (2002) indicates that the external customer
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A case study on service recovery: Frontline employees’ perspectives and the role of empowerment   119
is more likely to receive good service if the employee has
received good service internally within the organisation.
Effective service recovery performance has been
found to enhance job satisfaction of frontline employees
(Yavas, Karatepe, Avci & Tekinkus, 2003; Crawford and
Riscinto-Kozub, 2010), while poor service recovery actions
may frustrate the firm’s best employees (Wilson, Zeithaml,
Bitner, & Gremler, 2008). Lovelock and Wirtz (2011) state
that today’s most successful service companies have
understood the importance of investing in their staff and
have committed to the efficient management of human
resources (HR) in terms of recruitment, selection, train-
ing, motivation and retention of employees. However,
research concerning how the personnel – mainly frontline
employees – perceive service recovery actions have been
scarce. To the best of our knowledge, there are only a few
studies that have contributed to bridging this gap.
The findings of Bowen and Johnston (1999) indicate
that, when dealing with failures, employees often con-
front feelings of low perceived control and helplessness.
The authors suggest that the management should have
similar internal service recovery obligations to fulfill as
employees have in external service recoveries. Yoo et al.
(2006) found that the most appealing service recovery
strategies perceived by frontline employees include pay
rises, recognition from colleagues, a case-by-case reward
method and full empowerment. The authors claim that it
is probable that the recovery efforts stress employees less
if they sense more support. Yoo et al. (2006) also suggest
that service employees should be given both psycholog-
ical and tangible rewards for their accomplishments in
service recovery efforts.
Yavas, Karatepe and Babakus (2010) investigated the
relative efficacies of organisational support mechanisms
and personality traits in predicting frontline employ-
ees’ service recovery and job performances. Their find-
ings suggest that regarding service recovery performance
organisational support is more efficient when one dif-
ferentiates between high- and low-performing frontline
employees. Karatepe et al. (2009) found the emotional
dissonance and emotional exhaustion among hotel
employees to be significant outcomes of customer verbal
aggression. Recent studies have also found that emotional
exhaustion (Karatepe et al., 2009) and surface acting (Kim
et al., 2012), referring to faking the expected emotions,
decreased service recovery performance. To the con-
trary, frontline hotel employee emotional intelligence and
genuine attempts to experience positive emotions (Kim
et al. 2012), as well as perceived organisational support
(Karatepe, 2012), have been found to relate positively and
increase the service recovery performance. The findings of
the study of Karatepe (2012) also suggest that job embed-
dedness, referring to the factors that contribute to employ-
ees’ staying at a company, has a moderating role on the
relationship between perceived organisational support
and service recovery performance. Karatepe (2012) claims
that employees who are highly embedded would not
require coworker support to improve the levels of their
service recovery performance.
2.2 The role of empowerment in service
recovery
Empowerment plays an important role in service recovery
(Cook 2002), and it has been found to have a positive rela-
tionship with service recovery performance (Yavas et al.,
2003; Crawford & Riscinto-Kozub, 2010; Yavas et al. 2010).
Empowerment has been used for explaining organisa-
tional effectiveness, and is derived from the constructs of
power and control (Conger & Kanungo, 1988). Definitions
of empowerment refer to the actions of the employer in
ensuring the employees have the skills and knowledge
to be able to resolve complaints (Cook, 2002), as well as
being able to make decisions and find solutions in order
to customise the service delivery (Lovelock & Wirtz, 2011).
Bradley and Sparks (2000) view empowerment as ‘a
means of placing decision making lower in the organisa-
tion, thereby releasing resources that otherwise may have
been underutilized’ (p. 992).
Cook (2002) divides empowerment into three levels.
On the third level, which refers to the term full empow-
erment introduced by Yoo et al. (2006), the employees
can take overall control of the decisions concerning their
work and working patterns (Cook, 2002). It enables the
employee who hears the customer’s version of the mishap
to be in charge of deciding how to resolve it (Bradley &
Sparks, 2000). On the second level, employees are autho-
rised to make decisions concerning their work but they
are left out of the strategic decision-making process. Yoo
et al. (2006) in turn use the term partial empowerment,
meaning that employees have to be authorised by their
supervisor before solving the failure. Cook’s (2002) first
level of empowerment means that the manager has the
overall authority, even though employees are encouraged
to make their own decisions and participate in improve-
ment initiatives. Bradley and Sparks (2000) talk about a
level of non-empowerment, in which a supervisor handles
all the customer complaints.
