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EJM 42,11/12

Customer-employee relationship
The role of self-employee congruence
Ahmad Jamal
Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK, and

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Received May 2006 Revised November 2006 Accepted February 2007

Adegboyega Adelowore
Beneficial Finance (HSBC Group), Cardiff, UK
Abstract
Purpose – Many have applied the concept of congruence or fit in the context of person-organization, person-environment and person-person relationships and interactions. However, despite the significance of customer-employee interactions and relations in a services context, no research has investigated the effects of congruence between a customer’s self-concept and employee-image on important relational outcomes such as relationship satisfaction, loyalty to employees and satisfaction towards service provider. The paper aims to fill this gap in the literature and to investigate the effects of self-employee congruence on customer satisfaction via the mediating effects of personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty to employees. The paper also seeks to investigate the links among personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees. Design/methodology/approach – The paper uses a causal modelling approach and proposes a conceptual model after an extensive review of the literature related to consumer behaviour, organizational behaviour, relationship marketing and services marketing. The paper is based on a sample of 203 customers of bank users in Nigeria who completed a self-administered questionnaire. The paper uses confirmatory factor analysis and SEM to analyse and confirm the conceptual model proposed in this research. Findings – The paper demonstrates that self-employee congruence is an important antecedent of personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty to employees each of which is in turn positively linked to customer satisfaction towards the service provider. Research limitations/implications – The paper discusses implications for service marketers and for retail banking sector and highlights the significance of self-employee congruence for service design and delivery, advertising strategies and suggests future research directions. Originality/value – The paper is first of its kind to discuss the effects of perceived similarities between customers and employees on some important relational constructs such as personal interaction, relationship satisfaction, loyalty towards employees and towards customer satisfaction. Keywords Marketing theory, Consumer behaviour, Buyer-seller relationships, Customer satisfaction, Nigeria, Banking Paper type Research paper

European Journal of Marketing Vol. 42 No. 11/12, 2008 pp. 1316-1345 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0309-0566 DOI 10.1108/03090560810903691

Introduction An application of self-concept in customer behaviour suggests that customers can buy products or brands that are perceived to be similar to their own self-concept (Ericksen, 1996; Graeff, 1996; Mehta, 1999; Onkvisit and Shaw, 1987; Sirgy et al., 1997, 1991; Sirgy, 1982). During the consumption process, a product-user image interacts with the
The authors would like to thank Dr Paul Bottomley of Cardiff Business School, UK and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions and feedback to improve the manuscript.

customer’s self concept generating a subjective experience referred to as self-image congruence (Sirgy et al., 1997). Recently, Sirgy et al. (2000) extended the concept of self-congruence to the retail settings and argued that self-congruity involved a process of matching a consumer’s self-concept with the retail patron image. It was argued that the greater the degree of congruence between a shopper’s self concept and the retail patron image, the greater the likelihood that the shopper would patronize the retail store (Sirgy et al., 2000). Empirical evidence suggests that the self-image congruence influences customers’ brand preferences, purchase intentions, word-of-mouth recommendations, product use, brand choice, attitudes and satisfaction towards products (Ericksen, 1996; Jamal and Al-Marri, 2007; Jamal, 2004; Jamal and Goode, 2001; Sirgy et al., 1997, 1991). In an interpersonal context, empirical research suggests that partners, who are perceived as similar to one’s own self, are liked better, are trusted more and are perceived as more attractive compared to dissimilar partners (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997). Others have reported that person-organization congruence (i.e. the compatibility between individuals and organization) plays a significant role in an individual’s job satisfaction, organizational commitment (Lauver and Kristof-Brown, 2001), citizenship behaviour and career success (Bretz and Judge, 1994; Cable and DeRue, 2002). While many have investigated the effects of self-brand congruence (Sirgy et al., 1997), person-organization congruence and person-environment congruence, very few have explored the effects of the fit or congruence between customers and front line employees of a service organization on an important customer behaviour phenomenon such as satisfaction towards service provider (henceforth, customer satisfaction). Consistent with the consumer behaviour and organizational behaviour literature, we posit that during the service delivery process, the service employee image interacts with the customer’s self concept generating a subjective experience referred to as self-employee image congruence or simply self-employee congruence. Consider, for example, the case of a beauty saloon customer who views himself as a novelty seeker, modern and a friendly person. The customer may think that the typical employee with whom the customer interacts frequently is also a novelty seeker, modern and friendly person. The psychological comparison involving the interaction between the employee image and customer’s self-concept can generate self-employee congruence (see also, Sirgy et al., 2000). Many argue that developing satisfactory encounters and interactions with service personnel could act as a key to the overall relationship quality sought by organizations (Crosby and Stephens, 1987). We posit that the self-employee congruence can influence customers’ perceptions of their interactions with service employees, which can influence their satisfaction towards the relationship that they develop with the employees over time. The personal interaction can contribute towards generating feelings of loyalty towards the service employees, which in turn, can influence customer satisfaction. This is particularly significant in the context of services where customers often base their perceptions of service quality and service organization on their interactions with service employees (Babin and Boles, 1998; Hartline and Ferrell, 1996). Service quality involves comparing customer expectations to the performance (Gronroos, 1982, 1984) and customer perceptions of the interactions that take place during the service delivery process are important part of service quality evaluations (Brady and Cronin, 2001; Rust and Oliver, 1994). Enhancing customer satisfaction through a continuous relationship, and thereby

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creating value for the firm and the customer, is the underlying principle behind relationship marketing (Czepiel, 1990; Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002; Johnson and Selnes, 2004). Therefore, the aim of this paper is to explore the effects of self-employee congruence on customer satisfaction via personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards the employees. The paper contributes towards the literature on personal service encounters (Crosby and Stephens, 1987; Surprenant and Solomon, 1987; van Dolen et al., 2002, 2004) by exploring the role of psychological similarity (Crosby et al., 1990; Duck, 1994; Gremler and Gwinner, 2000) between customers and employees in generating feelings of customer satisfaction. Also, the paper contributes towards the existing conceptualizations that have emphasized the role of relationship quality (Crosby et al., 1990; Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002; Ulaga and Andreas, 2006) in fulfilling customer needs as central for relationship success. The relationship quality approach assumes that customers’ evaluation of relationship is critical in determining the fate of the relationship (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002). The current paper argues to consider the concept of self-employee congruence as an important antecedent of some of the key relational outcomes such as relationship satisfaction, loyalty to employees and customer satisfaction. This is in line with relationship marketing theory in which an important goal is to identify the key drivers that influence significant performance outcomes for the firm and to develop a better understanding of these drivers and outcomes (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002; Morgan and Hunt, 1994). The remainder of this paper is organised in five sections. Section two presents the conceptual framework used in this study and reviews the literature related to self-employee congruence, personal interaction, satisfaction and loyalty. In doing so, the section reports a number of hypotheses. In section three, the data collection procedure along with measures adopted for the current study are described. Results for exploratory factor analysis, confirmatory factor analysis and structural equation modelling (SEM) are presented in section four. This is followed by the fifth section, which discusses findings and reports conclusions and implications for service marketers. Conceptual framework Figure 1 presents the conceptual framework of customer-employee relationship in a service context and suggests that self-employee congruence is positively related to personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty to employees each of which is in turn related to customer satisfaction. Also, personal interaction positively relates to relationship satisfaction, which in turn is related to loyalty to the employees. Figure 1 represents the hypothesised model with an implicit assumption that the effect of self-employee congruence on satisfaction is mediated via personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty to employees. This assumption will be tested by comparing the hypothesised model with two rival models, each having direct paths from exogenous constructs to customer satisfaction. Self-concept and image congruence Self-concept is normally defined as ‘the totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object’ (Sirgy, 1982; Wylie, 1989). A socially determined frame of reference and a person’s perception of his or her own abilities and

