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Humour has been purported to be an effective communication device (e.g., Bippus et al., 2012) and an important driver of individual behaviour and interpersonal relationships. Many firms recognise the effectiveness of humour usage for engaging customers and as a source of competitive advantage (Heil et al., 2010). In electronic and interpersonal service encounters alike, employees’ humour use increases enjoyment and encounter satisfaction (van Dolen et al, 2008; Chiew et al, 2018). Given that good personal interactions and ongoing rapport boost service recovery outcomes and dampen the negative effects of service failures (DeWitt and Brady, 2003), it is surprising that the use of humour has not, to date, been examined in a service failure/recovery context. Humour can contribute to successful service recovery because it softens emotional reactions as it makes a message less serious or threatening (Lefcourt et al., 1995), reduces negative emotions (Kuiper et al., 1995), and offers a mechanism to deliver critiques and explanations without negative interpersonal effects (Grugulis, 2002). Humour can also enhance a sender’s credibility (Meyer, 2000), which is important for a frontline employee addressing a service failure.
The purpose of this study is to examine the impact of an apology and/or compensation delivered in a humorous way on customers’ recovery satisfaction and word of mouth, and in how far these effects are mediated by perceptions of distributional justice and employee credibility. The results from an 2x3 (serious vs humorous apology; no compensation vs serious vs humorous compensation) experimental study (n=255) using video stimuli of a service failure/recovery in a restaurant setting indicate that humour should be used with caution. An apology coupled with humour has a consistently negative impact on recovery satisfaction and word of mouth. A humorous compensation decreases recovery satisfaction only where service criticality is high. Distribute justice mediates the effect of humours apology and compensation on recovery satisfaction and word of mouth, whereas employee credibility only affects word of mouth.
We add in a small but important way to the service recovery and communication literatures. From a managerial perspective, an apology is the first step in successful service recovery; customers clearly prefer a non-humorous apology communicated with a sense of seriousness that shows their complaint is being taken seriously. Compensation (a measure of distributive justice) then typically follows an apology. Our results suggest that service criticality determines whether humorous compensation is appropriate and can aid in restoring customers to a state of satisfaction.