Empowerment helps the employees to deal with
mishaps quickly and more efficiently (Boshoff & Allen,
2000; Yavas et al., 2010), and helps them better to manage
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120Satu Schumacher, Raija Komppula
aggrieved customers (Karatepe et al., 2009). Prior research
has shown that customers appreciate dealing with fully
empowered employees (Boshoff & Leong, 1998; Bradley
& Sparks, 2000) and highly value when employees break
the rules to respond faster to a specific service need (Suh
et al., 2005). Suh et al. (2005) indicate that the company’s
empowerment and recovery strategies ‘encourage service
employees to adopt initiatives to go beyond their call of
duty, and to recover from service mishaps, while gaining
important failure-related information to prevent future
mishaps’ (p. 49). As the authors note, it is possible to com-
mence service recovery before, during or after the service
failure happens (Suh et al., 2005).
Full empowerment has also been found to increase
employees’ pride and motivation at work, give people
feelings of self-worth (Firnstahl, 1989), and employees
can perceive empowerment as a sign of trust from the
management (Karatepe et al., 2009). Pelit, Öztürk and
Arslantürk (2011) suggest that employee empowerment
can be used indirectly to decrease employee turnover,
while Yagil (2009) indicates that there is a negative rela-
tionship between empowerment and burnout.
In order to gain the benefits of employee empower-
ment, the company should involve empowerment in its
entire culture and strategy (Boshoff & Allen, 2000; Cook,
2002). Suh et al. (2005) argue that empowerment issues
in companies are too often handled on a day-to-day oper-
ational level rather than on a strategic decision-making
level. The empowerment of staff may lead to a signifi-
cant incline in costs (Bradley & Sparks, 2000), because,
according to Ro and Chen (2011), adequate organisational
supporting systems, including service training, service
rewards, and service standards communication, are
needed for increasing employee empowerment. On the
other hand, the initial investment in training may pay for
itself many times over, if the problems can be solved with
less effort and the quality of customer response can be
improved (Cook, 2002).
Ro and Chen (2011) suggest that the employees’ cus-
tomer orientation characteristics should be considered
to implement an efficient empowerment program. Their
results suggest the more employees described themselves
as customer oriented, the more confident they felt about
their job performance and the more meaningful they
regarded their job to be. Yagil (2002), in turn, states that a
service employee having a sense of control over the situa-
tion is inclined to act independently and needs less advice
from the supervisor compared to an employee with a low
sense of control. The author indicates that the employ-
ee’s sense of control and the supervisor’s empowering
behaviour are likely to be related to each other as a result
of a recurrent enhancement process.
The critical point in evaluating a company’s level
of empowerment is to pay attention to the manage-
rial response to how employees utilise their empower-
ment. The management’s reaction to a mistake made by
an employee reveals how committed to empowering the
company really is (Boshoff & Allen, 2000). It is important
that each frontline employee is aware of the degree he/she
can deal with failures. It reduces confusion and increases
employees’ confidence in solving failures in the best
manner (Yavas et al., 2003; Yavas et al., 2010). Hence, it
is essential that managers discuss with the employees the
content and goals of the empowerment actions (Pelit et al.,
2011). Karatepe et al. (2009) highlight that the demands of
the job should be in line with employees’ abilities.
It is notable that not all employees desire to be empow-
ered, some prefer to have some directions (Cook, 2002;
Lovelock & Wirtz, 2011). The findings of a recent study indi-
cate that employees usually desire some empowerment in
the form of control, authority and decision making, but
the level and form of the preferred empowerment varies
between individuals (Greasley, Bryman, Dainty, Price,
Naismith & Soetanto, 2008). This study aims to find out
how the frontline employees at the case hotel perceive
their empowerment in service recovery situations and
whether they desire to be empowered or not.
As the literature review shows, the service recovery
concept is a broad process and it can be examined from a
variety of perspectives. Service failures occur when some
aspect in the service delivery does not meet the customers’
expectations (Lovelock & Wirtz 2011). Frontline employ-
ees may either spot the service failures themselves or be
informed about them by customers. Frontline employees
and managers attempt to resolve service errors once they
are aware of them. Frontline employees are mainly able to
influence the process related failures while the manage-
ment is responsible for failures that require more finan-
cial contributions, the renovation of rooms, for example.
