November 1, 2012

Eliminating Service Errors from Hostile Customer Encounters

Research by Rellie Derfler-Rozin

Managers can mitigate the effects that verbally abusive customers have on employees

Managers of customer service workers can mitigate employee error induced by stress from verbally abusive customers by simulating hostile-customer encounters during task training exercises and by eliminating employee exposure to repetitively abusive customers.

“The customer is always right” and “service with a smile” is the commonly accepted wisdom when it comes to keeping customers happy. But this mantra perpetuates a dark side – a power imbalance between the customer and front-line worker in crowded retail stores, fast food restaurants, 24/7 call centers and other settings in the service sector.

When a dissatisfied, verbally-abusive patron exploits this upper hand, the front-line worker absorbs the heat and the business suffers as well. Previous studies have measured the broader implications of this dynamic, including worker burnout and loss of customers. But the real-time dynamics of the conflict and immediate fall-out from a hostile-costumer encounter are just as crucial because they affect the way an employee actually deals with the task at hand, according to new research from Rellie Derfler-Rozin, assistant professor of management.

Derfler-Rozin found that a customer service worker under duress from a verbally abusive customer is prone to error in the heat of the moment. This compounds the customer’s frustration and creates a vicious cycle of dysfunction. “It’s worse if the encounter involves a high-status customer and you factor in the worker's fear of losing his or her job – especially in this economy slowed by recession,” she says.

Derfler-Rozin and her co-authors subjected university students in Israel and England to simulated customer requests that ranged from aggressive to neutral in tone. She then measured cognitive performance, memory recall and overall functioning of the students handling those customer requests. Students who encountered several aggressive customers in a row performed had much worse performance on those tasks. Even brief encounters with an angry, hostile customer impaired memory, general cognitive performance and task performance.

Verbal abuse can distract the person on the receiving end into making errors, says Derfler-Rozin, and this has serious implications for customer service workers, who need to be efficient multi-taskers.

“The employee has to talk with the customer and instantly appear empathetic and able to understand the problem and its solution, all while executing a complex computer task,” says Derfler-Rozin. “Hostility from the customer interferes with the worker’s ability to recall information and likely disrupts the thinking processes that are needed to meet the complexity of the given task.”

So when customers aggressively confront workers get their problems resolved, they may actually be creating a climate that results in less-effective service. It creates a lose-lose situation for the customer, the employee, and ultimately the firm that risks losing the customer’s business.

Companies can mitigate the problem by preparing their front-line service employees to deal with hostile customers, says Derfler-Rozin. Role-plays that simulate an angry encounter give employees the chance to practice listening with empathy to the complaint while simultaneously working through the complex computer task necessary to find the appropriate service solution. Practicing those skills in a safe environment can help employees be more effective in an actual hostile situation.

However, managers should also take care to protect their service employees from the unreasonable and irrational, when a customer’s legitimate frustrations can result in a verbal assault on the employee. In those instances, managers should act to protect employees from abusive customers. Allow employees to terminate calls from difficult customers, or to stop interacting altogether with someone who is repeatedly offensive, says Derfler-Rozin. This signals that management cares about employees, and the resulting boost in morale and motivation will improve the service environment overall.

“When customers exhibit verbal aggression, employees pay cognitive costs,” was published in the September 2012 Journal of Applied Psychology and co-authored by Amir Erez, University of Florida; Ravit Rozilio, Haifa University; and Anat Rafaeli, Shy Ravid and Dorit Efrat Treister from Technion Institute of Technology, Israel. For more information, contact

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