Mistreatment by Customers

mistreatment by customers

If you have ever held a customer service job, you know that mistreatment by customers can come with the territory. Customers can become rude and abusive, and take their frustrations out on the first-line customer service employees who are trying to help them. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than 15 million Americans provide front line services as bank tellers, bar tenders, cashiers, flight attendants, salespeople, and servers. One of the most stressful aspects of this sort of work is dealing with irate customers. A new chapter by Maryana Arvan, Rachel Dreibelbis, and Paul Spector in Volume 17 of the Research in Occupational Health and Well-Being series explores the impact mistreatment by customers has on employees, and some of the potential drivers of this behavior.

Effects of Mistreatment by Customers on Workers

Mistreatment occurs when a customer or guest either physically or verbally attacks an employee. Physical acts are typically minor pushing and shoving, so the risk of serious injury is not great. Far more common is verbal abuse in which the customer insults and yells at the employee. Both forms of mistreatment can be equally stressful, and frequently having to deal with abusive customers can take a toll on customer service workers. This can be particularly difficult when coupled with the demand by the organization for emotional labor, which means the employee is expected to remain cheerful and friendly, even in the fact of mistreatment.

Our chapter reviewed 72 studies that were concerned with mistreatment by customers. These studies found that customer mistreatment was linked to:

  • Burnout. Having to contend with continued mistreatment can have a cumulative effect over time, eroding motivation and leading to negative feelings toward the job such as burnout.
  • Emotional strain. It is difficult not to experience negative emotions when someone is yelling at you. This might include anxiety, anger, and sadness.
  • Job dissatisfaction. Being the target of mistreatment is unpleasant, and if it happens frequently, employees are likely to find their jobs becoming less and less satisfying.
  • Quitting. Given the fact that front-line customer service employees are often in low paid positions, they are likely to quit if the job is unpleasant. As employees experience emotional strain and lose satisfaction with the job, they will likely begin searching for a new job. This might mean finding a job in a new organization in hopes of there being less mistreatment, or getting into a new line of work.

Factors Linked to Mistreatment

One of the main drivers of mistreatment is the customer experience, specifically customer service failures. These can take many forms, such as

  • Customer dissatisfaction with a good or service.
  • Excessive wait for service.
  • Not solving a customer’s problem.
  • Rude treatment by an employee
  • Unfair treatment by an employee

What Organizations Can Do

There are two lines of attack for dealing with mistreatment by customers. The first focuses on the customer experience.

  • Focus on quality of goods and services and provide value for the cost. It can be tempting in highly competitive industries to cut corners on quality, but in the long run it can be counterproductive if it leads to widespread customer dissatisfaction and poor reputation. It also leaves front-line employees to deal with irate customers.
  • Provide good service. That means that processes for handling customers are efficient, and do not result in excessive wait times for service. It also means customer service employees are well trained and able to provide high quality service.
  • Train employees in dealing with customers. Good customer service means interacting in a positive way with customers. Training in customer service techniques can be helpful.
  • Minimize mistreatment of customers by employees. One thing we found in our research is that often a negative encounter with a customer began with the employee and not the customer. Supervisors should model respectful behavior, pay attention to how employees interact with customers, and take appropriate action when employees behave inappropriately.
  • Create a positive climate. Research shows that organizations can minimize mistreatment by creating a positive climate in which people pay attention to mistreatment and do their best to avoid it.

It is not possible to eliminate all customer mistreatment. Even the best products are sometimes defective, and it is impossible to satisfy all customers all the time. When employees are mistreated, organizations need to provide support to minimize the negative effects.

  • Support by supervisors. Employees need to have confidence that their supervisors will have their backs when a customer becomes irate through no fault of their own. This means that the employee won’t automatically be blamed for the incident, and that when a customer becomes abusive, the supervisor will step in and help deal with the situation. Some organizations will ask a customer to leave if that customer becomes overly abusive. This sends a strong message that the supervisor cares about employees and will protect them.
  • Avoid demands for emotional labor in the face of mistreatment. Employees should be told that if a customer is abusive, they do not have to smile and take the abuse. Employees should be careful not to escalate the situation by yelling back at an irate customer, but it should be okay for the employee to defend himself/herself, and to walk away and get a manager.

Mistreatment by customers cannot be avoided completely, but it can be managed effectively. Doing so will not only make the job less stressful for employees, but it will create a better customer service experience for customers, which in the long run is a benefit for organizations as well.

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