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The customer is always right, and other stories

By Taeshik Gong - Posted on 27 March 2014

Strathclyde Business School’s Marketing lecturer, Taeshik Gong, discusses his recent research which looked at how employees faced with dysfunctional customer behaviour can be helped to deal with it…

Dysfunctional customer behaviour is a problem which can be seen across many different sectors. Incivility, aggression, and psychological victimisation can be common in service industries and this type of behaviour is likely to cause employees stress and lead to burnout, absenteeism and affect turnover.

In these cases, the old maxim that ‘the customer is always right’ does not hold true.

However, companies still often adhere to this adage and as a result tolerate excessively negative dysfunctional customer behaviour. This ‘customer is king’ belief leads firms to ignore the damage inflicted on employees and insists that employees remain courteous even in the face of incivility.

Our research shows that managers have a key role to play in helping subordinates cope with the mental stress that dysfunctional customer behaviour causes. If management does not do so then employees perceive the situation as ‘unfair’. By finding ways to intervene, the firm’s efforts can help more junior members of staff feel justice has been done and they’ve been backed by their employers.

There are four types of managerial interventions:

  • Social support – emotional assistance offered by managers
  • Participation in decision making – employees are allowed to express views about how to cope with dysfunctional customer behaviour
  • Empowerment – providing employees with the authority to address problems with customers as they occur
  • Reward – high levels of effort and low levels of reward causes emotional distress in employees. Managers can help with offering additional incentives

Our investigation underlined how important management intervention is to alleviating stress from dysfunctional customer behaviour, particularly for those employees who deal with it frequently. Reward has the strongest impact on perceived justice: managers need to make sure that employees are rewarded in direct proportion to the level of stress caused by interactions with dysfunctional customers. Tangible rewards could include advancement, additional pay or better job prospects, while intangible rewards might be acknowledgment, public recognition, challenging assignments or promotion.

If managers inform employees that they can offer various interventions, employees will rely more on them for help to reduce stress. If this is not done, then disgruntled staff who feel unsupported will ultimately leave the company.

Increased manager-employee communication enables managers to better understand the level of employee perceived justice – and an organisation could offer communication training programmes designed to promote two-way communication between managers and employees.

Firms can, to some extent, control customer behaviour if they take a firm stand that the firm will act to prevent dysfunctional customer encounters. This could take the form of prominent signage or advertisements to that effect, verbal instructions from the manager and employees, or even strong legal deterrents to put customers on notice that the firm will act to prevent such occurrences. Customers who frequently behave aggressively or rudely to staff could even be blacklisted by managers and simply decline to serve them.

Have you had direct experience of poor customer behaviour? How did you deal with it? How do you think managers or firms can help? Let us know in the comments below…

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