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Figure 1. A conceptual framework of customer-employee relationship dynamics

characteristics including personality are an important part of self-concept (Graeff, 1996; Onkvisit and Shaw, 1987). Our self-concept is largely driven by the type of people with whom we interact and the nature of those interactions (Weigert et al., 1986). We also define ourselves through social interaction and by internalising collective values, meanings, and standards (Ashforth and Kreiner, 1999). In an earlier work, Grubb and Grathwohl (1967) postulated that self-concept is formed in an interaction process between an individual and others, and that the individual will strive for self-enhancement in the interaction process. Consumer behaviour is said to be regulated by one’s perceived similarities (or dissimilarities) of environment conditions to the self-image (Rogers, 1965). Accordingly, consumers tend to associate symbolic meanings with brand images (e.g. see also Levy, 1959) as brands are part of the environment symbolized by consumers. Many argue that brands and even retail stores have personal image attributes which reflect the stereotype of generalized users of that brand or retail store (Sirgy et al., 1997, 2000). Customers psychologically compare their self-images with those of the stereotypical user of the brand or retail store (Sirgy, 1982). For instance, in a retail context, consumers may feel uncomfortable if they see themselves patronizing a store that is not reflective of their self-concept (Sirgy et al., 2000). This is because the self-image congruence influences our behaviour through certain motives such as the needs for self-consistency (i.e. the tendency to behave consistently with one’s own view of self) and self-esteem (i.e. the tendency to seek experiences that enhance one’s self-concept). Recently, Escalas and Bettman (2005) argued that brands become linked to the self when they are able to help consumers achieve goals that are motivated by the self. Consumer behaviour literature indicates that self-image congruence affects customers’ brand preferences, their purchase intentions and satisfaction levels (Ericksen, 1996; Mehta, 1999; Jamal, 2004; Jamal and Goode, 2001), facilitates positive behaviour and attitudes toward brands (Ericksen, 1996; Sirgy, 1982, 1991; Sirgy et al., 1997) and is positively related to customers’ product evaluations (Graeff, 1996). Further support comes from the relationship and services marketing literature which suggests that the extent to which individuals have beliefs and values in common about behaviours and goals act as a direct precursor to relationship commitment and trust

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(Dwyer et al., 1987; Morgan and Hunt, 1994). Perceived similarity between customers and employees facilitates communications concerning specific service attributes (McGinnies and Ward, 1980), improves identifications with service employee which in turn reduces interpersonal barriers, raises mutual comfort levels and contributes towards the establishment of trust particularly during the early stages of relationship building (Coulter and Coulter, 2000). Similarly, Gremler et al. (2001) reported that in the case of banking and dental services, personal connection (i.e. a strong sense of affiliation or bond based on some common attributes or interests) between customers and employees positively influenced customer perceptions of trust towards the employee. Furthermore, self-image congruence parallels the concept of person-organization congruence, which is defined as the congruence between the beliefs and norms of individual persons and those of an organization (Netemeyer et al., 1997; O’Reilly et al., 1991). The person-organization congruence has been found to be positively related to a person’s job satisfaction, organizational commitment (Lauver and Kristof-Brown, 2001), citizenship behaviour and career success (Bretz and Judge, 1994; Cable and DeRue, 2002) and negatively related to turnover (O’Reilly et al., 1991). Self-image congruence also parallels the notion of person-person congruence which is defined as the congruence between the beliefs, norms and goals of an individual person and those of others. In the context of work environment, research indicates that people with the same values and personalities are attracted to, selected by and remain in environments where others have the same or similar personal characteristics (Schneider, 1987; Van Vianen, 2000). This reflects the similarity-attraction paradigm (Byrne, 1971), which argues that individuals are more attracted to, and have more positive attitudes about others who are similar to themselves. Similarly, Duck (1994) argues that individuals can become psychologically similar when they share common attitudes, personality predispositions and values. In a personal context, prior research suggests that partners, who are perceived as similar to one’s own self, are liked better, are trusted more and are perceived as more attractive compared to dissimilar partners (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997). While some have investigated the effects of perceived similarity between customers and employees (e.g. Crosby et al., 1990; Gremler and Gwinner, 2000), no prior research has investigated the effects of self-employee congruence on customer satisfaction via the mediating effects of personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees. The paper aims to fill this gap in the literature. Personal interaction In many service situations (e.g. beauty saloons, retail banking, health clubs), the service employee is often the primary (if not sole) contact point for the customer both before and after service delivery and service encounter occurs whenever the customer interacts with the employee (Bitner et al., 1990; Crosby et al., 1990). Customers’ perceptions of the performance of service employees during this interaction can play a critical role in customers’ evaluations of service quality which involves comparing customer expectations to the performance (Bitner, 1992; Gronroos, 1982, 1984). Hence, many consider personal interaction to be an important dimension of service quality and have called for merging together some of the SERVQUAL’s items related to responsiveness, assurance and empathy (Dabholkar et al., 1996; Carman, 1990). More

specifically, personal interaction involves customer perceptions of the interactions that take place during the service delivery process including attitudes, behaviours and expertise of employees (Bitner, 1990; Brady and Cronin, 2001) inspiring confidence and being courteous and helpful (Dabholkar et al., 1996). Since personal interaction essentially captures how the customer is treated by the employee (Dabholkar et al., 1996), it therefore reflects the functional service quality or how the service is delivered (Gronroos, 1982). Functional quality “relates to the nature of interaction between the service firm and its customers and the process by which the core service is delivered” (Bell et al., 2005, p. 172). This involves many of the psychological and behavioural aspects including the accessibility to the provider, the way service employees perform their tasks, what they say and how the service is completed (Caruana, 2002). Functional quality is different from technical quality, which refers to the quality of the service output (Gronroos, 1982; Sharma and Patterson, 1999) or what the customer gets as a result of his interactions with a service provider (Gronroos, 2001). While customers can evaluate technical quality quite objectively, they tend to perceive functional quality in a very subjective way (Gronroos, 2001). The way customers perceive the service firm as a whole (i.e. its corporate image) is in turn influenced by their perceptions of both functional and technical quality (Gronroos, 2001). While personal interaction reflects functional/process service quality, it is different from the later because the way a service is delivered can depend upon the context in which it is delivered. For instance, in the context of service delivery options based on self-service technologies, functional quality is applicable but personal interaction is not. Furthermore, functional quality differs from personal interaction in the sense that service environment features such as ambient conditions, facility design and social factors (Brady and Cronin, 2001) can be viewed as elements of the service delivery process as it is conceptually difficult to differentiate the notion of service environment from the concept of functional quality (Kang and James, 2004). Empirical evidence suggests that personal interactions are important in evaluating medical services (Brown and Swartz, 1989) and retail outlets (Westbrook, 1981). Since self-employee congruence is based on perceived similarities between a customer and a specific service employee, we expect self-employee congruence to be positively related to their perceptions of personal interactions that take place during the service delivery process. Hence, our first hypothesis: H1. The greater the self-employee congruency experienced by a customer, the greater will be customer perceptions of personal interactions involving a service employee. Relationship satisfaction Customer satisfaction is generally described as the full meeting of one’s expectations (Oliver, 1980) and is the feeling or attitude of a customer towards a product or service after it has been used (Evans et al., 2006; Parasuraman et al., 1988). Customer satisfaction, along with service quality, commitment and trust, is considered as a key construct in relationship marketing (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002). While customers can feel satisfied towards their relationship with a particular service provider (Abdul-Muhmin, 2005; Anderson and Narus, 1990; Dwyer et al., 1987), we use the term relationship satisfaction to refer to a positive affective state resulting from an

