British Columbia

Jennifer Newman: Working with rude customers

What happens when the customer isn’t always right? Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman weighs in on the effects of rude customers.

Research says the right supervisor can prevent employees taking out their frustration on customers

Supervisors can play a key role in how staff cope with rude customers, according to a UBC study. (Getty Images/Blend Images RM)

Dealing with rude customers can be an unfortunate reality for those who work in the service industry.

According to a study done by UBC researchers Daniel Skarlicki and Danielle van Jaarsveld, it can be tempting for some staff to want to get back at unfair customers.

However, the researchers found that supervisors can play a key role in how staff cope with these types of customers.

Workplace psychologist Dr. Jennifer Newman spoke with the Early Edition's Rick Cluff about the psychological effects of dealing with rude customers.

What kinds of things do customers do that service staff find unfair?

Customers are known to yell at staff, insult them, call them names, swear, and sometimes be sarcastic to try and denigrate them.

You see this happening to call centre staff, wait staff, and to counter staff — anyone on the front lines dealing with customers may report unfair behaviour.

A high percentage of workers in the service sector have witnessed or been the target of customer mistreatment. In fact, call centre employees deal with customer hostility multiple times a day.

What are the effects on customer service staff?

The service industry is a fast-growing sector and it employs a large portion of the workforce. Therefore, rudeness can affect a large number of employees.

It's demoralizing and emotionally exhausting to handle difficult customers; it can affect self-esteem and confidence. Also, customers who insult staff may also increase staff desire to retaliate.

Researchers found some service staff will be tempted to sabotage mean customers.

For example, putting the customer on hold or keeping them waiting or hanging up on them.

They'll transfer unfair customers to the wrong department or provide slow service, or tell the customer they can't help them.

Isn't this a vicious cycle, where mean customers prompt staff to retaliate with poor service for everyone?

The researchers found not all staff will sabotage customers, even ones who treat them badly.

Some staff have what's called a "high moral identity," meaning they subscribe to an ethic that prevents them from punishing transgressors and tend to forgive more.

These employees tend to subscribe to a "treat the customer as you would like to be treated" value system. These types don't tend to sabotage customers even though a customer yells and screams at them.

So, from a customer viewpoint, it's the luck of the draw — if you happen to be served by staff who tend to retaliate, you could end up with poor service?

The Early Edition's workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman)

You could, but the researchers found in certain circumstances the urge to get back at customers can be dampened. They observed sabotage happens less if a customer service representative has a supervisor who treats them fairly.

If the supervisor treats staff with dignity and respect, staff were less likely to retaliate when abused by customers.

But whether or not someone has a great supervisor shouldn't matter, should it?  Doesn't it boil down to the individual staff person's value system?

Yes, if the staff person has a high moral identity, having a fair supervisor has no effect. That staff person will not retaliate because they believe it's not right.

But for staff who have tendency to want revenge and think it's justified when a customer denigrates them, a fair, respectful supervisor can make all the difference.

If customer service work requires highly ethical staff, why not select staff with those values?

That's one of the recommendations the researchers make, along with hiring and training fair supervisors.

Selecting staff based on personality traits, values and beliefs is difficult. Selection needs to be about job skills, not one's belief system.

The job skill involved in handling insulting customers is the ability to manage one's emotions, especially strong emotions like anger and the desire for revenge.

You can examine someone's emotional intelligence as it relates to the job, but not their moral belief system.

Respectful supervision seems to be what relates to good customer service in the long run, because even when a staff person wants revenge, they don't tend to act on it if their supervisor is fair to them.

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: How to handle rude customers at work.


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