When Can Service Benefit from Customer Participation? The Role of Participation Readiness

By Beibei Dong

As customers, we are increasingly participating in service production and delivery. We can be collaborating with service providers, for example by designing medical treatment plan with doctors. We are self-serving ourselves by using a grocery self-checkout or assembling IKEA furniture. With the proliferation of self-service technologies, customer participation has become an important tool for firms to improve productivity. In some extreme cases, self-service technologies may be the only available delivery option. As Time magazine suggested in a 2008 article, ending of customer service is one of the ten ideas that are changing the world. At the same time, customer responses toward participation seem less universally favorable than what firms had hoped for. Irritated customers often share tips online how to get connected to a human when forced to use firms’ automated phone systems or vent their frustration on social media. It is evident that before outsourcing services to customers, managers need to understand when customer participation is beneficial and when it is not.

In our recent research, “Effect of Customer Participation on Service Outcomes: the Moderating Role of Participation Readiness” (by Beibei Dong, K. Sivakumar, Kenneth Evans, and Shaoming Zou) forthcoming at Journal of Service Research, we examine how customer participation readiness influences the relationship between Customer Participation and service outcomes. We measure participation readiness along three dimensions:

  1. customer’s perceived ability (“whether I can do it”),
  2. perceived benefits of participation (“whether I get something in return for my participation”), and
  3. role identification (“whether I think it is my role to do it”).

Our findings from two experiments show that the effect of customer participation on service quality and satisfaction is stronger for high-readiness customers, those who scored high across the 3 dimensions, than for low-readiness customers. More specifically, for high-readiness customers, customer participation in general has a positive effect on service outcomes. In contrast, for low-readiness customers, the effect is insignificant and may even turn negative.

For example, when a customer believes she is more capable of setting up the Internet, perceives great benefits of doing it herself, and identifies with this self-serving role; setting up Internet will increase her satisfaction and perceived service quality. However for a customer who is not ready for such tasks, increasing his participation level may backfire and even decrease his satisfaction.

Further, we find the effects of customer participation for low-readiness customers may vary across different service contexts. For complex tasks such as Internet setup that cover a wider range of readiness gaps, increasing customer participation beyond a particular threshold could decrease customer satisfaction. For tasks that are less burdensome such as tour design, the effects for low readiness customers are less extreme. Customer satisfaction increases with participation at lower levels, but after customer participation crosses a threshold, satisfaction levels off. This suggests that even for customers with low readiness, customer participation is not completely undesirable. Customers can accept it or even perceive some of its benefits, but only to a certain level of participation. The bottom line is that customer participation is not uniformly beneficial or harmful. It is considerably influenced by participation readiness.

The diminished effect of customer participation at high participation levels may be manifested as a tapering-off effect for high-readiness customers and a negative effect for low-readiness customers.  Therefore, companies should be cautious when forcing customers to be in high-participation situations as the only service delivery option. Further, the negative effect of customer participation at high levels may not appear in all service contexts. It may depend on the complexity of the service and the distribution of customer readiness in a population. Firms may need to do more fine-grained segmentation analysis to determine the exact impact of customer participation in their respective service contexts. If increasing customer participation is the chosen strategy, firms should be more selective by targeting their service to customers with high readiness. If low-readiness customers must be part of the customer mix, firms should give more attention to increasing these customers’ readiness for customer participation.


Beibei Dong is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Lehigh University. She also holds the Thomas J. Campbell ’80 Professorship. She is currently serving on the editorial review board of Journal of Service Research. Her current research focuses on customer cocreation, service failure and recovery, and service quality. Her articles have been published in Journal of Marketing, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Service Research, and Journal of International Marketing among others. She has received several research grants, including Juran Doctoral Award from the Joseph M. Juran Center for Leadership in Quality at the University of Minnesota. She was an AMA Doctoral Consortium Fellow in 2008.

The article Effect of Customer Participation on Service Outcomes: The Moderating Role of Participation Readiness featured in the post was co-authored by Beibei Dong, K. Sivakumar (Lehigh University), Kenneth Evans (Lamar University), and Shaoming Zou (University of Missouri)It is available ahead of print at Journal of Service Research website. Journal of Service Research is the world’s leading service research journal that features articles by service experts from both academia and business world.

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