Eliminating Service Errors from Hostile Customer Encounters
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
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