IGS University of Twente
Research Research services PhD & Education Press & Public Information
Friday 16 June 2017, 12:30, Prof.dr. G. Berkhoff-zaal

PhD Defence Harald Pol

mastering meaningful customer connections - the influence of relational models on customer experience 

One of the most important discovery in the world of marketing and communications in recent decades, is the importance of the subjective experience that a consumer has with a brand, product, service or organization. What has become clear in recent years is that the connection a consumer has with a service provider (and vice versa), is not only a connection from the conscious mind. Also factors that consumers perceive unconsciously, can have a major impact on the feeling that a consumer has about a brand, a product or an organization. And what is also clear now is that reason and emotion are not always parallel.


At the strategic level within organizations there is an increasing awareness that the quality of the connection with customers is determined by the experience that a customer has with a particular service. An increasing number of studies have shown that judgments about customer satisfaction and processes after the purchase (such as complaints management and word-of - mouth advertising) are influenced by the emotional experiences of customers. Gaining insight into the customer experience is therefore an increasingly important issue in the development of organizational and marketing strategies. It is important to understand the unconscious and conscious processes that affect the thoughts and feelings of consumers, and the behavior that may result from these processes (Zaltman, 2003) .

Early 90s Fiske (1991) introduced his Relational Models Theory. This theory assumes that people primarily use four elementary models to establish and evaluate relationships. By now there are strong indications that the relational models used by a customer are an important factor in the customer experience (eg Aggarwal, 2004; Battacharya & Sen, 2003; McGraw & Tetlock, 2005; Kaltcheva & Parasuraman, 2009). While it is broadly accepted that these models are of fundamental importance, there is little research on the impact of these models on customer experience and customer behavior.

Within large service organizations there are currently two trends visible. These trends seem to be diametrically opposed. On the one hand organizations face increasing price pressure and thus a pressure to cut costs. One of the consequences of this trend is that organizations are increasingly encouraging customers to make more use of digital communication channels. At the same time, companies find it important to know their customers in order to respond adequately to their needs. To do this, organizations must have a certain degree of personal involvement to their customers and they must have regular personal contact. It is assumed that both trends – digitisation and personalisation – will have a strong impact on customer experience and (perhaps) on the relational models customers use.

If it is true that relational models - so the way in which people perceive and assess a relationship - play a role in the perception of the customer, it is also interesting to know if it is possible to influence these relational models. During the last fifty years much research has been done into the possibilities to influence customers by using subliminal priming techniques. In these techniques thoughts and feelings are unconsciously activated by showing people certain words or images (eg Bargh, Chen & Burrows, 1996; Dijksterhuis, 2005). In recent years a number of experiments were performed in which customers were unconsciously primed at some type of relationship (eg Aggarwal, 2004; McGraw & Tetlock, 2005; Tuk, Verlegh, Smidts & Wigboldus, 2009). These experiments showed that it is possible to activate a certain type of relationship. The experiments however the researchers used scenario’s based on an interpersonal relationship, and often to a fictitious relationship. The question is whether priming techniques also work for an already existing and more complex relationship between an organization and its customers.

From 2010-2013 we conducted research for six large service providers in banking, insurance, utilities and social welfare to discover what the customer experience of these organisations, what role relational models played in customer experience and whether it was possible to influence these relational models. The research project has provided answers to the following questions:

- Which relational models are used by customers and what is the influence of these models on customer experience?

- What is the influence of digitisation in customer communication on relational models and customer experience?

- What is the influence of personalisation in customer communication on relational models and customer experience? And finally,

- Is it possible to influence relational models (and customer experience) by using specific words and images that are associated with relational models (relational framing)?