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Computing Applications

Reciprocity: The Golden Rule of IS-User Service Relationship Quality and Cooperation

Seeking a mutually beneficial relationship between IS departments and users.
  1. Introduction
  2. Discussion and an Inventory of Relationship-Building Best Practices
  3. Establishing Long-term Management Commitment
  4. Improving Service Recovery
  5. Recognizing the Importance of Reciprocity
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Author
  9. Figures
  10. Tables
  11. Sidebar: Methods and Discussion

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: This maxim is often referred to as the Golden Rule. Simply put, in relationships, we get what we give. Relationships are important because they possess the advantage of maintaining a bond over time and providing continuity through the ups and downs of individual good and not-so-good events. The quality of the relationship is determined by beliefs held by the parties in the relationship and has an effect upon the future actions taken by each party to the relationship. In this article, I examine the relationship between information systems (IS) departments and IS users with the goal of determining some of the beliefs affecting that relationship and how they might be managed to the mutual benefit of IS users and IS departments.

Data from 22 IS user and 22 IS manager interviews I’ve conducted in 11 large organizations over a one-year period suggests there is a bias toward the “hard” functional and away from the “soft” relational goals in user/IS department employee interactions. The typical IS department often favors the immediate “technological” aspects of each project, ignoring the longer-term “psychological” relational factors. Relational factors (such as trust, satisfaction, and user commitment) provide the glue holding together the relationship between IS users and the IS department. Neglecting the cultivation of positive relational factors can create tension between the IS department and users, resulting in some instances in negative user behaviors vis-à-vis the IS department.

Interview data I’ve collected suggests that in some cases it is possible that neglecting the relational component can result in user distrust, dissatisfaction, defection, and if severe and widespread enough, the dissolution of the IS department in favor of outsourcing. In order to prevent these negative user reactions from harming the IS department, IS managers should detect, understand, measure, and manage factors that influence IS user-departmental relationship quality. Recognizing, monitoring, and working to improve these factors, once they are discovered, places the IS department in a much stronger position capable of managing IS user/IS department relationship quality and thereby managing the quality of reciprocal user behaviors and perhaps, ultimately, its own destiny. This study provides insight into the nature of some relationship quality enhancing/reducing factors and how they can be managed.

In general, the relationship concept is based on the principle or norm of reciprocity. The principle of reciprocity states that people often match behaviors experienced from others with actions performed for others, giving in proportion to what they receive. According to the reciprocal action theory, actions taken by one party in an exchange relationship will be reciprocated in kind by the other party [2]. In the IS realm this means IS departmental actions will be evaluated and reciprocated by IS users based on evaluations of what they receive from the IS department.

The phrase “relationship marketing” was coined by Leonard Berry [6] and applied to the marketing of services, both external and internal to the organization [5]. Relationship marketing is defined as the ongoing process of engaging in cooperative and collaborative activities and programs with immediate and end-user customers to create or enhance mutual economic value at reduced cost [5].

IS services are those activities and programs undertaken by the IS department to support users in their use of information systems. A conceptual model of the relational evaluation and reciprocation process undertaken by a typical IS user is shown in Figure 1. On the left in Figure 1 are the functional or “hard” IS services performed for users such as systems development, systems configuration, systems maintenance. Also on the left, the relationship building or “soft” activities undertaken by the IS department to build and maintain relationships with IS users are shown. These “soft” behaviors can be as simple as proactively explaining IS departmental goals, getting to know users by name, keeping individual promises, evincing a willingness to help users, and promoting trust with users. Both sets of activities (hard and soft) are evaluated by IS users by comparison with real or imaginary standards. Judgments of the quality of the relational bond between the IS department and IS users are then made by the users. Finally, based on the perceived quality of the relationship, IS users decide on their beliefs and behaviors vis-à-vis the IS department.

Interview data suggests that if the relationship is positive, the IS user behaviors will be cooperative and supportive such as positive word of mouth, voluntary participation in IS development projects, and even championing the IS department in management decisions. If the relationship is judged to be negative, the IS users will engage in negative behaviors vis-à-vis the IS department, such as complaints, indifference, and in extreme cases, sabotaging the IS department activities, and ultimately requests for outsourcing all or parts the IS department. The question of interest in this study is, does this model hold in the real world? Can delivery of better IS service quality create stronger IS department/user relationships and thus more positive reciprocal behaviors from users? (See the sidebar and Table 1.)