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appraisal of all aspects of a customer’s working relationship with a particular service employee (see also, Reynolds and Beatty, 1999). The customer-employee relationship exists when there is an ongoing series of interactions between a service employee and a customer and when both the parties know each other (Czepiel, 1990; Reynolds and Beatty, 1999). Empirical evidence suggests that perceived similarities among individuals in a relational context influences relationship satisfaction (e.g. Crosby et al., 1990). Following the same logic, we propose our next hypothesis: H2. The greater the self-employee congruency experienced by a customer, the greater will be their relationship satisfaction with the service employee. Loyalty towards service employee Similarly, a number of scholars have highlighted the significance of loyalty (Beerli et al., 2004; Bloemer et al., 1999; Caruana, 2002), which is defined as “a deeply held commitment to re-buy or re-patronize a preferred product/service consistently in the future, thereby causing repetitive same-brand or same brand-set purchasing, despite situational influences and marketing efforts having the potential to cause switching behavior” (Oliver, 1999, p. 34). Greater loyalty can lead to lower marketing costs (Aaker, 1991), enhanced opportunities for brand extensions and increased market shares (Buzzell et al., 1975; Buzzell and Gale, 1987). It can also encourage favourable word of mouth and greater resistance among loyal customers to competitive strategies (Dick and Basu, 1994) and can lead to the lower levels of price sensitivity among customers (Keller, 1993; Rundle-Thiele and Mackay, 2001). However, differences exist between person-person and person-organization relationships (Iacobucci and Ostrom, 1996) and, therefore, loyalty can be towards a service employee as well as towards a service provider (Wong and Sohal, 2003). We believe that the perceived similarities among individuals in a relational context not only influence their relationship satisfaction, but also their loyalty towards service employees. Hence, we propose the following: H3. The greater the self-employee congruency experienced by a customer, the greater will be their loyalty towards the service employee. Furthermore, given the intangibility and credence properties of some services, many customers deliberately seek out on-going relationships with service providers to reduce their perceptions of risk associated with service delivery (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997). Customers often rely on a service employee’s ability and integrity in reducing the perceived uncertainty while trust and satisfaction with the service employee can act as important dimensions of relationship quality (Crosby et al., 1990). Customer-oriented employees with a focus on showing empathy, understanding of customer needs, interpersonal care and trustworthy behaviour are likely to contribute significantly towards the strength of customer-employee relationship over the long-term (Beatty et al., 1996). Moreover, many have called for investigating the benefits that customers obtain from developing long-term relationships with employees and the outcomes of these benefits (Bitner, 1995; Berry, 1995; Gwinner et al., 1998; Reynolds and Beatty, 1999). It is argued that customer-employee relationships provide benefits to both parties (Beatty et al., 1996; Berry, 1995; Bitner, 1995) playing a significant role in customers’ evaluations of service quality. The relational benefits for customers include monetary savings (Peterson, 1995), time savings, feelings of security, customizing of

service offering and expectations to receive satisfactory delivery of the core service (Gwinner et al., 1998), feelings of familiarity, personal recognition, friendship, rapport and support (Berry, 1995; Gwinner et al., 1998) and a sense of enhanced confidence and trust (Berry, 1995). Since the service employees often play a critical role in the fulfilment of relationship benefits, customers’ perceptions of the performance of service employees can be critical in fostering and enhancing customer-employee relationships. Therefore, our next hypothesis: H4. Customer perceptions of personal interaction will be positively related to relationship satisfaction. Similarly, customers who feel satisfied towards their relationships with service employees are very likely to feel loyal towards the service employees as satisfaction is an important determinant of loyalty (Beerli et al., 2004; Bearden and Teel, 1983; Cronin and Taylor, 1992; Caruana, 2002; Dick and Basu, 1994; Oliva et al., 1992; Selnes, 1993). Hence, our next hypothesis: H5. The greater the relationship satisfaction, the greater will be loyalty towards the service employee. Satisfaction towards the service provider Customer satisfaction is increasingly becoming a corporate goal as more and more companies strive for quality in their products and services (Bitner and Hubbert, 1994). Some widely reported determinants of customer satisfaction include service quality, expectations, disconfirmation, performance, desires, affect and equity (Churchill and Surprenant, 1982; Levesque and McDougall, 1996; Oliver, 1993; Patterson et al., 1997; Spreng et al., 1996; Szymanski and Henard, 2001). However, there can be potentially many antecedents of customer satisfaction as the dimensions underlying satisfaction judgements are global rather than specific (Jamal and Naser, 2002; Patterson and Johnson, 1993; Rust and Oliver, 1994; Taylor and Baker, 1994). For instance, customers’ perceptions of the performance of service employees can influence their satisfaction levels with the service providers (Crosby et al., 1990). Similarly, prior research suggests that customers’ satisfaction with service employee is a predictor of overall satisfaction with service provider (Crosby and Stephens, 1987). Satisfaction with past interactions involving service employees acts as a key variable in customers’ receptivity to relationship maintenance (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997) in enhancing trust and perceived dependence on the service provider (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997; Bitner, 1995). Also, according to relationship quality paradigm (Crosby et al., 1990), customers’ evaluations of their relationship with the service provider can be central to their decision to continue or leave the relationship (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002; Morgan and Hunt, 1994). Moreover, social bonds between customers and employees lead customers to have higher levels of commitment (Berry, 1995) and loyalty to the organization (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002). Hence, our next set of hypotheses: H6. Customer perceptions of personal interaction will be positively related to customer satisfaction towards the service provider. H7. The greater the relationship satisfaction, the greater will be customer satisfaction towards the service provider.

