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Test uses personality types to predict ability to serve customers

"Some people are very customer-oriented. Other people should be doing another job for the firm that doesn't have as much customer contact."

By Mark Berry



A waiter never notices your hand-waving pleas for a refill. A bank representative scowls at you, for some unfathomable reason. A mechanic sneers at your apparent lack of automotive knowledge.

No one wants to deal with these people. Companies don't want to hire them, either. A Kansas State University professor has produced three studies on the effect of personality on customer service. He is also developing a test that could eventually be used to pick out people who are naturally inclined to please the customer.

Psychologists have developed the "big five" personality traits: extroversion, agreeability, openness, stability and conscientiousness.

Todd Donavan, assistant professor of marketing, said those qualities combine with the work situation to determine a person's approach to customers.

"Some people are very customer-oriented. Other people should be doing another job for the firm that doesn't have as much customer contact," Donavan said. "Part of it is innate. However, you can train people to be more outgoing or agreeable or to read someone's needs and desires."

Donavan defines "customer orientation" by four traits -- reading the needs and desires of the customer; pampering the customer; developing a personal relationship with the customer; and delivering the service. People with these traits are naturals for customer service jobs.

Donavan is developing a 14-question test that asks potential employees how much they do things, like: identify the customers' needs, enjoy remembering customers' names, and take pleasure in making the customer feel important.

The potential employee would then be rated against other people based on the results of the test. The answers would be checked against the results of another test, called the social desirability scale, which acts as a sort of personality lie detector.

"If someone is trying to lie to you, the social desirability scale will tell you they are trying to answer the right way, instead of being honest," Donavan said.

He has completed three studies that analyze the role of personality in customer service, from the standpoint of the supervisor, customer and the person providing the service. One study was published in the Journal of Quality Management. Another was published in the Journal of Marketing Research and the third in the Journal of Marketing.

Donavan found a high employee turnover in customer-service jobs like those found in restaurants and banks. One restaurant he studied had an average employee tenure of 10 months.

"If you are customer-oriented, you are more satisfied, you enjoy the work and you are more committed," Donavan said. "If you are more committed to your job and you are satisfied, you are more likely to stay. If you stay longer, the company saves money because they don't have to retrain people and go out to solicit more employees."

Summer 2002