The variables and their associations were tested by fitting the structural equation model shown in Figure 2 to the data. The LISREL 8.54 program was used to perform the structural equation modeling of this data. Structural equation modeling can be thought of as a sophisticated method of simultaneous multivariate regression in which a theoretical model is developed and then fit to the data. The quality of the data/model fit supports the plausibility of the model. In this case, the fit of the model to the data is good and all regression relationships are statistically significant and in the hypothesized direction.

Construct validity and reliability were successfully assessed through the framework for organizational research identified in [3]. This framework involves sequential assessment of construct reliability, discriminant and convergent validity, and nomological validity for each construct or concept in the model. The model demonstrated good reliability, discriminant and convergent validity. Nomological validity was also good as evinced by the positive and significant structural parameters in the model in Figure 2. The isolated numbers on the arrows shown in Figure 2 can be thought of as correlations among the variables, whereas the r2 numbers reflect the amount of explained variance in a dependent variable caused by one or more independent variables.

From the model in Figure 2 as fit to the data we can make several inferences. Clearly, IS users base their evaluations of IS service quality in large part on the following service quality factors: The ability to perform the proposed IS service dependably and accurately; the willingness of the IS departmental employees to help IS users and provide prompt IS service; the knowledge and courtesy of IS employees and their ability to inspire trust and confidence; and the level of caring, individualized attention the IS service provider gives its users.

User perceptions of the four service quality variables combine to form user’s beliefs in the extent to which they can trust the IS department and the level of overall satisfaction users feel with the IS department. Trust and satisfaction beliefs taken together with user commitment to the IS department represent relationship quality. Relationship quality beliefs are strong predictors of the level of user’s reciprocal behaviors toward the IS department. The reciprocal behaviors match the user’s feelings of trust in, satisfaction with, and commitment to the IS department. Satisfied, trusting users will identify with and commit to enacting positive, supportive behaviors toward the IS department. Interview data suggests that dissatisfied, distrusting, hostile users will be alienated from the IS department, and may enact negative behaviors toward the IS department such as complaining, retribution, and sabotage. Several interviews confirm that the level of relationship quality and commitment users experience may even have a determinative effect on outsourcing decisions.

It can be concluded from this research that IS departments can do a better job of internal marketing to keep users satisfied, trusting, and committed to their goals. The next question of importance is: How can IS departments improve the quality of their relationship with IS users? Or, how can IS departments become better internal marketers of their services? These questions are answered in the elaboration of the following best practices for internal marketing of IS services.

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Discussion and an Inventory of Relationship-Building Best Practices

IS users reciprocate the IS departmental behaviors, good for good, bad for bad. Relationship quality is the glue that binds IS users to IS departments through the thick and thin of IS project success and failure. The following are relationship-building best practices taken from 22 IS manager and 22 IS user interviews in 11 distinct business organizations and placed in a relationship marketing framework developed to describe relationship-building best practices in any service marketing situation. Claycomb and Martin developed the framework from research in which they conducted 83 interviews with managers of service firms focusing on finding the most important relationship-building practices. They then surveyed 205 managers to finalize the framework [7]. This framework, when contextualized, exemplifies an elaborated Golden Rule for IS departments. In the discussion that follows, it should be kept in mind that each of the internal marketing “best practices” involve trade-offs among service relationship quality-building actions, functional actions, and costs in person-hours. Not all of the following relationship best practices will apply in every situation or context.

Avoiding lengthy gaps in contact between IS departments and IS users. IS users remember the IS department that remembers them. In other words, the frequency of both formal and informal contact is important. Examples of different types of contacts include IS departmental email newsletters to keep users informed about updated capabilities, new products, new people, technologies trends, and so forth. Other methods of contact include regularly scheduled informational email messages and telephone calls, development and use of focus groups, regularly visiting informally with users, IS departmental Web sites, and quarterly and annual IS user conferences. One of the strongest complaints from users involves the lack of contact between the IS department employees and IS users.

