As strategies move from targeting the “mass market” to “molecular market,” more companies are focusing on providing individualized solutions for their customers. This customization trend crosses many lines of business, but for services, execution can be more complex. That is because front-line employees are at the heart of the service delivery, and they are also responsible for the customization. Although the employee’s role is more critical than ever, very little about their roles and behaviors in the customization process has been explored in past research. Do your employees know how to be most effective when it comes to customizing services? Do your employees know how to adapt as they interact with each customer? Do you know how to encourage behaviors which lead to successful customization? A new piece of research by Drs. Kevin Gwinner, Kansas State University, Mary Jo Bitner, Stephen Brown and Ajith Kumar of Arizona State University (“Service Customization through Employee Adaptiveness”) in the August 2005 Journal of Service Research answers these questions along with providing advice about customization tactics from the employee perspective.

Gwinner et al investigated employee adaptiveness of frontline employees on two dimensions— “interpersonal adaptive behavior” and “service offering adaptive behavior.” Interpersonal adaptive behavior arises from the understanding that there is no one best way to relate to customers, and the most effective front line employees adapt their strategies according to the individual customer’s needs presented before them. Interpersonal adaptiveness corresponds to improved sales performance in many cases, so understanding this skill is critical for success. Service offering adaptive behavior encompasses the ability to adapt the final outcome of the service according to the customer’s needs. This goes beyond personal interaction and focuses on the employee’s ability to customize the service so that it best meets the customer’s needs. Thus, employees adapt on two dimensions—their approach in how they personally deal with customers, and the extent and method by which they change the service offerings to suit customer needs.

Frontline employees perform invaluable roles as facilitators of customer relationships. Managers who want to foster these important adaptive behaviors in their frontline employees are encouraged to consider the following:

Know What Your Customers Want

Begin by conducting surveys or focus groups to figure out what your customer preferences are in terms of adaptive behaviors. For example, does your service occur in a fast-paced, high stress environment? If that is the case, then interpersonal adaptive behavior that includes small talk about the weather can be viewed as frustrating and time consuming. If your customers desire more transactional relationships, encouraging these kinds of personal behaviors can reflect negatively on your company. Understand what your target segment prefers in terms of adaptive behavior in order to make informed decisions about positioning the service.

Hire for Adaptiveness

Make adaptive behavior requirements prominent in job announcements and descriptions. Show that you place a priority on these skills during the application and interview process. The study shows that employees who are able to self-monitor, have a high tolerance for ambiguity and strong service orientation have traits which lead to successful adaptive behavior, so look for these when hiring.

Train for Customer Knowledge

Train for adaptive behaviors on both the interpersonal and service offering side. Focus the training on having employees increase their customer knowledge base. Try pairing seasoned employees with less experienced frontliners so they can share from their colleagues’ experience when it comes to identifying customer traits and appropriate responses.

Encourage, Promote, and Remind

Develop promotional materials for frontline employees that position the service around your customers’ adaptive behavior preferences. Increasing pay or providing public recognition will not help grow adaptiveness skills; instead, focus on reminding employees how being adaptive is an opportunity to be creative, grow and work in a stimulating environment. By improving frontline employees’ customer knowledge, hiring for adaptive personality predispositions, and motivating intrinsically, managers can improve how their employees adapt bother interpersonal style and service offering for successful customization.