We have all experienced bad customer service. Sometimes the old adage “the customer is always right” is not followed by rude and nasty customer service employees. A new study by Maryana Arvan, Yanir Shimon, Shani Pindek, Stacey Kessler, and Paul Spector challenges a widely held assumption that bad behavior by customer service employees is driven by difficult customers. This study suggests that bad behavior toward customers is not generally due to the customer, but the reverse.
Bad Behavior at Work
Both customers and employees engage in bad behavior in the workplace. Sometimes customers can be difficult, demanding and downright abusive. They might make unreasonable requests and then become angry when those requests are not met. They criticize and even yell at employees. This can be stressful for the employee who is expected to remain calm and friendly in the face of abuse.
Employees for their part can engage in a wide range of bad behaviors directed toward employees. Emily Hunter and Lisa Penney identified 13 bad behaviors by restaurant servers toward customers, including:
- Lying to a customer
- Making a customer wait longer than necessary
- Ignoring a customer
- Being rude
- Raising their voice to a customer
Why Is There Bad Behavior Toward Customers?
Research on employees has shown a clear link between how employees treat customers and how customers treat employees. It is widely assumed that when employees behave badly toward customers, the customer is to blame. In other words employees respond in kind to bad treatment they receive from customers. Many companies do not require employees to put up with abusive customers, but allow them to defend themselves. For example, in some restaurants drunk and unruly customers will be asked to leave. So there is reason to believe that when employees behave badly they were provoked.
But the opposite is also possible. It might just be that the bad behavior by customers is a reaction to poor customer service. There is no unspoken rule for customers that says the employee is always right. If an employee is rude, the customer might well respond in kind.
Which Is It?
The Arvan study found that bad behavior by customers was a response to bad behavior by employees and not the reverse. In other words when employees behaved badly, customers sometimes responded similarly. They did not find the opposite. Employee bad behavior was not a response to bad customers. Thus this study challenges the general assumption that bad behavior begins with the customer.
Managing Bad Behavior
All customer service organizations should be concerned about bad behavior toward customers, and this study illustrates why this is so important. If bad behavior by customers is driven by employees, the focus needs to be on reducing bad behavior by employees. Bad behavior by customers means a customer is likely experiencing a service failure due to their interaction with an employee. This means less repeat business and damage to the brand. There are some actions that organizations can take.
- Hire employees who are not likely to engage in bad behaviors. Pre-employment personality tests can be helpful in identifying individuals prone to bad behavior. Background checks can also be helpful. Sometimes bad behavior is a response to stress, so hiring people with good stress management skills can help.
- Build a good service climate. A firm with a good service climate had policies and practices that emphasize service. Good service behaviors are encouraged and rewarded, and employees who behave badly are corrected.
- Service managers should pay attention. Often bad behaviors occur because managers do not pay sufficient attention to what employees are doing. This doesn’t mean that managers should micro-manage, but they should be aware of how each customer service employee engages their customers. Feedback should be provided about both good and bad service.
- Managers should model good service. One of the best ways to achieve good service is for managers to demonstrate how employees should treat customers. Nothing sends a clearer message to employees than their manager’s own behavior. If managers behave badly, employees get the idea that such behavior is okay.
Bad behavior by customers should be taken seriously in any customer service organization. Such behavior might well be an indication that employees are not providing the kind of service that will create long term success for every business.
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