The Value of Humanization in Customer Service.

( Major Revision at MIS Quarterly )
Recent advances in information technologies have put customer service, especially text-based ones, at the forefront of a new wave of service automation. As algorithms become increasingly capable of handling customer service queries, customers are often uncertain whether they are served by humans, and managers are left to question the value of keeping human agents once the technology matures. The current paper studies this important and timely question by quantifying how a simple policy change that enhances customers’ perception of them being served by human agents affects customer service interactions. Our identification strategy hinges on the abrupt implementation by Southwest Airlines of a signature policy, which requires the inclusion of an agent’s first name in responses to customer queries on Twitter, thereby making the agent more humanized in the minds of customers. Various empirical analyses consistently show that customers are more willing to engage, and upon engagement, more likely to reach a resolution, when agents are perceived as more humanized. Furthermore, we find no evidence of elevated verbal aggression from customers to more humanized agents, hence humanization seems to incur no additional cost to agents. Our findings suggest a readily available and almost costless strategy for customer service provision on social media: signal humanization through a signature of each agent. Despite the increasing trend of automating customer service, our study reveals the importance of humanization, which can at least be partly interpreted by customers’ bias in favor of humans when it comes to customer service.

Does Telemedicine Reduce Prescription Errors? Evidence from Antibiotic Prescriptions for Urinary Tract Infections.

( Working Paper )
Telemedicine has long been of interest to the U.S. general public. Yet, despite the advent of high-speed internet and mobile device technology, telemedicine did not reach its full potential until the COVID-19 pandemic spurred its unparalleled adoption. This sudden shift in the setting of healthcare delivery raises questions regarding possible changes in clinical decision-making. Using a unique set of patient-provider encounter data from the U.S. in 2020 and 2021, we examine the effect of telemedicine on antibiotic prescription errors for urinary tract infections. We consider two types of prescription errors: prescribing when not recommended by guidelines (type I errors) and not prescribing when recommended (type II errors). After accounting for potential endogeneity issues using provider fixed effects and an instrumental variable approach, we find a significantly lower likelihood of overall prescription errors (type I and II errors combined) with telemedicine relative to in-person encounters. We also find heterogeneous effects by provider patient volume and patient-provider relationship. Further analyses show that the reduction in prescription errors is mainly attributable to type I errors, and that patient health outcomes are not compromised when care is delivered via telemedicine. Finally, we discuss managerial implications for the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, as well as policy implications for governments.

Does Telehealth Reduce Rural-Urban Care Access Disparities? Evidence from COVID-19 Telehealth Expansion.

( Working Paper )
We study the effect of the telehealth expansion policy on rural-urban healthcare-access disparities. Using a unique set of national healthcare claims data, we address three questions concerning the uptake of telehealth during COVID-19: (1) Does the expansion reduce the disparity in overall healthcare access between rural and urban areas? (2) Do telehealth visits complement or substitute in-person visits? (3) What barriers prevent healthcare providers and patients from adopting telehealth? We use providers from rural areas as the control group and compare the total number of visits between urban and rural providers before and after telehealth expansion. We find that urban providers treated significantly more patients than rural providers, and such an increase is driven by increased care access of urban patients. Therefore, the finding suggests an enlarged rural-urban disparity regarding patients’ overall access to care. Moreover, we find urban patients substitute in-person visits with telehealth visits. However, rural patients have much lower adoption rates of telehealth services and continue with in-person visits. We supplement the paper with analyses of heterogeneous treatment effects by providers and barriers that have affected individuals’ telehealth adoptions.

Does Active Service Intervention Drive More Complaints on Social Media? The Roles of Service Quality and Awareness.

( Journal of Management Information Systems, 38:3, 579-611. )
Despite many advantages of social media as a customer service channel, there is a concern that active service intervention encourages excessive service complaints. Our paper casts doubt on this misconception by examining the dynamics between social media customer complaints and brand service interventions. We find service interventions indeed cause more complaints, yet this increase is driven by service awareness rather than chronic complaining. Due to the publicity and connectivity of social media, customers learn about the new service channel by observing customer service delivery to others – a mechanism that is unique to social media customer service and does not exist for traditional call centers. Importantly, high-quality service reduces future complaints, thereby proactive customer service is a sound strategy on social media, as long as firms dedicate to service quality. Hence, firms should be less concerned about whether to respond and more focused on how to respond to customer complaints.

Does Telemedicine Reduce Emergency Room Congestion? Evidence from New York State.

( Information Systems Research 31(3):972-986. )
Overcrowding in emergency rooms (ERs) is a common yet nagging problem. It not only is costly for hospitals but also compromises care quality and patient experience. Hence, finding effective ways to improve ER care delivery is of great importance. Using a large dataset covering all emergency visits of New York State from 2010 to 2014, we investigate whether telemedicine enhances ER care delivery. We show that, on average, telemedicine availability in the ER significantly reduces average patients’ length of stay (LOS), which is partially driven by the flexible resource allocation. Specifically, the adoption of telemedicine leads to a larger reduction in ER LOS when there is a demand surge or supply shortage. Furthermore, such improvement is not a byproduct of other widely adopted health IT applications and does not come at the expense of care quality or patient cost. We also replicate the analysis using annual U.S. hospital data and find that ER telemedicine adoption significantly reduces average patients’ waiting time, which suggests that the LOS reduction partially comes from the reduction of waiting time.

Conferences & Workshops

  1. Does Telemedicine Reduce Prescription Errors? Evidence from Antibiotic Prescriptions for Urinary Tract Infection
    • Workshop on Information Systems and Economics 2021
    • INFORMS Healthcare Conference 2021
  2. Does Telehealth Reduce Rural-Urban Care Access Disparities? Evidence from COVID-19 Telehealth Expansion
    • International Conference on Information Systems 2021
    • DSI 52nd Annual Conference, 2021
  3. Chronic Complainers or Increased Awareness? The Dynamics of Social Media Customer Service
    • International Conference on Information Systems 2020
  4. The Value of Humanization in Customer Service
    • Conference on Information Systems and Technology 2020
  5. Help Oneself in Helping the Others: the Ecology of Online Support Groups
    • IEEE International Conference on Big Data, 2019 December
  6. Does Telemedicine Reduce Emergency Department Congestion? Evidence from New York State
    • INFORMS Healthcare Conference 2019 (invited)
    • POMS Annual Conference 2019 (invited)
    • 52nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) 2019
    • Conference on Health IT and Analytics (CHITA) 2018
    • International conference on Information Systems (ICIS) 2018
  7. CHITA PhD Consortium, Washington DC, 2018
  8. NBER Digitization PhD Consortium, Stanford, 2018
  9. Link Formation on Twitter: The Role of Achieved Status and Value Homophily
    • Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) 2017

Honors & Awards

  1. Finalist, INFORMS Student Paper Competition, 2019

  2. Best Paper Award, 52nd HICSS, 2019

  3. Young Researcher Best Paper Runner-up, CHITA, 2019

  4. Simon Business School Doctoral Fellowship, 2014-2020

  5. Outstanding Graduation Award of Tianjin University, 2014


Raj Dewan
Dean of School of Information Studies, Syracuse University

Susan Feng Lu
Gerald Lyles Rising Star Associate Professor of Management
Krannert School of Management, Purdue University

Huaxia Rui
Professor, Xerox Chair of Computer & Information Systems Simon School of Business, University of Rochester