When service failures occur, customers show their dis-
satisfaction to frontline employees. Frontline employees
then have to recover the service in order to ensure the
customers are satisfied. The level to which the manage-
ment empowers employees, determines to what extent the
employees can resolve service failures. Managers deter-
mine the company policies, which determine the bound-
aries within which the employees can work.
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A case study on service recovery: Frontline employees’ perspectives and the role of empowerment   121
3 Data and method
An intrinsic, intensive case study strategy was chosen, as
it enables us to reach an in-depth understanding of the
phenomenon instead of a generalisation (Thomas, 2011).
The case is a small, privately owned, full service hotel in a
lower price bracket, located in the city centre of Helsinki,
Finland, catering for both business travellers and tourists.
The empirical data consist of semi-structured interviews,
which were conducted among seven frontline employ-
ees working at the reception of the hotel. In addition, the
frontline manager who acts as the nearest supervisor to
the frontline employees, as well as the hotel manager,
were interviewed to gain an insight into company policies
concerning the service recovery and how the management
supports and empowers the frontline employees to resolve
service failures. The interviews took around an hour each.
The group of interviewees includes six women and three
men. The number of working years among the interview-
ees ranges from 1 year up to 20 years. Two of the inter-
viewees were working part-time and seven full-time. The
interviews were recorded and transcribed.
The analysis of data responding to the sub-ques-
tions one, ‘How is service recovery currently imple-
mented?’, and two, ‘How does the management support
and empower the frontline in service recovery?’, is the-
ory-guided (Eriksson and Kovalainen, 2008). The data
were analysed by content analysis, by repeatedly reading
and organising the data and classifying or thematising it
(Eriksson & Kovalainen 2008). At this stage of the anal-
ysis, the factual matters were separated from the parts
that included the perceptions of the frontline employees.
Then, the process of thematic analysis followed, includ-
ing organisation and categorisation of codes into thematic
groupings (Roulston, 2010), after which interpretations
and thematic representations were developed. This part
of the study utilises abductive inference, which refers to
making judgment concerning the best explanation for
the facts one is collecting (Thomas 2011) both by con-
sidering the data and former knowledge of the subject
(Reichertz2004).
In order to deepen the understanding of the frontline
employees’ perceptions of service recovery processes, a
data-driven analysis for the third sub-question, ‘How do
the frontline personnel cope with service recovery situ-
ations?’, followed. The main interest is therefore to find
interesting codes, referring to the content-related matters
that exist in the data (Eriksson & Kovalainen, 2008).
Coding helps discard repetitious and unnecessary infor-
mation and increases the clarity of the text (Ohnesorge,
2004). The data-driven approach enables the researcher
to find important factors in frontline employees’ percep-
tions without presuming the factors from theory. In the
presentation of our findings, HM stands for hotel manager
and FM for frontline manager, while F1 to F7 refer to the
frontline employees.
4 Findings
4.1 Current implementation of service
recovery and empowerment at the case hotel
The case hotel relies mainly on customer feedback con-
cerning service failures. It is not a normal procedure that
frontline employees would ask the customers how their
stay has been at the hotel. Instead, the customers are
asked to fill in the feedback form if they provide oral feed-
back. The frontline manager states: ‘In particular if (the
feedback) is negative, we usually ask (the customers) to
fill in the feedback form because it is valued differently
when it is written by a customer than if it is forwarded by
us’, (FM).
According to the frontline manager, the frontline
employees usually resolve the service failures themselves.
Only when it comes to significantly large failures or when
large amounts of compensation are required, the hotel
manager will be included in the resolution. Sometimes
customers may, for instance, consider service failures so
serious that they want to cancel all of their future reser-
vations at the hotel. According to the hotel manager, in
these kinds of rarely occurring situations he contacts the
customer promptly. The frontline manager indicates that
sometimes customers also want to talk specifically to the
hotel manager. ‘It is a fact that for many people the point
that a hotel manager will be in touch contributes to resolv-
ing the matter because it may reflect to (the customers)
that they have been taken seriously’, (F7).