Improving service performance. Although promises of quality may attract IS users, IS departments must realize that delivery of service quality is essential to building and maintaining IS user relationships. Delivering on promises is the essence of mutually satisfying service relationships. Service quality refers to the consistency with which IS user’s expectations are met and the general superiority of the service relative to that of possible substitutes. IS departments must take the initiative including the adoption of any practices focused on eliciting and identifying which services and service attributes IS users want (doing the right things). Examples of services include assisting with all the small sub-actions needed in purchasing, configuring, and maintaining user’s information systems or suggesting shortcuts to improve user efficiency with their information systems. These services must be provided to IS users at a level that gives satisfaction, certainly better than potential substitutes (doing things right). Efforts to raise standards and improve service performance, listening to IS user’s preferences, and ensuring that IS user’s requirements are met are included in this category.

Providing consistent, fair, and reliable service. Providing friendly, professional, courteous service that is consistent, fair, and reliable is one of the best ways to establish and maintain IS department/IS user relationships. This is exemplified by being on-time, supplying a wide range of systems and services, having a knowledgeable staff, and providing technical competence. Service quality also includes listening to IS users—knowing the user and understanding IS users’ needs.

Treating each IS user as unique. Personalization refers to the customization of some aspect of the service or its delivery, treating each IS user as a unique individual with a unique set of service requirements—thereby creating unique fits between IS users and IS services. Personalization initiatives provide direct linkages between IS users and service personnel and between IS users and services themselves.

Personalization practices occur on three different levels: interpersonally, operationally, and organizationally. Examples of interpersonal aspects include learning and using IS user’s names, building rapport by encouraging face-to-face contact between IS departmental employees and IS users, “getting to know” IS users informally, and acknowledging IS user’s backgrounds and achievements.

The operational level involves efforts to obtain a detailed knowledge of IS user’s tasks, processes, and requirements. This allows the IS department to provide unique ideas to help users do their jobs more effectively. Additionally, IS departmental employees should be given the flexibility to deviate from rigid procedures when serving IS users who have special needs or unique requests.

At the organizational level, personalization can be enhanced by assigning IS departmental employees the responsibility of serving specific IS users rather than having them assigned the responsibility of performing specific tasks for all users. This encourages close personal relationships between the IS departmental representatives and the IS user. Full implementation of personalization requires top management to structure the IS department in order to assign IS departmental employees the responsibility of serving specific IS users, and to empower IS departmental employees to treat each IS user as a unique individual. There will obviously be a trade-off between the seeming efficiency of assigning specific tasks to IS departmental employees and assigning specific sets of users. The point is raised here to highlight the balancing act involved in boosting relationship quality.

Evoking emotional responses. Affective engineering is the label often assigned to a range of efforts designed to evoke IS user’s emotional responses to make them feel “warm and cozy” in their relationship with the IS department. Our survey and interviews suggest that IS user’s affective commitment (emotional attachment to the IS department) is positively related to their willingness to remain in a positive, reciprocal relationship with a IS department. If that is the case, then any activities that promote trust, satisfaction, and commitment to the IS department will be useful in developing IS/user relationships.

Providing easy and convenient contacts with the IS department. Systems friendliness refers to practices that make it easy and convenient for IS users to interact with the IS department. This involves making IS department representatives accessible, removing contact barriers, ensuring the IS department’s interfaces with technology are not overwhelming, and not making IS users wait for service unnecessarily or perform tasks (for example, fill out paperwork or Web forms) they would rather avoid. Understandably, IS user relationships can suffer when unfriendly systems leave IS users feeling frustrated, unwelcome, and convinced there must be better substitutes for service providers. Ideally, system interfaces should leave IS users with a sense of looking forward to interacting with the IS department in the future.

Our interview data suggests that failure to recover from an initial problem creates unhappy IS users who try to ignore the IS department and get help from another source, such as colleagues, knowledgeable friends, or spouses.

Delivering on promises of service. Trust is often described as the cornerstone of strong relationships. Trust is an important element of a relationship-building program, because it builds confidence, fosters cooperation, and gives the IS department a second chance when inevitable mishaps occur. Trust is particularly relevant, because IS users often do not obtain services per se. What they obtain are implicit and explicit promises of IS service that must be trusted to be kept when the time comes. For example:

  • Promises that the IS departments will honor service-level agreements, must be trusted in that it will occur in the future;
  • Promises that IS departments will install, configure, maintain, and upgrade systems once provided in the future;
  • Promises that IS departments will provide security for systems and alert users immediately when they are compromised.

