Avoiding the Pitfalls of Customer Participation

When front-line employees feel torn between representing the customer and what they believe is reasonable, they need to know the company has their back.

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Companies pay a lot of attention to customer participation — getting customers to play an ongoing role in the business by providing suggestions and ideas on its products and services. Whether this feedback takes place through surveys, comment cards, online forms, or other means, studies have pointed to the advantages of encouraging such dialogue.1 It can create a bond that enhances customer loyalty and even a willingness to pay higher prices.2

However, it also has downsides that many senior executives are not aware of. Indeed, our research, which included interviews and roundtable discussions with 87 executives and 276 employees in a range of service industries, found that enthusiasm for customer participation wanes the closer one gets to the company’s front lines.3 When customers are encouraged to speak up, front-line employees can feel threatened. Even though they are committed to advancing the objectives of the business, front-line employees sometimes see themselves as caught in the middle, torn between representing the views of customers, regardless of how reasonable those views may be, and what they think is reasonable.

For example, customers sometimes expect front-line employees to convey information to management that goes against their interests. This might include complaints about them or their colleagues or suggestions that could add to their workload. When the requests have bearing on the workers’ careers and job security, resentment can ensue. Companies that place too much emphasis on customer participation may be setting up a dynamic in which front-line employees are expected to tolerate poor customer behavior, such as verbal abuse, for their own survival. This can have negative emotional and behavioral consequences, leading to feelings of betrayal and frustration by employees who feel the company values customer-generated information more than their well-being. The perceived imbalance can have insidious effects on internal morale.

For organizations, the stakes are high: While customer participation can be beneficial, if managers don’t get it right, front-line employees could decide to passively undermine it — or even actively sabotage it. To protect themselves against these potential negatives of customer participation, businesses must keep employees engaged and confident that management has their back. In light of our findings, we suggest five guidelines for managers.

1. Don’t overemphasize customer feedback in performance evaluations.



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1. See, for example, L.A. Bettencourt, “Customer Voluntary Performance: Customers as Partners in Service Delivery,” Journal of Retailing 73, no. 3 (1997): 383-406; and B. Schneider and D.E. Bowen, Winning the Service Game (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1995).

2. A.B. Eisingerich, S. Auh, and O. Merlo, “Acta Non Verba? The Role of Customer Participation and Word of Mouth in the Relationship Between Service Firms’ Customer Satisfaction and Sales Performance,” Journal of Service Research 17, no. 1 (2013): 40-53.

3. Our research spanned seven types of service organizations (e-commerce, airlines, financial services, legal services, hospitality, retail, and information technology) across four continents (North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia). Interviews were analyzed using NVivo data analysis software. We also incorporated ethnographic insights from the airline industry at the front-line and senior executive levels, based on years of professional experience in the industry. The research team included a longtime flight attendant for a global Asian airline and a recently retired senior executive at a major U.S. airline.

4. E.L. Deci, R. Koestner, and R.M. Ryan, “A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 125, no. 6 (November 1999): 627-668.

5. Research shows that front-line employees whose compensation is linked to customer participation initiatives experience higher levels of job-related stress and dissatisfaction and are more likely to leave the company within the next six months. See B. Benjamin, P. Gochyyev, E. Sopadjieva, et al., “Learning Before Earning: How to Incentivize Frontline Employees to Deliver Great Customer Experiences,” white paper, Medallia Institute, New York, 2016, https://go.medallia.com.

6. K. Blanchard and C. Barrett, Lead With LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2011).

7. A. Song, “Call Center Workers’ Right to Hang Up on Unruly Customers,” Nov. 17, 2017, http://koreabizwire.com.

8. The campaign included videos that were made available in the public domain, such as “I Am Your Energy,” YouTube video, 2:50, GS Caltex, Aug. 23, 2017, https://youtu.be/mr7p_cmH2H8.

9. Email exchanges with Gregg Saretsky on June 28, 2018, and July 10, 2019.

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