Monetary compensation is considered to be the
easiest and most satisfactory method among customers
at the case hotel (FM). There is no certain amount deter-
mined that would be adequate in compensation of the
room rates. Other compensation methods used include
gift vouchers, free use of sauna, free of charge amenities
in the room or non-alcoholic beverages or food. The inter-
viewees indicated that they usually attempt to find the
least expensive compensation method and aim at giving
compensation for something else rather than the room
rate. When service failures concern the quality of the hotel
rooms, the interviewees indicated consistently that the
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122Satu Schumacher, Raija Komppula
easiest thing to do is to change the room for a better one,
if possible. The interviewees all agreed that apologising
is important in service recovery situations, even though
frontline employees may not be responsible for the service
failure.
The frontline manager found it important to remain
humble and calm when dealing with aggrieved customers.
Another interviewee thought that one of the most import-
ant goals in service recovery situations is to make the cus-
tomers feel that they are acknowledged and cared about.
Tranquility and kindness were also found to be effective
when resolving service failures with annoyed customers:
A friendly attitude and not going along with the custom-
ers’ anger’, (F2).
4.2 Management support and empowerment
The failures that occur at the hotel are resolved by using
common sense and according to the hotel manager this
has been applied successfully. ‘We don’t have any kind
of guidebook on how to act in different situations and all
goes according to feeling’, (FM). It was considered chal-
lenging among the interviewees to have instructions on
how to resolve service failures: ‘It would be very difficult
to collect a manual because there are so many things that
customers may comment about’, (HM).
The new employees learn from the more experienced
employees how to resolve situations. ‘Not all situations
occur (during orientation) and when they occur later they
may be handled inconsistently’, (F5). The comment refers
to the point that each frontline employee may have their
own method of dealing with problem situations: ‘There
are (frontline employees) who have been in the house for
20 years and they handle things in their ways. Then some
(frontline employees) have been (at the hotel) for two
years or less so the scale is quite wide’, (F7).
The interviewees agreed that it is important to resolve
the failures as quickly as possible. Usually, the frontline
employees try to solve the matters first by themselves. As
an interviewee indicates: ‘We have been given quite a free
hand for authority and compensation related issues, of
course within some limits’, (F5). The hotel manager also
indicated that he is confident of the frontline employees’
ability to resolve service failures. ‘No one who is working
on our reception has to call someone to ask for permis-
sion whether he/she can give some discount’, (FM). One
interviewee (F5) considers this as a sign of trust: ‘They
trust us and we can make the decisions ourselves’, (F5).
Even though the frontline employees can make the deci-
sions themselves, they appear to easily ask colleagues for
their opinions. An interviewee pointed out that she feels
slightly more insecure making decisions by herself when
another colleague is standing next to her: ‘I know I could
make the decisions myself if I was alone in the shift, but
I feel that (the colleague) knows better anyway and has
been working longer and more’ (F2).
Even though there is no set amount that would be
officially determined as an adequate amount of compen-
sation, the interviewees consistently suggested that the
frontline employees are reluctant to provide discounts
higher than 10–20% of the room rates. Nevertheless, there
are some tools for compensation, which the frontline
employees are not authorised to utilise. ‘We don’t write
gift vouchers (at the reception) but I don’t know if I would
even like to do it’, (F5). According to the hotel manager,
the frontline personnel’s authority also excludes provid-
ing alcoholic beverages to customers. Sometimes frontline
employees feel that they would like to use certain com-
pensation methods but think that it would contradict the
company’s common practices. ‘I always think (in service
recovery situations) right away what I should do according
to the hotel’s practice instead of what I would do myself.
And they do sometimes contradict each other’’, (F2).
Failure situations are normally discussed among
the frontline employees, but no general meetings about
service recovery situations organised by managers are
held. Each shift advises the new shift of all important and
unusual matters. However, the frontline manager states:
‘If an employee feels that he/she would need some advice
for the future, or would like to open up, so then of course
we can go through things (service recovery situations)’,
(FM). The hotel manager agrees and stated that some-
times the frontline employees may feel the need to discuss
some difficult cases for a long time. Some of the interview-
ees thought that organizing meetings to discuss service
failure situations might exaggerate the situation, others
would find meetings beneficial because they ‘would
provide hints on how to work because people may have
totally different views on things’, (F6).