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Prior research also argues that loyalty to service employees can be more substantial than other forms of loyalty (Oliver, 1997) as it is likely to be built on notions of trust, attachment and commitment, which may be more deeply exhibited in a person-person context (Czepiel, 1990; Reynolds and Beatty, 1999). This is backed up by further empirical evidence which suggests that a customer’s loyalty can be towards a service employee, which in turn influences loyalty and customer satisfaction (Beatty et al., 1996; Macintosh and Lockshin, 1997; Wong and Sohal, 2003). Hence, our final hypothesis: H8. The greater the loyalty towards the service employee, the greater will be customer satisfaction towards the service provider. Data collection Retail banking sector Data to examine the effects of self-employee congruence and personal interaction on customer satisfaction was gathered from personal interviews with customers of four popular retail banks in Nigeria using a structured questionnaire. This particular retail banking sector was considered a good setting for testing the model mainly because the social fabric in a highly collectivist culture such as Nigeria is tightly knit (Zagorsek et al., 2004). The collectivist cultures tend to hold an interdependent view of the self that stresses connectedness, social context and relationships (Aaker and Maheswaran, 1997; Hofstede, 1984, 1990; Triandis, 1989). Despite the fact that recent advances in the information technology have helped to streamline the back office operations of most banks in Nigeria (Uche and Ehikwe, 2001), the front office operations are still characterised by close customer-employee relationships and encounters (Ehigie, 2006). Thus, the sector represented a high contact service in which, like hotels, restaurants, and airlines, contact employees’ communication skills are particularly important (see for instance, Bitner et al., 1990). Furthermore, the governmental policies have encouraged mergers, acquisitions and entrance of foreign banks creating a stiffer competitive environment in the Nigerian banking sector (Ehigie, 2006). However, a substantial review of the literature revealed only one study by Ehigie (2006) investigating the correlates of customer loyalty in the Nigerian banking sector. This makes research on the effects of customer-employee congruence on customer satisfaction in the Nigerian banking industry significant. Moreover, the particular banks within the sector were selected mainly because of ease of access and the cooperation extended by the participating banks to collect data from their customers. It might be worth noting here that, in general, customers tend to stay longer with their respective banks due to high levels of negativity (e.g. feelings of being locked in, being concerned about negative financial consequences and uncertainty about the outcome of switching) and customer apathy, which reflects customers’ tendency to maintain the status quo (Colgate and Lang, 2001). Also, customers can feel bonded with their banks due to the existence of bank accounts and other contractual arrangements (Gerrard and Doyle, 1990 cited in Gerrard and Cunningham, 2004). However, in the retail-banking sector, customer switching tends to be largely influenced by more than one critical incident (Gerrard and Cunningham, 2000, 2004). This is probably due to the higher perceived switching costs (Beerli et al., 2004; Keaveney, 1995) and perceived risk (Dowling and Staelin, 1994) associated with retail banking.

However, in recent years, competition has intensified introducing new products and new ways of service delivery (Bitner et al., 2000, 2002; Dabholkar and Bagozzi, 2002; Meuter et al., 2000). Customers have also become increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable with a tendency to open new accounts with multiple banks. Increasingly customers’ tend to perceive very little difference in the services offered by service providers whereby any offering is quickly matched by competition (Coskun and Frohlich, 1992). Consequently, retail banks are increasingly becoming customer-oriented in accordance with the basic principles of relationship marketing (Beerli et al., 2004; Levesque and McDougall, 1996). Hence, the research aims to contribute towards relationship marketing literature by investigating the effects of self-employee congruence on satisfaction via some important relational constructs such as relationship satisfaction, personal interaction and loyalty towards employees within the Nigerian banking sector. Measures On the basis of an extensive review of the literature and definitions used in this study, we generated a pool of measures to be utilized in the questionnaire. Consistent with prior research, self-employee congruence, personal interaction, loyalty to service employee and customer satisfaction were measured on seven-point Likert-type scales, with anchors of 1 ¼ strongly disagree and 7 ¼ strongly agree whereas relationship satisfaction was measured on seven-point semantic differential items. In order to elicit customers’ self-employee congruence, we followed the procedure outlined by prior research (Gremler and Gwinner, 2000; Sirgy et al., 1997) by asking respondents to think about an employee in their bank that first came to their mind and who they believed was a representative of all other employees. They were asked to think about one particular employee that they dealt with regularly or a group of employees that came to their mind while thinking of their day-to-day dealings with their chosen bank. While imagining this employee(s) in their minds, the respondents were asked to respond to four measures of self-employee congruence (e.g. “Dealing with the employee(s) at X is consistent with how I see myself most of the time”), which were adopted from Sirgy et al. (1997; see also, Jamal and Al-Marri, 2007; Jamal and Goode, 2001). All of the responses were consistent with the procedure outlined by Sirgy et al. (1997) and were therefore considered as valid and reliable. We used six items to measure personal interaction based on existing service quality literature (Carman, 1990; Dabholkar et al., 1996; Parasuraman et al., 1988, 1991). Following Reynolds and Beatty (1999) and Ganesan (1994), we used four self-reported seven-point semantic differential items to measure relationship satisfaction with the end points: “pleased/displeased; happy/unhappy; contended/disgusted and enjoyable/frustrating” following the statement, “Thinking of my relationship with the service employee(s) at X, I feel . . . ”. We used four items to measure loyalty towards service employee to capture the overall commitment of being loyal to a specific service employee(s) based on Beatty and Kahle’ (1988), Oliver’s (1997) and Yoo et al. (2000) work (e.g. I consider myself to be loyal to the employee(s) at X). Finally, four frequently used measures of customer satisfaction (e.g. “After considering everything, I am extremely satisfied with X”) were included in the study (Jamal and Naser, 2002; Jones and Sasser, 1995; Levesque and McDougall, 1996; Sirgy et al., 1997). Additionally, in order to establish customers’ familiarity (Carman, 1990) and bank

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usage behaviour, respondents were first asked: “which of the following banks do you have an account with (please tick all that are applicable)?” The respondents were then presented with a list of six major banks with an option to specify any other bank (if theirs was not on the list). The respondents were then asked to indicate the name of their main bank out of the options identified in step one. The respondents’ use of their main bank was further measured by asking respondents for how long they had banked with their main bank. Pilot testing and questionnaire administration A total of 20 pilot tests were then conducted with customers who were seen as similar to the population for the study. The purpose of the pre-testing was to refine the questionnaire and to assess the validity and applicability of measures for the service sector; corresponding amendments were made to the questionnaire after the pilot tests. A total of 250 questionnaires were then distributed among retail bank users in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria and the second largest in Africa. With the help of customer service staff at local bank branches, subjects were invited to fill in self-administered questionnaires soon after they entered the bank branch and before they could conduct any of their intended transactions. Once they completed the questionnaire, they were offered drinks and beverages and given special treatment as a thank you gesture (e.g. no need to join the queues). The incentive was offered after the completion of questionnaire to avoid any potential bias in responses. Data was collected during different times of the day and days of the week over a two-week period. The procedure resulted in 203 completed questionnaires with a response rate of 81 per cent. All of the completed questionnaires were fully answered, resulting in a total of 203 usable questionnaires. Out of the 203 usable questionnaires, 120 (59.1 per cent) indicated their banking tenure with their main bank to be between one to five years, whereas 57 (28.1 per cent) indicated to have banked for more than five years. This indicates the respondents had sufficient familiarity with the banks and were likely to be familiar with the banking procedures (see for instance, Carman, 1990). Overall, the sample is primarily aged 25-44 (81 per cent) with an additional 16 per cent belonging to the 18-24 age category; 63 per cent single and 35 per cent married; highly educated (78 per cent holding university degrees), mainly earning up to 930 Euros a month (79.7 per cent), represent a wide range of occupations, and 56 per cent male and 44 per cent female. Data analysis and findings Factor analysis and scale reliabilities In order to test the validity of measures used in the study, a confirmatory factor analysis using Amos 6.0 was conducted (Anderson and Gerbing, 1988; Byrne, 2001). The confirmatory factor analysis was preferred over the exploratory factor analysis because it is theory based, accounts for measurement error, and tests for unidimensionality (Byrne, 2001; Hair et al., 1998). In arriving at the final set of items for each construct, we deleted seven measures from the initial battery of 22 items based on item-to total correlations and the standardised residual values (Byrne, 2001; Rokkan et al., 2003). The deleted items were examined and compared with original conceptual definitions of the constructs. In each case, deleting the items did not significantly change the domain of the construct as it was initially conceptualised. The resulting pool of items was subsequently subjected to confirmatory factor analysis and a