Trust-related concepts such as trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, or ethical behavior are important relationship-building practices. More specifically, IS departments build trust by keeping their commitments, not overpromising (such as keeping claims and predictions of product and system success realistic), managing IS user’s expectations (such as clearly clarifying what IS service does and does not entail), maintaining open channels of communication with IS users so that misunderstandings and mishaps can be quickly identified and remedied, and establishing codes of ethics and training to promote trustworthy actions throughout the organization.

Furthermore, unhappy users will tell other users about their dissatisfaction. In other words, good service recovery promotes good word-of-mouth, bad service recovery promotes bad word-of-mouth among users.

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Establishing Long-term Management Commitment

Many of the continuity, communications, and frequency programs that link IS users to the IS department require a long-term management commitment. Not only do many of the more elaborate programs require establishing and maintaining an extensive database to keep track of each IS user’s status in the program, but also typically the commitment must be sustained over a much longer time period than a few individual transactions. For instance, if a user has a problem that occurs frequently, it is of vital importance to develop a profile of the user and the problem and not simply fix the problem repeatedly each time it occurs. A continued problem may mean the user needs more training in some area of the use of the information system. Alternatively, it could mean an application program or the operating system needs patching. In either case there needs to be an institutional memory (database) of the pattern of problems for each user. These patterns should be able to be tracked across users and larger patterns developed so that standards for solving problems can be constructed.

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Improving Service Recovery

For most IS service operations, there are simply too many details involved to expect flawless operations at all times. And, unfortunately, when mistakes do occur, it is not uncommon for IS users to find out before IS departments. While efforts to minimize occasional (but inevitable) mishaps are appropriate, efforts to enable both the IS department and IS users to recover from the errors are needed as well. For example, a user has an issue with a personal information system and calls the help desk. The help desk attempts a solution, is unsuccessful, and then stops working on the problem without solving it. This is an example of poor service recovery. All service recoveries must result in solutions at least to the point that users can continue to work with their systems.

Our interview data suggests that failure to recover from an initial problem creates unhappy IS users who try to ignore the IS department and get help from another source, such as colleagues, knowledgeable friends, or spouses. Furthermore, unhappy users will tell other users about their dissatisfaction. In other words, good service recovery promotes good word-of-mouth, bad service recovery promotes bad word-of-mouth among users. This situation can result in an apparent reduction in user problems or trouble-tickets. The IS department may view this demand reduction as a positive thing. When in fact, the IS department is performing so poorly that users will attempt to get help anywhere else.

Service recovery involves practices that IS departments can use to aggressively correct mistakes when they occur and offset IS user’s inconveniences and other negative consequences caused by these mistakes. Often, through service recovery, service failures can be transformed into positive acts that strengthen customer attitudes toward the service provider [10]. In fact, IS user satisfaction with the process of service recovery may be more important than the initial service attributes in influencing overall IS user satisfaction, user/department relationship quality, loyalty intentions, cooperation, and positive word-of-mouth communication by IS users.

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Recognizing the Importance of Reciprocity

Building and maintaining IS-user relationships may mean accepting some risk, trusting IS users, and giving IS users something of value without any certainty of receiving any sort of reciprocal consideration or commitment. Free technology, training, diagnoses, advice, and personal or confidential disclosures are examples of things of value that can be given by IS department employees to individual users to increase user commitment to the IS department. Although somewhat risky, these practices are based on the well-established equity norm or principle [7]. People frequently do feel compelled to reciprocate in some way after someone else has helped them or given them something of value. IS departments must take the difficult first step in this commitment process.

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The central idea presented in this article is that IS departments must learn from relationship marketing research and take that “extra first step” to initiate, maintain, and enhance IS department/IS user relationships. This will involve changes in mind-set for IS managers who typically emphasize the “hard” technical and short-term project-oriented aspects of the job at the expense of the long-term, relational, “soft” social aspects. IS managers will need to be better internal service marketers in order to develop and maintain strong, committed, supportive users.

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F1 Figure 1. Service relationship quality process model.

F2 Figure 2. Service relationship quality model.

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UT1 Table. Definitions of variables measured in this study.

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