“By combining our strengths, we learn from each other as we learn about the world; doing better work while getting better at the craft of scholarship.”
— Ryan Buell
Michelle: Ryan and I are both interested in deeply understanding what happens when customers interact with an organization’s operating system. Insights about customer behavior can influence a company to operate differently and the way companies design their operations can influence customers to behave differently. When we observe this happening in the field, we seek to identify what factors are driving the behavior—whether they stem from the customer or firm side of the encounter—isolate their respective effects, and then we hope to identify ways that firms can correct for them.
Ryan: At HBS, research literally meets practice. The questions we tackle arise from a deep understanding of both the extant theory and the real problems managers face. Michelle entered the doctoral program fascinated by impediments to service excellence, and my research examines how firms can more productively engage customers in the creation of value. The alignment of our interests and our complementary experiences in financial services—Michelle’s as a practitioner and mine as a researcher—make us a great team.
Michelle: On this project, we are investigating how customer anxiety impacts the quality of a financial planning experience and the integrity of the resulting financial plan, both of which will impact customer satisfaction. The financial services industry has acknowledged that retirement planning, in particular, evokes fear and worry and academic research has long demonstrated the negative effects on decision-making under distress. We are conducting a series of experiments to better quantify the impacts on service operations and to identify ways that the operating design could improve both the customer’s experience and the firm’s performance – a “win-win”.
Ryan: What’s fascinating to me about this particular issue is its ubiquity in the world. Our interactions in service contexts are rife with anxiety. Which investment should I make? Which school should I choose? Which course of treatment should I pursue? This anxiety can cloud our ability to make the best decisions and undermine our service experiences in the process. Behavioral science and economics has identified choice architecture as one path for helping consumers make better decisions in these circumstances – “nudging” them toward the “right” answer. Michelle had the idea that a different approach, reducing the anxiety these customers feel through better operational design, might help them make better choices on their own.
Findings & implications
Michelle: We are in the early stages, but we believe that insights about the mindset of a consumer can and should be effectively incorporated into the design and delivery of services. The design of financial services in particular has for many years focused on the efficient execution of transactions and strong investment performance, but in my opinion, not enough attention has been paid to customer experiences. My hope is that this research (and my future research) will contribute to our knowledge of how customer behavior and operating systems interact, and at the same time influence change in this key industry. In addition, any findings from this work will also apply to other contexts where high-stakes decisions are being made by customers who may be in an anxious state, such as in health care, education or in certain government service interactions. This embodies the rigor of academic research and the relevance of real world problems that are the hallmark of research at HBS.
Ryan: One of the joys of the HBS research environment is that it affords the opportunity to pursue important questions using multiple lenses, a broad array of methodologies, and an abundance of resources. In this project, Michelle and I are tackling a real world problem that spans the fields of operations and social psychology. To do that, we’re beginning in the laboratory to deeply understand how anxiety in service contexts influences customer decision-making, and which operational designs work best to reduce anxiety. Then, we’ll take our insights to the field, collaborating with an industry partner to test whether they improve outcomes among real customers. This iterative, multi-faceted approach enables us to pursue some of the thorniest interdisciplinary problems facing business today, and advance research and practice with insights that are rich and reliable.
The collaborative process
Michelle: The collaborative process could not be more rewarding. It’s great fun to work with Ryan! The idea for this project came from challenges that I experienced in my prior work in the industry so I am able to contribute a deep understanding of this phenomenon. In addition to having done prior research in financial service operations, Ryan has conducted a number of experimental studies related to customer behavior in service contexts. His wealth of experience helps us avoid critical mistakes, leverage ideas from other areas, and quickly identify new future research pathways. When we talk through our research design, theory, and the interpretation of our analysis, we are able to push each other to higher ground than if one of us were pursuing this line of inquiry alone.
Ryan: Collaborating with exceptional doctoral students like Michelle is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Part of what makes doctoral student collaborations like ours so energizing is that each new collaborator brings something unique to the table. Michelle, for example, brings a wealth of knowledge and intuition from her days as a practitioner, which helps us think critically about which interventions are likely to gain traction among managers and customers in the field. Furthermore, her years of experience with these issues contribute a passion for getting to the bottom of these important and poorly understood problems. By combining our strengths, we learn from each other as we learn about the world; doing better work, while getting better at the craft of scholarship. Perhaps most importantly, doctoral student/faculty collaborations like ours are only the beginning. I look forward to a lifetime of working with and rooting for Michelle, as she makes her own unique contributions throughout her career.
I think ours are the best jobs in the world. We work with amazing people to study the important problems that fascinate us, we rigorously pursue answers, and, we tell the world what we learned. What could be cooler than that?