completely standardised solution produced by Amos 6.0 using maximum likelihood method showed that all of the 14 items loaded highly on their corresponding factors, confirming the unidimensionality of the constructs and provided strong empirical evidence of their validity. The t-values for the loadings were high, demonstrating adequate convergent validity. The resulting measurement model was x2203 ¼ 168.712; p ¼ 0.000; Goodness of Fit Index (GFI) ¼ 0.90; Adjusted Goodness-of-Fit Index (AGFI) ¼ 0.85; Comparative-Fit-Index (CFI) ¼ 0.96; Incremental Fit Index (IFI) ¼ 0.97; Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) ¼ 0.07, which indicated a good fit. The measurement model and the standardized loadings along with critical ratios are presented in Table I. Following the previous literature (Byrne, 2001; Hair et al., 1998), our choice of fixing the specific items was purely arbitrary. Cronbach alpha coefficients were then computed to quantify the scale reliabilities of the factors identified and were 0.89 (self-employee congruence), 0.86 (personal interaction), 0.95
Standardized loadings Self-employee congruence (Scale composite reliability ¼ 0.89; Variance extracted ¼ 0.72) SEC1 Dealing with the employee(s) of “X” is consistent with how I see myself most of the time SEC2 People similar to me deal with the employee(s) of “X” most of the time SEC3 Dealing with the employee(s) of “X” most of the time reflects who I am Personal interaction (Scale composite reliability ¼ 0.87; Variance extracted ¼ 0.69) PIN1 I receive prompt service from employees at “X” PIN2 Employees at “X” are always willing to help customers PIN3 Employees at “X” are not too busy to respond to customer requests promptly Relationship satisfaction (Scale composite reliability ¼ 0.95; Variance extracted ¼ 0.86) RS1 I feel pleased/displeased about my relationship with the employee(s) at “X” RS2 I feel happy/unhappy about my relationship with the employee(s) at “X” RS3 I feel contended/disgusted about my relationship with the employee(s) at “X” Loyalty to employees (Scale composite reliability ¼ 0.84; Variance extracted ¼ 0.64) LE1 I am very loyal to the employee(s) at “X” LE2 I plan to deal with employee(s) at “X” in the future LE3 I am very committed to the employee(s) at “X” Customer satisfaction (Scale composite reliability ¼ 0.93; Variance extracted ¼ 0.81) SAT1 After considering everything, I am extremely satisfied with “X” SAT2 The overall quality of service offered by “X” is excellent SAT3 If anyone asked me, I would strongly recommend “X” to them Critical ratio (CR)

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0.84 0.82 0.88

14.72 14.32 Fixed

0.86 0.91 0.72

11.55 12.00 Fixed

0.92 0.95 0.91

21.82 23.96 Fixed

0.80 0.69 0.89

12.91 10.75 Fixed

0.89 0.97 0.84

16.57 18.83 Fixed

Table I. The measurement model

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(relational satisfaction), 0.82 (loyalty towards employees) and 0.92 (customer satisfaction). Thus, reliabilities ranged from 0.82 to 0.95, providing further support that all the scales used in this study were acceptable and reliable (Nunnally, 1978). The inter-correlations, means, and standard deviations of the five constructs used in the study are reported in Table II. Hypothesized model Structural equation modelling was used to estimate parameters of the hypothesized model, which specified self-employee congruence as an exogenous construct. The self-employee congruence was selectively related to the mediating constructs of personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees each of which were in turn related to the endogenous construct (customer satisfaction). Also, personal interaction was related to relationship satisfaction, which in turn was related to loyalty towards employees. Goodness-of-fit statistics, indicating the overall acceptability of the hypothesized model analyzed, were acceptable: x2203 ¼ 169.90; p ¼ 0.000; degrees of freedom ¼ 82; GFI ¼ 0.90; AGFI ¼ 0.86; CFI ¼ 0.97; IFI ¼ 0.97; RMSEA ¼ 0.07. The SEM results are reported in Table III. In accordance with Anderson and Gerbing (1988), we can assume that convergent validity exists when the critical ration (CR) of the variables observed against their respective latent variables is over 1.96 at the 0.05 level. Furthermore, as reported in Table I, the scale composite reliability and the average variance extracted for each construct were quite satisfactory (Fornell and Larker, 1981). The composite reliability, which is an internal consistency reliability measure as further evidence of convergent validity computed from Amos solutions, ranged from 0.84 to 0.95. The average variance extracted for each construct ranged from 0.64 to 0.86, exceeding the acceptable level of 0.50 (Hair et al., 1998). It can be seen from Table III, that all the critical ratios of the indicators of constructs satisfy this criterion, so the convergent validity of the measurements is demonstrated and the proposed relationships between indicators and constructs verified. As hypothesised, self-employee congruence was significantly and positively related to personal interaction (parameter estimate ¼ 0.534, t-value ¼ 6.594); relationship satisfaction (parameter estimate ¼ 0.247, t-value ¼ 3.439) and loyalty towards employee (parameter estimate ¼ 0.553, t-value ¼ 6.855). Therefore, H1, H2 and H3 are all accepted. Also, as hypothesised, personal interaction was significantly related to relationship satisfaction (parameter estimate ¼ 0.548, t-value ¼ 6.723) which was in turn related to loyalty towards employees (parameter estimate ¼ 0.237, t-value ¼ 3.191). Hence, H4 and H5 are also accepted. Finally, personal interaction
Self-employee congruence Self-employee congruence Personal interaction Relationship satisfaction Loyalty to employees Customer satisfaction Mean Standard deviation 1.0 0.53 0.54 0.68 0.52 4.94 1.41 Personal interaction 1.0 0.68 0.50 0.72 5.37 1.29 Relationship satisfaction Loyalty to employees Customer satisfaction

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Table II. Construct inter-correlation matrix

1.0 0.53 0.69 5.31 1.24

1.0 0.59 5.34 1.39

1.0 5.22 1.30

Regression weights Self-employee congruence ! Personal interaction Self-employee congruence ! Relation satisfaction Self-employee congruence ! Loyalty to employee Personal interaction ! Relation satisfaction Personal interaction ! Customer satisfaction Relationship satisfaction ! Loyalty to employee Relationship satisfaction ! Customer satisfaction Loyalty to employee(s) ! Customer satisfaction Self-employee congruence ! SEC1 Self-employee congruence ! SEC2 Self-employee congruence ! SEC3 Personal interaction ! PIN1 Personalinteraction ! PIN2 Personal interaction ! PIN3 Relationship satisfaction ! RS1 Relationship satisfaction ! RS2 Relationship satisfaction ! RS3 Loyalty to employee ! LE1 Loyalty to employee ! LE2 Loyalty to employee ! LE3 Customer satisfaction ! SAT1 Customer satisfaction ! SAT2 Customer satisfaction ! SAT3