4.3 Frontline employees’ perceptions of
service recovery situations
4.3.1 Recovering from aggrieved customers
In general, the interviewees consistently appreciate cus-
tomer feedback. According to the interviewees, most of the
customers calmly inform what is wrong and are willing to
solve the problem with the help of frontline employees.
In these cases, resolving the failures can be considered a
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A case study on service recovery: Frontline employees’ perspectives and the role of empowerment   123
pleasant part of the job. Frontline employees found it par-
ticularly annoying, however when some customers come
to the reception to shout loudly and do not pay any atten-
tion to the fact that there are other customers present as
well. The hotel manager was aware of the harm that the
service recovery situations may cause to frontline employ-
ees: ‘In the worst case it ruins employees’ working shifts
for the following couple of days because the customer is
still at the hotel at least on the following day and every
time you see her/him, it reminds you of it’. On the other
hand, one of the interviewees states: ‘Then of course, if
it (dealing with an annoyed customer) happens in the
morning, I try even harder to show the customer that they
are not going to walk all over me’, (F7).
The interviewees indicate that it is essential to be
empathetic towards customers while resolving service
failures. Many interviewees also understand that custom-
ers’ negative behaviours can just come to a head at the
reception after many other inconvenient coincidences:
‘Customers may have had an exhausting flight, they may suffer
from jetlag, their luggage may have been lost or everything else
may have gone wrong before arriving at the hotel and then they
get angry even about a smaller thing’. (F4)
Nevertheless, the employee’s own mood may have an
influence on how they perceive the situation and if they
can display any empathy towards aggrieved customers: ‘If
you feel fine, it doesn’t usually bother me and I don’t take
the situations so personally. But if you happen to have a
bad day, then it might bother you more’ (F2).
The personal characteristics of frontline employees
also influence how easily they are able to forget about
dealing with angry customers. For some frontline employ-
ees angry customers may stay in mind for several days,
while another interviewee said that he may think about
angry customers, ‘until the working shift is over but I don’t
think about them at home anymore. Nowadays I can leave
them at the workplace’. (F6). One interviewee found it
important to resolve the situations to oneself rationally as
he states: ‘You just have to think that could you have done
something differently so that the customer would have
been more satisfied and usually, anyway, you have tried
to think of the best solution’, (F6). Dealing with angry cus-
tomers may become easier over the working years and one
learns to not take it so seriously.
The type of failure also affected how dealing with
aggrieved customers was perceived. Occasionally, front-
line employees found it frustrating when customers com-
plain about the same things which cannot be fixed: ‘Some
failures are such serious structural problems that you
can’t fix them and it’s the most unfortunate thing of all
when customers complain about the same room, or same
thing’, (F1). On the other hand, some frontline employ-
ees indicated that they can get used to the often-repeti-
tive complaints. If frontline employees have caused the
failure themselves, they could perceive handling angry
customers more personally and therefore, the whole sit-
uation may feel more unpleasant and difficult to over-
come: ‘If you have done something wrong yourself, what
remains bothering me is …that I could have done some-
thing better’, (F4). Or as another frontline employee indi-
cated: ‘I don’t think anything else would stay in my mind
except for if a customer would personally insult me. I try
not to take it personally when a customer complains about
rooms, for example’, (F5).
Going through the difficult situations with colleagues
appeared to be very important for many interviewees for
overcoming these situations:
Angry customers don’t usually stay in mind so long because
we go over the situations quite well with the colleague you are
working with. We talk about the situation and may agree that
the customer really wasn’t right and think whether I was wrong
or what actually happened’. (F3)
4.3.2 Level of empowerment
It was not clear to the employees to what extent they are
authorised to resolve service failures. Many of the front-
line employees considered it a good idea to have some
written instructions on how to resolve service failures: ‘It
would sort of bring clarity if we would have instructions’,
(F2). One interviewee acknowledged that personal char-
acteristics may influence the need for having instructions:
‘Some people need more instructions than others. And I
rather prefer to have some guidelines where it says how
to work’. (F6).
