When people feel anxious, it’s human nature to turn to others for help. For example, an apprehensive taxpayer might want guidance from an IRS agent in interpreting a new tax law. A distressed patient might want to speak with a nurse when making sense of his blood test results. This type of behaviour is quite common. Yet many companies in high-anxiety settings – like financial services and healthcare – are funnelling nervous customers to self-service technologies (“SSTs”) – kiosks, websites, and smartphone apps – isolating them at the precise moment when they’re most keen for connection. It is clear that these technologies are a less expensive customer service option to offer than human support. But what’s less clear is the toll these self-service interactions may take on customers. Is it an effective way of helping customers deal with their concerns? Or is it exacerbating customer anxiety and doing long-term damage to customer service relationships?
In our research, we set out to understand these questions. Through two lab experiments and one field experiment conducted in financial services, we found that anxious customers interacting through self-service technology feel dissatisfied with their decisions even when those decisions appear aligned with their goals. Their dissatisfaction reduced their trust in the service provider. But our results also reveal how a simple, and surprisingly low-cost, change – offering access to a readily-available human – can reverse the negative effects of customer anxiety.
We set our research in the financial service industry because it is riddled with uncertainty and complex decision-making known to provoke anxiety and distress for its customers. In our first experiment, we simply wanted to understand how situational anxieties – those outside of the company’s control – can crossover to affect the way customers feel about their service providers.