Imagine your elderly, 90 years old mother, who lives in Washington, is coming to visit you this Christmas in Baltimore, just some 40 miles (60 km) away. Although she has some trouble walking, has diabetes and gets tired easily, this is just a 50 minutes trip with the mobility transport service that has been booked a week in advance. Imagine now that instead of dropping your mother off at your house in Baltimore, the driver continues to Philadelphia, some 100 miles (160 km) more where he drops off two other passengers before heading back to Baltimore. The 420 miles trip (380 km) lasts for 5 hours and when you pick up your mother, she can barely walk. When asking why this happened the driver answers that he was only following instructions about who to pick up, to leave and where. Your mother had to lay down and rest all Christmas.
The same thing happened recently in Southwest Sweden and was reported in a local newspaper. It’s an example of a (major) service failure but foremost an example of vulnerable consumers. In a recent published paper in Journal of Marketing Management, I and my co-author, Per Echevarri, examined consumer vulnerability in mobility service interaction with a special focus on forms of vulnerability that arise, what the causes are and how consumers cope with vulnerability.
Making transformative changes to improve the wellbeing
Consumer vulnerability, a central topic within the emerging field of Transformative Service Research (TSR), has been conceptualized as a temporary and fluid state of powerlessness (with specific populations being more at risk) accompanied by a strong emphasis on context-specific situations whereby the consumer lacks control and experiences an imbalance during marketplace interactions or due to the consumption of marketing messages and products (Baker, Gentry, & Rittenburg, 2005). Making transformative changes to improve the wellbeing among consumers experiencing vulnerability is considered as especially important (e.g. Anderson et al., 2013; Hamilton, Dunnett, & Piacentini, 2015).
Empirically drawing on a multi-perspective go-along travel study, consisting of a combination of in-depth interviews and observations of consumer and service provider interactions in mobility services, we unearth critical mechanisms that explain why vulnerability comes into being and identify four distinct forms of active coping strategies, building on the dimensions of proactiveness/reactiveness and explicit/implicit articulation.
The mobility service studied is provided by the municipality where the consumers live. Consumers who have disabilities hindering their mobility (e.g. paralysis, multiple sclerosis, vision impairment/blindness) to the extent that they cannot, without great difficulty, use regular public transport, can apply for a permit to use this service. The service is largely funded through taxation, with consumers paying a fare for each journey that equals the cost of using regular public transport.
All the interviewed consumers use the mobility service on a regular basis and generally regard it to be an important part of their daily lives and activities. They provide two main reasons for this: The first is that the service has positive implications for their physical wellbeing. Using this service enables them to both conserve physical energy, and thus manage to do more during their day, and to reduce the pain caused by their disabilities when having to rely on public transport. The second reason described by the consumers is that the service provides a sense of freedom to move around and to do things they either like or need to do, not to mention being less dependent on the help and goodwill of relatives and friends.
Although having a generally positive view of the mobility service, the consumers also highlight situations when they experience vulnerability based on the interactions between themselves and the service providers. It is during these interactions that vulnerability emerges and is addressed.
Our study’s implications
The study has implications for both the research fields of consumer vulnerability and transformative service research as well as for practice. Theoretically, there are three implications. Firstly, we have explained how three identified forms of vulnerability, that is physical discomfort, commodification, and disorientation, are grounded in consumers’ interactions with their service providers, and in the fact that these consumers are especially dependent on their providers’ knowledge, skill, and willingness to provide the help that they need. The three forms of vulnerability are defined as:
- Physical discomfort: situations whereby consumers become sick, feel increased pain or become more tired, i.e. experiencing situations that affect their physical wellbeing in a negative way.
- Commodification: situations whereby consumers feel like ‘commodity items’, i.e. are treated in an insensitive and objectified way, with their sense of self, self-worth, integrity, and capabilities being compromised.
- Disorientation: situations whereby consumers feel resigned, being unable to control their surroundings, the physical environment, due to service providers not being sensitive to their spatial needs.
Secondly, the study provides an understanding of four distinct forms of active coping strategies that consumers use:
- Proactive and explicit articulation;
- Proactive and implicit articulation;
- Reactive and explicit articulation; and
- Reactive and implicit articulation.
We term these strategies proactive and reactive in order to indicate that they either prevent vulnerability (proactive) or mitigate emerged vulnerability (reactive), and as explicit and implicit in order to indicate that the consumer either articulates to the service provider what his/her vulnerability consists of (i.e. explicit) or tries to achieve the same results concerning his/her vulnerability without expressing the underlying reasons for his/her needs (i.e. implicit). While previous research tends to focus on discrete forms of coping (e.g. seeking support from family/friends or choosing alternative ways of shopping), our findings reveal a more complex pattern of coping strategies. The mobility service enables consumers to become more independent, but this service includes situations where consumers are highly dependent on the service provider. This dependence is especially accentuated in situations where vulnerability is experienced.
Coping regulates the balance between consumers’ independence and dependence while at the same time handling their relationships with service providers, including the emotional and social costs of interacting. The palette of coping strategies found in this study thus offers a more empowering perspective on disabled consumers’ activities with regard to research on consumer vulnerability; giving them a clearer role as co-creators during service encounters.
This less asymmetric perspective contrasts with the earlier dependency discourses often associated with disability studies.
Thirdly, we provide a theoretical understanding of how vulnerability is related to the principal forms of active coping strategies. The consumers use these strategies to prevent or mitigate the effects of vulnerability, especially when it comes to physical discomfort, which has such a pervasively negative effect on their wellbeing. Not feeling well, or being at risk of experiencing this, triggers consumers into reactively or proactively, explicitly or implicitly, expressing their needs to the service provider. Commodification and disorientation do not trigger nearly as many different forms of coping strategy as physical discomfort. Nevertheless, our study shows that experiencing commodification and disorientation is handled using proactive and reactive strategies, but only in an implicit way.
This finding contributes to the understanding that certain forms of vulnerability, forms which are more related to consumers’ sense of self and their control over the situation, can be handled by means of consumers not expressing the actual cause of their need to the service provider. Some situations are sensitive in terms of integrity, and the fact that consumers do not want to offend service providers by telling them how to do their job.
The study’s practical implications relate to that service providers should not only rely on asking (or guessing) what the needs of their consumers are, or how to act in respect of these needs, they should also rely on the resources and coping strategies that consumers use during service interactions. Consumers provide information about this both proactively and reactively, articulating it explicitly and implicitly in various ways. Being sensitive to this information will solve a wide range of interactional problems. Employee training can thus include interaction techniques by which employees learn to interpret the subtler signals given by consumers. Adopting a more resource-sensitive approach can enable service providers to reduce, or avoid, the creation of power imbalances in exchange contexts.
Read the original research article (Open Access): Echeverri, P. & Salomonson, N. (2019). Consumer vulnerability during mobility service interactions: causes, forms and coping, Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1568281
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