Cranky Customers—What Shall We Do?

Customer Mistreatment and Employee Revenge

By In Weekly Email 5 minute read time

The Question

Bosses aren’t always the ones that come down on us.  Many times, it can be the very people that we’re trying to serve—our customers!  We’ve all seen cantankerous and cranky customers.  They’re the ones who raise their voices at the waitress, curse at the airline rep behind the kiosk, or demean a customer service rep over the phone.    

In an interesting study, a trio of researchers examined the relationship between customer mistreatment and revenge or sabotage.  For the gritty details, feel free to click here

The Logic

Behind everything is the notion of interactional justice, which is nothing more than treating someone with respect and dignity.  We violate principles of interactional fairness when we demean or are disrespectful toward another.  Employees who are mistreated by customers see this treatment as unfair and, quite simply, want revenge.  But, they need to do so in a way that won’t get them fired or appear to fly in the face of customer service mantras like, “the customer is always right.”  Sabotage is the way to even the score. 

The Samples and Measures

These social scientists conducted a field study of about 350 call center employees.  Call center employees are constantly in the crosshairs by customers for products or services that fail to perform as expected. 

They developed some scales.  First, was a scale that captured mistreatment or injustice.  Employees had to rate the frequency of a series of items such as the customer: refused to listen to you, interrupted you or cut you off mid-sentence, and doubted your ability, etc. 

Second was a scale that measured acts of retribution or sabotage back towards the customer.  In this case, the employees answered questions related to frequency of: hanging up on the customer, intentionally putting the customer on hold for an excessively long period of time, or purposefully transferring the customer to the wrong department, etc.

Also, they asked employees to complete a 10 item scale to assess their moral identity.  Moral identity is akin to how strong our moral code is and whether we think about that moral code often and how strong our attachment is to that moral code.  Individuals with high moral identity are quite sensitive to moral violations and are motivated to fight the injustice.  However, a contradiction exists.  Individuals high on moral identity may allow their moral code to kick in—perhaps, to turn the other cheek in the face of disrespect.

Finally, the authors of the study captured performance appraisal data to see if there was a link between acts of customer sabotage and individual employee performance.

We Now Open the Kimono

The results are compelling.  To begin with, they found statistically sound evidence that, indeed, in the face of customer mistreatment, employees find ways to retaliate.  Second, they found that employees who deeply internalized their moral codes were less likely to engage in sabotage.  These were the type that would argue to themselves—I’m really pissed right now at this abusive customer, but my moral code says to turn the other cheek so I will.  Those that internalize are different from those who want to settle a moral score in social situations related to unfair acts or mistreatment. These types of employees are, in essence, score-settlers and were more apt to engage in sabotage towards the customer.

Finally, going after cranky customers carries risk.  Specifically, they found empirical evidence that those who sought retribution toward customers suffered poorer performance ratings compared to those who avoided revenge or sabotage.  The authors speculate that employees divert their energies from productive task completion towards sabotage and acts of revenge.  Put plainly, when we’re engaged in the act of sabotage, we’re taking our eye off the ball in terms of day-to-day performance.  

Final Thoughts

One of the over-arching themes to consider is our duty as leaders and managers to protect our employees from abusive customers and from customer mistreatment.  After a particularly bad interaction, do employees need a mental debrief or a “cooling off” period before returning immediately to customer interaction?  Or, even more, should there be a zero tolerance policy towards customer mistreatment; would that also prove symbolic to the employees that the organization “has their back?”  Lastly, could some simple procedures be instituted such as allowing an employee to refuse service or to hang up the phone on customers who are mistreating them? 

We usually provide answers, but this study triggers some compelling questions.  We know this, though: By reading today’s piece, you’re going to finish the day smarter than what you started. 

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