The responses revealed that frontline employees con-
sistently would like to have some kinds of instructions
on to what extent it is adequate to resolve and compen-
sate service failures. One frontline employee indicated
that instructions may provide proof that it is fine to give
compensation: ‘If we had written instructions we would
have in black and white that we can compensate 20%, for
example’, (F7). Another interviewee (F6) specified that
if, for instance, things have gone wrong, it is noisy in the
room etc., there would be suggestive instructions on to
what extent compensation can be given. One interviewee
mentioned that customers may not be handled equally
when there are no clear instructions:
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124Satu Schumacher, Raija Komppula
‘Sometimes I feel that a colleague may have already promised
a better room (to a customer) while I think that the customer
wouldn’t be entitled to it. For these situations instructions
may be good so that you wouldn’t have to feel insecure about
whether everyone is working the same way’ (F3).
The responses also indicated that, for instance, the
amounts that frontline employees choose to compen-
sate the customers do not necessarily follow a consistent
line. Some interviewees found it problematic to create
instructions, as the situations are always unique: ‘Then of
course, what is the case, and what if the case is this plus
this?’ (F7).
Many interviewees stated that they are satisfied with
the authority they currently have. The responses indi-
cate that frontline employees are truly willing to forward
challenging cases to managers and would not even like to
be empowered to resolve them: ‘Now it feels like a good
middle way. I can (resolve) small kinds of matters. The
bigger cases really occur so rarely’, (F7). Another inter-
viewee connected authority to the position of the manager
and indicated: ‘I don’t need authority. I don’t need a
supervisor status. It is not my thing’, (F1). According to
one interviewee, the most difficult decision was whether
to give compensation or not:
‘Basically the boundary whether only an apology would be
enough or whether I should give compensation directly is huge.
But when I have made the decision, then you can sense quite
quickly from the customer whether the compensation is suffi-
cient or not’. (F7)
According to the frontline manager, after the situations
have been handled they are not further discussed: ‘I can’t
go and say that you should have given 10 euros less (dis-
count) or so…if the resolution goes well, it’s fine so’. (FM).
The frontline employees also consistently stated that they
have never received feedback from the managers about
the situations when they have given customers some com-
pensation: ‘I have never heard that anyone would have
got some critique about how someone has been compen-
sated’, (F4).
4.3.3 Support in service recovery situations
According to the interviewees, the working environment
at the case hotel is good. The frontline employees felt that
helping each other and the support of their colleagues
while resolving service recovery situations and dealing
with an angry customer was very important. The support
of a colleague can also be seen as increasing self-confi-
dence, especially in cases when there is a question as to
whether someone deserves compensation or not: ‘When
you have the support of a colleague, even though you both
have equally much authority, so when you make the deci-
sions together, you get self-confidence out of it’ (F7). One
interviewee points out that ‘if you are working with a more
experienced employee, you get quite good support, but
from the less experienced employees you will not neces-
sarily get support’ (F5). This is in line with the fact that the
employees learn their work by standing beside the more
experienced employees.
An interesting point was that a part-time employee
felt that making decisions is easier when working alone
in a shift because nobody checks whether you act accord-
ing to the hotel’s practices or not. This reflects that even
though colleagues support each other, the presence of col-
leagues can also be viewed as if someone is controlling
and assessing what the other is doing. One interviewee
indicated that personal characteristics may have an
impact on how one perceives working alone: ‘It is up to
the person how much you trust yourself’ (F5). The front-
line employees commonly felt that it is easy to get support
from the management when needed. The interviewees
commented that if they are wondering whether they have
been acting correctly in some service recovery situations,
they may ask the colleagues or managers for their opinion.
According to the frontline manager, positive feedback
from customers is forwarded to frontline employees. On
the contrary, the responses of the interviewees reflected
that it may not be that easy to give feedback to the col-
leagues, especially if it would concern something that
should be improved. A frontline employee, for instance,
felt that she could not teach more experienced employees
what to do. Another frontline employee also stated that
giving feedback to colleagues is difficult and wonders ‘how
to present the matter so that it isn’t taken in a negative way
and is understood that it should be seen as an opportunity
and not as criticism’ (F6). One interviewee mentioned that
it is especially difficult to comment on a colleague’s ways
of carrying out customer service: ‘You can give feedback if
it concerns a matter, but it’s quite difficult to step in to a
colleague’s way of serving customers’(F5).
The hotel manager also indicated that he tries to avoid
giving employees negative feedback concerning the ways
in which a frontline employee has handled service recov-
ery situations: ‘If I start talking about it, the employee will
be upset and he/she has already made a significant contri-
bution when he/she has resolved the situation and calmed
down the customer, so I just swallow it at that point’ (HM).
