In the service encounter, the employee must often encourage customer self-disclosure (i.e., revealing of personal information) to be able to match the customer's needs with what the firm has to offer. This study uses an experimental approach to manipulate employee encouragement of self-disclosure (low vs. high) to explore its impact on the customer. It was found that encouraging self-disclosure enhanced customer perceptions of customization, employee effort, own effort, privacy concerns, and employee humanness, and that these responses influenced customer satisfaction. In addition, because many firms are beginning to replace human employees with various forms of virtual agents (and it has been argued that we humans may find it less threatening to self-disclose to such agents), the identity of the employee (virtual agent vs. human employee) was manipulated, too. The identity factor, however, did not influence customers' responses.
This study examines the service encounter from an information exchange point of view. Such an exchange is required if firms want to adapt their offers to the needs of the customers, and both parties in the encounter – the frontline employee and the customer – have to contribute to the exchange. That is to say, the employee must identify the customer’s needs, typically by asking questions to the customer, and the customer has to respond by providing information about his or her needs. This means that the service encounter resembles a therapy setting, in the sense that successful therapy is contingent on clients’ transfer of information about themselves to therapists (Chaikin and Derlega, 1974; Cozby, 1973; Lucas et al., 2014). Here, in the present study, the customer–employee exchange is examined through the lens of customer self-disclosure (i.e., the revealing of personal information to another person; Derlega and Chaikin, 1977; Mothersbaugh et al., 2012, Ruppel et al., 2016). Previous research on self-disclosure indicates that it may be a causally potent activity also in service encounters –particularly with respect to the customer’s overall evaluation of the encounter in terms of customer satisfaction. It has been shown, for example, that self-disclosure to an interaction partner can increase the discloser’s liking of the person who receives the self-disclosure (Berg and Archer, 1983). If this happens also in a service encounter, when the employee is the receiver of the customer’s self-disclosure, one would expect increased liking of the employee. Given that the employee typically is the company from the customer’s point of view in a service setting (Bitner et al., 1990), one would also expect that increased liking of the employee can boost overall customer satisfaction. Moreover, self-disclosure can enhance self-affirmation and sense of worth (Ho et al., 2018), and such positive outcomes may carry over to service encounter satisfaction in a valence-congruent way. However, self-disclosure can also be negatively charged. To self-disclose, it has been argued, can make the discloser feel vulnerable (Derlega and Chaikin, 1977), and it can be associated with perceptions of physical harm, material damage (Moon, 2000), risks of being victimized (Robinson, 2017), exploitation, and loss of independence (Derlega and Chaikin, 1977). These negative aspects indicate that encouraging the customer to self-disclose may have the potential to reduce customer satisfaction in a service encounter setting.