In this post, Dr Richard Nicholls discusses how the other customers around us during the consumption of a service can exert an influence on how we experience that service. This area of research, usually known as customer-to-customer interaction (CCI) or C2C interaction, is expanding rapidly.

The second half of the 20th century saw a growing awareness of the dominance of the service economy. An important consequence of this is that services and their management have received increasing research attention. Evidence of this can be found in the proliferation of service journals over recent decades. For example, the Journal of Services Marketing; the Journal of Service Research; Journal of Service Management; and The Service Industries Journal. A core theme of service research has been customer interaction. The scope of customer interaction has broadened over the decades. In the early years of service research, the focus was on human interactions with employees, but these days interaction research includes interactions with brands, websites, virtual digital assistants, service robots and with other customers.

The growing realisation that interactions between customers are important

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a prevalent customer interaction research focus on interactions between frontline employees and customers (i.e., E2C interaction). It was, however, increasingly realised that many interactions occurred between the customers themselves (i.e., customer-to-customer or C2C interaction). Early work helped to conceptualise how C2C interaction could be understood and to identify areas for future research. The growth of the internet, and new service formats enabled by the internet, made more people receptive to the idea that customers can co-create (or co-destroy) value with one another.   Furthermore, partly due to the rapid growth of self-service, it was realised that some services had more C2C than E2C interaction. Moreover, as suggestions increasingly came forwards for ways of managing interactions between customers, growing numbers of managers and researchers felt C2C to be a field worth investigating.

A focus on C2C interactions inside service settings

The influence of customers on one another is a wide-ranging research theme (Heinonen et al., 2018; Heinonen & Nicholls, 2022). Whilst much C2C influence takes place away from the service setting through consumers exchanging views, often in their own social circles, on the merits of various products and providers, this is generally labelled word-of-mouth (WOM). Moreover, it is not specifically connected with services, as much WOM concerns goods. Following a ground-breaking paper by Martin and Pranter (1989), some service researchers have focused on the C2C influence occurring in service settings themselves, often referring to this as CCI (customer-to-customer interaction). Three main groupings of CCI exist. The first is in-group interaction, which is often seen as family or group consumption behaviour and concerns how family and/or friends in a group interact with one another during service consumption (e.g., shopping together). The second group is the influence of other customers, typically strangers and not family or friends, who merely happen to be part of the scene and exert indirect influence such as contributing to the collective ambiance of a service setting. A third group is direct interactions in a service setting between customers, typically strangers, who have entered the setting separately. Such interactions, known as direct on-site CCI (Nicholls, 2010), are often short and unplanned. Some C2C interactions can, however, be quite extended, especially in industries such as travel, tourism, and education.

Interactions between customers take many forms

The author’s research has focused mainly on direct on-site CCI. It has included conceptualising such interactions, identifying types, and considering how these interactions can be managed. In a recent paper (Nicholls, 2020), the author identified nine distinct categories of CCI: (1) shared use space, (2) assigned space and possessions, (3) information provision, (4) assistance, (5) social conversations, (6) disrespectful attitude, (7) queuing discipline, (8) transaction efficiency and (9) undesired customers and ‘camouflaged customers’. These categories are designed to accommodate most of the customer behaviours that affect the service experience of other customers as consumers attempt to do things like share a common space with strangers, queue for service, and ask or offer assistance to strangers. For example, the ‘shared use space’ category reflects the reality that in many service settings, such as trains, libraries and cinemas, common space exists that needs to be recognised as sufficiently under a customer’s control or influence to gain appropriate benefit from the service. An illustration of this is the desire of many customers for a train environment that excludes other passengers playing their music loudly or talking persistently on their mobiles. The article (Nicholls, 2020) provides detailed descriptions, discussion, and illustrations of all nine categories. It also provides a 38-question audit tool to assist practitioners in identifying the aspects of CCI that are most pertinent to their organisation. Understanding that customers rarely consume alone and can be influenced, both positively and negatively, by the other customers surrounding them, offers a useful path for gaining fresh insights into customer care. Moreover, the relevance of interactions between customers has never been more relevant than in these Covid-dominated times, with concerns such as how near others are, why others are loitering by the shop entrance, and who has touched what (e.g., a shopping trolley handle) before us.

Dr Richard Nicholls

Richard is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Marketing and Enterprise at Worcester Business School and the Customer Interactions Research Theme (CIRT) Lead, which is part of the Interpersonal Relationships and Wellbeing Research Group. Richard has published extensively on customer-to-customer interaction (CCI) in leading service journals and in specialist academic research books.  Three members of the group are currently working on a project that examines the management of customer-to-customer interaction in supermarkets. Research is also underway into how family members may influence one another’s food consumption.