Nowadays, no hotel is booked, or new restaurant visited without a scrutinising of online reviews such as on TripAdvisor. The effect of such sites has been overwhelming on customer behaviour. But arguably through these sites, also exists equally profound effects on front-line employees, which until now have remained hidden.

Through the Venture Fund, I have led research to shine light on this phenomenon. Over multiple stages of quantitative and qualitative research, we were excited to offer the ‘Big Customer Effect’. Simplistically, this occurs when employees are triggered to think that a customer might write a review, so for them in such a case they are not serving a regular customer but a ‘big’ one. This results in employees feeling more excited and work harder to satisfy the customer. Such triggers include the mention of review sites (e.g. “I found you on Google Reviews”), visibility of a site logo and even the customer asking if they can pay by Apple Pay (signalling they are tech savvy). Our field of study involved hiring an amateur actress to visit 40 Edinburgh hotels and ask for advice on what to do in Edinburgh. For one half she mentioned she found them on TripAdvisor whereas the other half she did not. By mentioning TripAdvisor, the employee helped her for 50% longer than if she did not.

A further novel finding was that it is not only the customer who can trigger this effect, firms can do so too. Through different experiments we showed how employees would act in front of the customer if the firm had told them how important reviews are to the success of the company. If orientated in this way, employees would experience the same positive arousal and increase in customer focus, as if a customer said they found them on TripAdvisor as above. In essence, customers can make themselves ‘big’ through triggering but firms can make all customers big through orientating.

Overall the Venture Fund has let us first show a crucial effect of online review sites that had till now been overlooked and second, highlight an important, novel and progressive means of front-line employee surveillance. Unlike prior monitoring methods (e.g. CCTV, performance software, location tracking, mystery shoppers, customer surveys) which have had mixed effects on employee performance and also widely criticised for reducing employee well-being, the Big Customer effect does not. It improves employee well-being and also performance. Therefore providing the first empirically validated win-win-win form of monitoring. Customers get better service (woo hoo), employees are more positive at work (yay) and firms get more satisfied employees and customers, leading to greater profit. If there is one take-home message from reading this blog, make sure you mention when you visit venues that you found them on TripAdvisor—you may get a room upgrade or some extra chips (yum). For many reasons I thank the Venture Fund for helping me find this out.

Ben Marder, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School