On the other hand, one interviewee stated that it would
be nice to get some feedback sometimes: ‘I have never
received either positive or negative feedback. Getting
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A case study on service recovery: Frontline employees’ perspectives and the role of empowerment   125
feedback would of course be something that would moti-
vate me’ (F6). According to another interviewee: ‘I guess
the work has been done well as no negative feedback has
come up’ (F7). The previous comments suggest that there
may be some difficulties in exchanging constructive feed-
back between colleagues.
5 Conclusions and managerial
implications
According to these findings, the lack of instructions makes
frontline employees insecure in their decision making
and leads to inconsistencies in the resolution of service
failures. On the other hand, particularly the experienced
frontline employees perceived the absence of clear instruc-
tions as a sign of trust and empowerment. Additionally,
these findings indicate that not only the work experience
but also personality traits seem to have an impact on the
perceived need for clear instructions, which is in line
with Cook (2002) and Lovelock and Wirtz (2011). Because
employees may have different expectations and needs,
written instructions would assist and support them in
utilizing empowerment, and with no doubt also improve
the consistency of the service recovery processes, which
is in line with earlier research (Bowen & Johnston 1999;
Huang,2010).
The findings of this study indicate that the support
of colleagues may be even more crucial in coping with
service recovery situations and recovering from them than
the support of managers, which has been emphasised in
earlier studies. These findings imply that seamless team-
work and a good relationship between colleagues are
crucial factors in a successful employee recovery. Earlier
research suggests that dealing with verbally aggressive
customers causes employees, both emotional dissonance
and emotional exhaustion (Karatepe et al. 2009), which
are also visible in this study. Nevertheless, our findings
indicate that the frontline employees regard both the
aggrieved customers and service recovery situations as a
normal part of their work. They discuss the difficult sit-
uations with their colleagues right after they occur, and
recover from them relatively fast.
One important finding of this study indicates that per-
sonality traits have an influence on how easily employ-
ees can cope with service recovery situations and recover
from them, which is in line with the findings of Yavas et
al. (2010) and Karatepe (2014). A recent study of Karatepe
(2014) highlights the concept of hope as an emerging
construct in positive organisational behaviour, referring
to goal-oriented determination and planning to meet the
goals, including both willpower and waypower thinking.
Based on his findings, Karatepe (2014) states that ‘hopeful
frontline employees pursue strategies to reach their goals
by feeling energetic and enthusiastic and being happily
immersed in their work’ (p. 691). Hence, personality traits
determine how the frontline employee perceives han-
dling aggrieved customers, how much support is needed
in service recovery situations, and finally, how well and
fast employee recuperation occurs from the service recov-
ery situations. It is essential that managers discuss with
each one of the employees how they wish to use empow-
erment, and how many instructions they would prefer to
have. These topics could be included in the performance
appraisal interviews.
Overall, we agree with Johnston and Michel (2008)
who state that customer recovery, process recovery, and
employee recovery should be considered as an integrated
process. Even though it is important to understand the
essential factors of each dimension, if a company chooses
to focus only on one dimension, the potential benefits of a
successful service recovery process will only be achieved
partially.
This study examined frontline employees’ percep-
tions at only one hotel and in one geographical area.
Hence, the findings cannot be considered to directly fit
the frontline employees’ perceptions in other case envi-
ronments. However, for hotels of a similar type, the find-
ings provided can be expected to be transferable.
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Dr Raija Komppula is a Professor of Marketing, espe-
cially Tourism Business, at the University of Eastern
Finland, Business School. Her research interests include
research on tourist experience, customer involvement in
new service development in tourism, destination brand-
ing, market orientation, small business research and
entrepreneurship, cooperation and networks. Her publi-
cations include articles in Tourism Management, Journal
of Travel and Tourism Marketing, Tourism Review, Journal
of Vacation Marketing, Journal of Hospitality and Tourism
Management, Journal of Strategic Marketing.
Satu Schumacher completed her Master of Science
(Econ.) studies at the University of Eastern Finland
Business School and now works in the industry.
