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Problem-solving, not relational work, leads to higher customer satisfaction, MU study finds

Relational strategies like smiling and apologizing have a negative effect when used repeatedly over the course of an interaction

February 1st, 2018

Story Contact: Austin Fitzgerald, 573-882-6217,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Recent studies suggest that improving customer experiences is becoming a top priority for businesses, with some reports even predicting customer experience will soon displace price or product specifics as the key brand differentiator. Perhaps no industry is more aware of this trend than the airline industry, which has seen several recent public relations disasters stemming from customer interactions. Now, new research from the University of Missouri has found that prolonged use of behaviors such as smiling, apologizing and repeating positive phrases by customer service employees has negative impacts on customer interactions.

These findings seem to contradict current practices, which often prioritize such relational strategies. The research was drawn from real problem-solving interactions at airports and conducted by marketing professor Detelina Marinova and her colleagues. Their work suggests businesses should instead prioritize problem-solving, which was found to have a greater positive impact in the absence of prolonged relational strategies.

“Customers want the interaction to move on; apologies don’t move things forward,” said Marinova, the Francis Ridge Gay Professor of Marketing in the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business. “If you’re dependent on a service agent to solve an issue, getting that issue solved is your first concern. Hearing that you’re a ‘valued customer’ does not solve the problem.”

In the two-part study, Marinova and colleagues analyzed video footage of about 100 interactions between customer service agents and employees in airports, which they obtained from producers of the reality television series “Airline.” The researchers examined the words and phrases used by employees, measuring the resulting customer responses based on facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. After concluding that customer satisfaction was negatively impacted by continuous positive phrases and behavior, known as positive affect, a second study–which had participants choose between various scenarios involving different customer service techniques–supported the findings.

Using the linguistic data they collected, the researchers compiled a database containing effective words and phrases and their appropriate contexts. The data could be used to more effectively train employees on how to elicit customer satisfaction. According to Marinova, such training also could help businesses keep their employees.

“A lot of customer service employees are burnt out, and lots of research indicates continuous positive affect leads to that burnout,” Marinova said. “In general, that’s a big reason why these jobs have extremely high turnover. If employees are trained to focus on creative problem-solving, both the customer and the employee can benefit more from the interaction.”

The study, “Frontline Problem-Solving Effectiveness: A Dynamic Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Cues,” was published in Journal of Marketing Research and was recently featured in Harvard Business Review. Funding was provided by grants from the Trulaske College of Business and the Marketing Science Institute. In addition to Marinova, the research was conducted by Sunil Singh, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Nebraska, and Jagdip Singh, AT&T Professor of Marketing at Case Western Reserve University.