Services industries which have been increasingly contributing to all the advanced economies call for further research and analysis on the employment relationship because of its unique characteristic i.e. "direct contact with the customer" (Korczynski, 2002:2). One may argue that not every employee in a service industry is directly interacting with the customer. However, the frontline worker in a service interaction faces challenges which are in stark contrast with the ones an assembly-line worker confronts in a manufacturing set-up. These challenges arise because of the variability in customer demands and expectations, simultaneity in production and consumption and the intangibility in the service delivered whose quality cannot be tested before consumption and can only be perceived by the customer.
Challenges for Organizations
The challenges are not limited to the front-line workers but also impact the organizations. Organizations in the face of heightened competition and globalization need to reduce costs, enhance productivity, improve customer-service delivery and become more customer-oriented. Due to the greater extent of inseparability and simultaneity in production and consumption in front-line customer service work, production jobs cannot be relocated to countries with lower labor costs (Korczynski, 2002). Even if service organizations use Levitt's (1976) production-line approach to reduce costs and improve service delivery quality and subsequently replace human labor with machines and enhanced technology, competitors will erode the competitive advantage by utilizing superior machines and better technology (Schlesinger & Heskett, 1991).
To create competitive advantage, service organizations need to satisfy and delight the customer. Satisfying the needs of the customer by characteristics like price or utility appeals to the formally rational aspect of the customer. On the other hand, delighting the customer by the fulfillment of desires or by pleasurable experiences enchants the formally irrational aspect of the customer (Korczynski, 2002). Achieving both the objectives in any service interaction requires the organization to create an environment where the customer feels he is in charge and is enchanted by his sovereignty, however in reality, his behavior is being directed or influenced by the organization. The dual purpose of achieving efficiency and being customer-oriented in a service interaction are contradictory in nature and delineates the customer-oriented bureaucracy model (Korczynski, 2002). The contradictory goals of achieving efficiency and delivering high-quality services can be attained by acquiring a committed workforce with customer-oriented attitudes and values, equipping them with support systems to effectively complete their tasks (without alienating customers), safeguarding the front-line workers from abusive customers and empowering them to exercise discretion.
Challenges for Front-line Service Workers
Front-line service workers are the face of a service organization for the customer, and the dual contradictory goals of customer-oriented bureaucracy are realized through their efforts and behaviors. In organizations where service work is designed on the principles of production-line, tasks tend to be routine; jobs are deskilled and tightly controlled through the usage of pre-defined service interaction scripts (Ritzer, 1998). Employees in such jobs tend to get dissatisfied and develop a poor service attitude or leave the firm (Schlesinger & Heskett, 1991). In such companies, front-line workers are trained minimally, paid at minimum wage levels and provided very limited opportunities for career growth. Because of the standardized procedures and variability in customer demands and expectations, front-line workers often find themselves unable to accommodate customer requests or achieve service recovery in case of failure. In such instances, the enchanting myth of customer sovereignty is shattered, and the disillusioned customer becomes irate and abusive creating a lot of stress and pain for the frontline workers (Korczysnki, 2002).
Even if the task is not routine or not tightly controlled, front-line workers are supposed to manage feelings (Korczysnki, 2002) and follow display rules (Grandey, 2003) during customer interactions which entail delivery of emotional labor. Hochschild (1983) claims that delivery of emotional labor necessitates commoditization of smiles, friendly gestures and feelings and would disconnect the front-line worker from his or her feelings or behaviors. The strict imposition of display rules by the management and the unfavorable power relationship with the customer (Korczysnki, 2002) could be a source of significant stress and pain for the front-line workers. The display rules are not only restricted to feelings or behaviors of front-line workers but also to their outward appearance (Nickson et al., 2001). For example, frontline workers should have attractive faces, gendered bodies, sparkly-white teeth, neat and properly groomed hair, no facial hair, etc. termed as aesthetic labor.
Case of Hotel Industry
In an attempt to understand how the "direct contact with the customer" adds a new dimension to the employer-employee relationship in a service organization, the hotel industry is treated here as an example to delve deeper into the interrelationships between the employer, employee and the customer.
The hotel industry is characterized as a low-pay, labor-intensive industry (Duncan, 2005) with high turnover and weak internal labor markets (Lucas, 1995). It is also infamous for its hazardous working conditions and anti-social working hours (Doherty & Stead, 1998). The requirement for the entry-level workforce is very high (on numbers) (Wong, 2004) with low levels of skill barrier (Davidson et al., 2006); however the demand fluctuates because of various reasons. The demand for hotel rooms and its services has three main constituents namely tourism, business purpose and local consumption (Bull & Church, 1996). The nature of demand generated by tourism is seasonal in nature with peak and off seasons. With slowdown or recession in economies, the disposable income reduces and businesses resort to cutting down of hospitality expenditures which...