Estimates 0.453 0.224 0.565 0.586 0.460 0.267 0.295 0.213 0.938 0.922 1.000 0.982 1.049 1.000 0.987 0.960 1.000 0.779 0.918 1.000 0.935 1.000 0.946
2

Standard error 0.069 6.594 0.065 0.082 0.087 0.088 0.084 0.079 0.058 0.064 0.065 0.085 0.087 0.045 0.040 0.600 0.085 0.043 0.050

Critical ratio P , 0.000 0.534 3.439 0.000 6.855 0.000 6.723 0.000 5.256 0.000 3.191 0.001 3.751 0.000 3.651 0.000 14.751 0.000 14.189 0.000 11.581 0.000 12.014 0.000 21.845 0.000 23.941 0.000 12.877 0.000 10.766 0.000 21.746 0.000 18.768 0.000

Standardized estimates

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0.247 0.553 0.548 0.416 0.237 0.286 0.232 0.845 0.821 0.877 0.856 0.904 0.720 0.920 0.950 0.910 0.803 0.695 0.890 0.886 0.966 0.839

Notes: Goodness-of-fit statistics of the model: x 203 ¼ 169.900, p ¼ 0.000; degrees of freedom (df) ¼ 82; goodness of fit index (GFI) ¼ 0.90; adjusted goodness-of-fit index (AGFI) ¼ 0.86; root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) ¼ 0.07; comparative-fit-index (CFI) ¼ 0.97; incremental fit index (IFI) ¼ 0.97

Table III. Structural model estimates

(parameter estimate ¼ 0.416, t-value ¼ 5.256), relationship satisfaction (parameter estimate ¼ 0.286, t-value ¼ 3.751) and loyalty towards employee (parameter estimate ¼ 0.232, t-value ¼ 3.651) were each related to the customer satisfaction. Therefore, H6, H7 and H8 are also accepted. Alternative model testing In addition to the hypothesized model illustrated in Figure 1, we tested two competing models to our proposed model. A model comparison approach is consistent with the structural modelling literature (Byrne, 2001; Hair et al., 1998). In order to rule out the possibility that self-employee congruence was not an antecedent of personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees but a direct predictor of satisfaction in our hypothesized model, we decided to estimate a rival model (Figure 2) with direct paths from self-employee congruence, personal interaction,

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relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees to customer satisfaction as a conceptual alternative (Morgan and Hunt, 1994). Also, personal interaction was related to relationship satisfaction, which in turn was related to loyalty towards employees. In the context of interaction involving customer’s self-concept and brand user image, prior research has reported that self-image congruence is a direct predictor of customer satisfaction (Sirgy et al., 1982, 1997). Estimating the rival model produced a significant chi-square value (x2203 ¼ 230.153; p ¼ 0.000; degree of freedom ¼ 83) but the direct path from self-employee congruence was not significant. The other fit indices were GFI ¼ 0.873; AGFI ¼ 0.82; CFI ¼ 0.94; IFI ¼ 0.94; RMSEA ¼ 0.09 indicating a mediocre fit (MacCallum et al., 1996). Since the rival model was not fully nested within the hypothesized model indicating a radical departure from our conceptual framework, the Akaike’s Information Criterion (AIC) and Consistent Information Criterion (CAIC) were considered as appropriate for model comparison (Akaike, 1987; Bozdogan, 1987; Rust et al., 1995). While for hypothesized model, AIC is 245.90 and CAIC is 409.80, the values for rival model are AIC ¼ 304.153 and CAIC ¼ 463.742. As smaller values for these criteria indicate a better fit, these results indicate a preference for the hypothesized model over the rival model. Furthermore, PGFI (hypothesized model ¼ 0.616, and rival model ¼ 0.0.604) and PNFI (hypothesized model ¼ 0.730, and rival model ¼ 0.721) indices, which assess the parsimonious fit of competing models, favour the hypothesized model. The results indicate that although the rival model shows a mediocre fit in absolute terms but in relative terms (i.e. in comparison with the rival model), the hypothesized model is superior. Having rejected the rival model, we then proceeded to estimate a revised model (Figure 3) to confirm the partial mediating role of personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees in our hypothesized model. The revised model included exactly the same paths as in the hypothesized model except one additional direct path from self-employee congruence to customer satisfaction (Figure 3). Estimating the revised model produced a significant chi-square value (x2203 ¼ 169.88; p ¼ 0.000; degree of freedom ¼ 81). The other fit indices were GFI ¼ 0.90; AGFI ¼ 0.85; CFI ¼ 0.96; IFI ¼ 0.97; RMSEA ¼ 0.07 indicating an overall acceptability of the revised model. While both the hypothesized and the revised model were equivalent on the overall fit statistics and the standardized parameter estimates of predicted relationships for the revised model and the hypothesized model were essentially the same, however, the direct path from self-employee congruence was still not significant (Table IV). This is consistent with the model of Figure 1 and supports

Figure 2. The firect effects model of customer-employee relationships

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Figure 3. A partially mediated model of customer-employee relationships

the partial mediating hypothesis. We, therefore, find the hypothesized model to be a better representation of the data because adding a direct path (non-significant) from self-employee congruence to satisfaction does not improve the overall fit of the hypothesized model. Discussion The current study sought to evaluate the self-concept theory by positing that the psychological comparison involving the interaction between the employee image and customer’s self-concept generate self-employee congruence. In particular, it aimed to investigate the effects of self-employee congruence in a specific service context (i.e. the Nigerian retail banking sector) where the front office bank operations are characterised by face to contacts between bank employees and bank customers (Ehigie, 2006; see also Zagorsek et al., 2004). In doing so, the objective was to investigate the effects of self-employee congruence on customer satisfaction via personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards bank employees in Nigeria. This was done within the ethos of relationship marketing where the aim is to identify key drivers that influence significant performance outcomes and to develop a better understanding of these drivers and outcomes (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002; Morgan and Hunt, 1994). Self-employee congruence As hypothesized we found that the self-employee congruence had a significant and direct effect on a number of relational constructs such as personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees. These findings are in line with consumer behaviour literature that has argued that customers’ brand preferences and satisfaction levels go up once there is a perceived similarity between brand images and consumers’ self-images (Sirgy et al., 1982, 1997). More specifically, the findings lend support to our argument that the perceived similarity between a customer and an employee plays a critical role in determining customers’ perceptions of the way in which they are treated by employees and their appraisal of all aspects of their relationships with employees. This is in line with Coulter and Coulter (2002) who reported that perceived similarity allows individuals to identify with others on a personal basis which in turn reduces interpersonal barriers, raises comfort levels and contributes towards the generation of satisfaction and trust. Moreover, the self-concept theory suggests that self-concept is formed in an

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Regression weights 0.534 0.247 0.553 0.548 0.416 0.237 0.286 0.232 – 245.90 409.80 0.616 0.730 169.900 – 230.153 82 0.90 0.86 0.07 0.97 0.97 6.594 3.439 6.855 6.723 5.256 3.191 3.751 3.651 – – – – – – – – – – – – –– – 0.699 0.433 0.549 0.271 0.230 0.005 304.15 463.74 0.604 0.721 169.876 83 0.87 0.82 0.09 0.94 0.94 – – – 8.910 4.696 7.632 3.251 3.557 0.075 – – – – – – – – – – –

Self-employee congruence!Personal interaction Self-employee congruence!Relationship satisfaction Self-employee congruence!Loyalty to employee Personal interaction!Relation satisfaction Personal interaction!Customer satisfaction Relationship satisfaction!Loyalty to employee Relationship satisfaction!Customer satisfaction Loyalty to employee!Customer satisfaction Self-employee congruence!Customer satisfaction Akaike’s information criterion (AIC) Consistent information criterion (CAIC) Parsimonious goodness of fit index (PGFI) Parsimonious normed fit index (PNFI) Chi square (p ¼ 0.000) Degrees of freedom (df) Goodness of fit index (GFI) Adjusted goodness-of-fit index (AGFI) Root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) Comparative-fit-index (CFI) Incremental fit index (IFI)

Table IV. Comparison of structural model estimates Hypothesized model Std. est. Critical ratio Rival model Std. est. Critical ratio Revised model Std. est. Critical ratio 0.534 0.247 0.553 0.548 0.419 0.237 0.287 0.240 2 0.013 – – – – 81 0.90 0.85 0.07 0.96 0.97 6.594 3.435 6.855 6.719 5.127 3.184 3.758 2.986 2 0.156 – – – – – – – – – –

interaction process between an individual and others and that the individual strives for self-enhancement in the interaction process (Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967; Onkvisit and Shaw, 1987; Sirgy, 1982). Our findings suggest that the respondents in our study aimed to achieve a consistent self-image by interacting with the right type of employees with the right type of values, goals and imagery (see also, Onkvisit and Shaw, 1987; Sirgy, 2000). In a relationship marketing context, our findings lend support to the notion that relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees improves once the match between customer’s self concept and employee image goes up (see for instance, Bendapudi and Berry, 1997; Morgan and Hunt, 1994 for a similar argument). We also found that the effect of self-employee congruence on satisfaction was mediated through personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees. Therefore, self-employee congruence could be viewed as an additional antecedent of customer satisfaction via its effects on personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty to employees (Jamal, 2004; Jamal and Goode, 2001; Spreng et al., 1996; Szymanski and Henard, 2001). However, it is worth noting here that close customer-employee relationships and interactions do not characterise all service types and, in certain cases, loyalty to employees might become problematic (e.g. a customer switching because a particular employee leaves the service firm). Similarly, there is a significant growth in retail service delivery options based on technology (Bobbit and Dabholkar, 2001; Dabholkar and Bagozzi, 2002) that allow customers to produce and consume services without direct contact from employees (Meuter et al., 2000). Therefore, self-employee congruence might only apply in service contexts where there is a direct and frequent employee-customer contact. Personal interaction A noteworthy finding of our research is that the personal interaction directly affects both relationship satisfaction and customer satisfaction. More specifically, bank employees were perceived by customers as being helpful relational partners who had the ability and willingness to provide quick and prompt services to their clients. Many of the existing conceptualizations of service quality frequently refer to how the customer perceives the employees and their behaviours and attitudes (Brady and Cronin, 2001; Carman, 1990; Dabholkar et al., 1996). It is clear from our data that customers’ perceptions and evaluations of their interactions with employees tend to become positive once employees are perceived as friendly, enthusiastic, attentive and showing empathy for the customer (van Dolen et al., 2002). It might be that respondents felt uncertain and lacked knowledge associated with service encounters and hence needed some assistance in understanding the attributes and benefits associated with service consumption (Coulter and Coulter, 2002). This might have led to an appreciation of personal interaction among the respondents facilitating the communication of service related features to them. Nonetheless, these results lend support to our argument that employees play a critical role during the service delivery process and are in line with those reported by earlier research (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997; Crosby et al., 1990; Gwinner et al., 1998). Relationship satisfaction We found that relationship satisfaction had a direct effect on both the loyalty towards the employees and overall satisfaction towards the service provider. These results suggest

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that customers felt happy about their relationships with their respective banks and their employees and felt committed to some specific employees. It might be that the majority of respondents were collectivist in their cultural orientation and hence valued connectedness, social context and long-term relationships with others (Aaker and Maheswaran, 1997; Hofstede, 1984, 1990; Triandis, 1989). It might also be that the bank employees were quite skilful in developing feelings of familiarity, personal recognition and rapport with their customers (Berry, 1995; Gwinner et al., 1998). What ever the case, our findings suggest that customer oriented employees with a focus on showing empathy and care for customers can significantly contribute towards the strengthening of customer-employee relationships (Beatty et al., 1996). Our findings also lend support to the notion that relationship satisfaction is an important predictor of satisfaction towards the service provider (Crosby and Stephens, 1987; van Dollen, 2002). Loyalty towards employees Consistent with the hypothesized model, the present results show that loyalty towards employees is related to customer satisfaction. This is in line with previous findings from customer-employee relationship contexts (e.g. Beatty et al., 1996; Reynolds and Beatty, 1999). Also, our findings are in line with the notion that loyalty to service employees can be more substantial than other forms of loyalty (Oliver, 1997) because it appears to be built on notions of personal interaction and relationship satisfaction (Czepiel, 1990; Reynolds and Beatty, 1999). Moreover, our findings confirm the notion that a customer’s loyalty can be towards a service employee, which in turn influences customer satisfaction (Beatty et al., 1996; Macintosh and Lockshin, 1997; Wong and Sohal, 2003). Conclusion Overall, we conclude that that self-employee congruence has a strong impact on personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards service employees. We also conclude that self-employee congruence provides a meaningful perspective to the understanding of customer-employee interactions and relationships (Onkvisit and Shaw, 1987). Our findings contribute by extending the self-concept theory to a services context where research on image congruence is literally nonexistent (Kleijnen et al., 2005). Our findings also contribute towards the customer-employee interface literature (Hartline and Ferrell, 1996; Surprenant and Solomon, 1987) by reinforcing the significance of personal interaction (Brady and Cronin, 2001; Gronroos, 1982, 1984), relationship satisfaction (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997; Crosby et al., 1990; Gwinner et al., 1998) and loyalty to employees (Beatty et al., 1996; Reynolds and Beatty, 1999) in service settings. In line with the relational quality paradigm (Crosby et al., 1990), we conclude that as customers’ perceptions of interactions involving service employees go up, customer satisfaction towards service provider goes up with an enhanced probability of having a longer-term relationship between customers and service providers. Similarly, in line with relationship quality approach (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997; Gwinner et al., 1998; Reynolds and Beatty, 1999), we conclude that as the relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards service employee go up, customer satisfaction increases with implications for future relationship building and improving loyalty towards service providers. Our findings also confirm the partial mediating role of

personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty to employees on the relationship between self-employee congruence and customer satisfaction and, therefore, reconfirm the significance of customer satisfaction in the service setting. This is in line with prior research that argues to consider customer satisfaction as the essence of success in today’s highly competitive world of business (Bitner, 1990; Parasuraman et al., 1988, 1991). Managerial implications Our findings have some important implications for marketers of services characterised by high levels of face-to-face and frequent customer-employee interaction. First of all, and given the effectiveness of self-employee congruence in determining a number of relational constructs (and in indirectly influencing satisfaction levels), service marketers need to embark upon a strategy of carefully managing the interrelationship between a customer’s self-image and the perceived image attributes associated with employees (see also, Hong and Zinkhan, 1995). In particular, our findings highlight the significance of developing a distinct employee image (that is relevant to customers’ self-concept) in developing and projecting a strong corporate image. Since corporate image is the net result of the interaction of all experiences, impressions, beliefs, feelings and knowledge customers form about an organization (LeBlanc and Nguyen, 1996; Worcester, 1997), a distinct employee image that is consistent with customers’ self-concept can contribute towards the strengthening of overall corporate image and identity. According to Gronroos (2001), corporate image is the outcome of how customers perceive the service firm and is mainly built up by the technical and functional quality of its services. Furthermore, in today’s highly competitive business environment, the way a brand is positioned in terms of brand images is extremely important (Arnold, 2000; Bhat and Reddy, 1998; Park et al., 1986). Many argue that a strong corporate brand image is the most effective form of differentiation in financial services as strong brands increase customers’ trust of the invisible purchase and enable customers to better visualize and understand intangible products (Berry, 2000; Gronroos, 2001). Since, individuals develop impressions (i.e. image) about other people on the basis of other people’s behaviours, physical characteristics, attitudes, beliefs, abilities, skills, expertise and demographic characteristics (Park, 1986), service marketers need to focus on improving the performance of contact employees in service delivery (e.g. engage with customers in a friendly and social manner) with a view to strengthen the overall corporate image (see also, Bell et al., 2005). This is significant because increasing the strength of customers’ psychological bond with the service provider appears to raise the switching barriers (Colgate and Lang, 2001; Gerrard and Cunningham, 2000, 2004; Jones et al., 2000) and hence increases customers’ likelihood of staying with the firm (Burnhan et al., 2003). Further areas to focus, from a managerial perspective, include the service brand, the service environment in which employees operate and marketing communications (e.g. advertising depicting service employees) as all of them have the potential to influence the service employee-image formation. This is in with services literature that argues that consumer perceptions of service environment elicit cognitive responses influencing their beliefs about a place and the people and products found in that place (e.g. Bitner, 1992; Baker et al., 1994, 2002). We concur with Gwinner et al. (1998)

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and call for facilitating the development of interpersonal bonds by designing the service environment in such a way that opportunities for interactions between customers and employees are plentiful. Also, service marketers need to empower employees and design a service delivery process that can encourage customer-employee interactions (Gremler et al., 2001; Gwinner et al., 2005; Patterson and Smith, 2003). The managerial challenge here is how best to develop and reinforce self-employee congruency in the context of complicated corporate structures, the ever increasing variety of products offered by the service providers (Saunders and Watters, 1993) and a variety of personalities exhibited by service employees. Given the findings of this study, service marketers can aim to increase customer satisfaction by improving personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees. This is particularly significant in the Nigerian context where many banks have recently embarked on reorganizations with technology as a key agent of change resulting in significant reductions in staff strengths (Uche and Ehikwe, 2001). While self-service technologies can facilitate employees’ jobs, reduce transaction costs and encourage customers to create services outcomes on their own (Bitner et al., 2002; Quinn, 1996; Zinn, 1993), our findings imply that managers need to exercise caution in eliminating bank employees entirely from service delivery process. Rather consideration should be made for investing in customer database technology in creating a more personalised service encounter (Gwinner et al., 2005; Pine, 1993). During a service encounter, employees can utilise customer database to readily access customer characteristics and increase their familiarity of customers (e.g. identify qualities that customers have in common with them). This in turn can help to increase customer’s perceptions of caring, familiarity and personal connection with the employee leading to the development of customer satisfaction (Gremler and Gwinner, 2000). Managers can, therefore, consider rewarding employees for effectively using customer database during service interaction (Gremler et al., 2001; Gwinner et al., 1998), which in turn can influence customers’ perceptions of functional quality (Gronroos, 2001). Similarly, a comprehensive database may be of help in rewarding specific customers (e.g. specific sales promotional offers) for developing interpersonal bonds with employees (Gremler et al., 2001). However, one must focus here on developing feelings of dependence and overall trust towards the bank (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997) to counter customer defection due to a specific employee leaving the bank. Furthermore, retail banks in Nigeria are facing intense competition, which means increased choice for customers and more opportunities to open new accounts with multiple banks. Our data shows that banks need to increase customer satisfaction by improving personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty towards employees and become customer-oriented in accordance with the basic principles of relationship marketing (Beerli et al., 2004; Levesque and McDougall, 1996). This is in line with earlier research which has reported that customer satisfaction and service quality perceptions are important predictors of customer loyalty in the Nigerian banking sector (Ehigie, 2006). The managerial challenge here is how best to make customers more amenable to relationships and develop feelings of dependence and trust given the low level of constraints imposed by the retail banking sector (Bendapudi and Berry, 1997; Ehigie, 2006). Engaging customers in a more meaningful relationship could be an effective way of meeting this challenge as it adds value to customers and thus increases switching costs (Burnham et al., 2003). Our data implies

that banks which make their customers at ease will go a long way in developing long-term relationships with customers and improving customer satisfaction. Limitations and future research directions This research should be seen as a preliminary attempt at addressing the issue of self-employee congruence that has important implications for service marketing theory and practice. As with all research projects, the findings presented are characterized by limitations that restrict the extent to which they can be reliably generalized. For example, all of the constructs were measured at one point-in-time, thus essentially from a static perspective. It may be worthwhile to study the effects of self-employee congruence over time in order to be able to take into account the dynamics in customer-employee relationships. Also, our analysis was restricted to one service context (i.e. Nigerian retail banking sector) and needs to be tested over numerous contexts before one can be certain of its applicability to other domains. However, irrespective of the limitations, this study highlights a number of potentially interesting future research projects. For instance, the findings related to the relationship among self-employee congruence, relationship satisfaction, loyalty to employees and customer satisfaction may be equally applicable for different types of self-concept (e.g. actual vs. ideal self), different service contexts (e.g. services with high credence properties vs. those with low credence properties), consumption and usage situations (publicly consumed vs. privately consumed), different cultural orientations (e.g. collectivist vs. individualistic) and should, therefore, be explored in future research. It might be that certain service contexts (e.g. up-market restaurants, airlines and cruise lines) involve more symbolic and image related attributes than others and therefore the effects of self-employee congruence might vary depending upon the context of the study. Similarly, is the relationship the same or different when customers use more than one service brand simultaneously (e.g. multiple bank users) rather than a single service brand? Also, further research looking into the dynamics of customer-employee interactions can develop and validate a new scale with a view to incorporate sub-dimensions underlying the self-employee congruency. Future studies could also investigate the effect of self-employee congruence on satisfaction for different populations (e.g. cross cultural groups) and for a range of products/service sectors. However, these limitations apart, the current paper has contributed towards the existing literature by demonstrating that self-employee congruence is an important predictor of personal interaction, relationship satisfaction and loyalty to employees, each of which is in turn linked to satisfaction towards the service provider.
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