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... Owing to its unique nature of service, intangibility, inseparability, and heterogeneity (Parasuraman, 1987), what happens in service encounters cannot be predicted (Hewagama, Boxall, Cheung, & Hutchison, 2019). Empowerment helps hospitality employees to satisfy heterogeneous customers' needs by allowing them to go beyond their call of duty based on their personal judgement on the spot (Schumacher & Komppula, 2016). Indeed, empowerment given to hospitality employees is related to positive service outcomes such as smooth service delivery (Kim, Losekoot, & Milne, 2013), improved service quality (Namasivayam, Guchait, & Lei, 2014;Ocampo et al., 2018), service recovery (Zhang & Geng, 2019), and service innovations (Yeh & Huan, 2017). ...
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Creating and marketing value in today’s increasingly service and knowledge-intensive economy requires an understanding of the powerful design and packaging of ‘intangible’ benefits and products, high-quality service operations and customer information management processes, motivated and competent front-line employees, a loyal and profitable customer base, and the development and implementation of a coherent service strategy to transform these assets into improved business performance.
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Despite increasing attention on the topic of empowerment, our under-standing of the construct and its underlying processes remains limited. This article addresses these shortcomings by providing an analytical treatment of the construct and by integrating the diverse approaches to empowerment found in both the management and psychology literatures. In addition, the authors identify certain antecedent conditions of powerlessness and practices that have been hypothesized to empower subordinates.
Article
Purpose – The keys to effective service recovery are familiar to many throughout industry and academia. Nevertheless, overall customer satisfaction after a failure has not improved, and many managers claim their organizations cannot respond to and fix recurring problems quickly enough. Why does service recovery so often fail and what can managers do about it? This paper aims to address these issues. Design/methodology/approach – The objective is to produce an interdisciplinary summary of the growing literature on service recovery, bringing together what each of the author's domain – management, marketing, and human resources management – has to offer. By contrasting those three perspectives using 141 academic sources, nine tensions between customer, process, and employee recovery are discovered. Findings – It is argued that service recovery often fails due to the unresolved tensions found between the conflicting perspectives of customer recovery, process recovery, and employee recovery. Therefore, successful service recovery requires the integration of these different perspectives. This is summarized in the following definition: “Service recovery are the integrative actions a company takes to re‐establish customer satisfaction and loyalty after a service failure (customer recovery), to ensure that failure incidents encourage learning and process improvement (process recovery) and to train and reward employees for this purpose (employee recovery).” Practical implications – Managers are not advised to directly address and solve the nine tensions between customer recovery, process recovery, and employee recovery. Instead, concentrating on the underlying cause of these tensions is recommended. That is, managers should strive to integrate service recovery efforts based upon a “service logic”; a balance of functional subcultures; strategy‐driven resolution of functional differences; data‐based decision making from the seamless collection and sharing of information; recovery metrics and rewards; and development of “T‐shaped” employees with a service, not just functional, mindset. Originality/value – This paper provides an interdisciplinary view of the difficulties to implement a successful service recovery management. The contribution is twofold. First, specific tensions between customer, process and employee recovery are identified. Second, managers are offered recommendations of how to integrate the diverging perspectives.
Article
The purpose of this study is to develop and test a research model that examines job embeddedness as a moderator of the effects of coworker and perceived organizational support on turnover intentions and service recovery performance. The model also tests the impacts of coworker and perceived organizational support on the aforementioned job outcomes. Data were gathered from a sample of full-time frontline hotel employees with a 1-month time lag and their immediate supervisors in Cameroon. The results of hierarchical multiple regression analysis reveal that job embeddedness moderates the relationship between coworker support and turnover intentions. The results also show that job embeddedness acts as a moderator of the effects of perceived organizational support on turnover intentions and service recovery performance. Consistent with the study predictions, coworker support alleviates turnover intentions, whereas perceived organizational support increases service recovery performance. Implications of the empirical findings are discussed and future research directions are offered. © 2012 International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education.
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This article proposes and tests a research model that investigates whether work engagement mediates the effect of hope on job performance, service recovery performance, and extra-role customer service. These relationships were tested using data gathered from full-time frontline hotel employees and their managers in Romania. The results from structural equation modeling suggest that the impact of hope on job performance, service recovery performance, and extra-role customer service is fully mediated by work engagement. Based on the results reported in this study, several useful implications concerning acquisition and retention of frontline employees who can display quality performance in the workplace are provided.