Exploring tools for learning about
customers in a service setting
Hanken Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration,
Purpose – The purpose of the paper is to explore how frontline contact persons appropriate and use
learning tools from the socio-cultural context for learning about customers in their everyday work.
Design/methodology/approach – The study utilises an ethnographic-research approach involving
participant observations, informal conversations, and interviews among car salespersons and service
advisors at a car-retailing company.
Findings – The study comes to two main conclusions. First, learning tools are appropriated and
utilised for learning about customers in a two-layered process: interactions between frontline contact
persons and the socio-cultural context; and interactions between frontline contact persons and
customers. Secondly, learning about customers can be of two types: subject- or object-driven learning.
Practical implications – Tools that enhance the process of learning about customers can be
developed within the socio-cultural environment of an organisation whereas tools that inhibit the
learning process can be minimised.
Originality/value – This paper provides a novel socio-cultural conceptualisation of how learning
about customers takes place. This approach has not been previously emphasised in
Keywords Learning, Social interaction, Ethnography
Paper type Research paper
Successful service depends on learning about customers, i.e. learning about customer
needs and their everyday life. If the service provider and its frontline contact persons
do not understand their customers, the quality of the service will be diminished
(Parasuraman et al., 1985), service productivity will fall (Gro
nroos and Ojasalo, 2004),
and the overall business performance of the ﬁrm will suffer (Selnes and Sallis, 2003).
For these reasons, Wikstro
m et al. (1998) have contended that learning about customers
is essential to gaining a competitive advantage and ensuring future success.
Despite a widespread recognition that learning about customers is crucially important
to service organisations, little is known about how frontline contact persons learn in their
everyday interactions with customers. In addressing this question, the present study
proposes that learning about customers is a socio-cultural process whereby knowledge is
constructed through social practices (Sa
, 2000). More speciﬁcally, the focus of this study
is on the socio-cultural tools that frontline contact persons use for learning about
customers in their everyday work. The study employs an ethnographic-research approach
involving participant observation, informal conversations, and interviews with service
advisors and salespersons at a car-retailing company. The learning and use of tools of
these two personnel functions are discussed and compared in order to give a more diverse
picture of the process of learning about customers.
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Received 19 January 2007
Revised 15 October 2007
Accepted 29 January 2008
International Journal of Service
Vol. 19 No. 5, 2008
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited