Helping employees cope with aggressive customers

June 24, 2004

Clerks in box stores, supermarkets and motels -- as well as waitresses, secretaries and flight attendants -- know in their hearts that the customer is NOT always right, despite what the boss might say. When exposed to pushy or irritable customers, employees in high-stress jobs need the assurance of an emotional safety net, according to a Penn State researcher.

High-stress jobs with low pay and low status take both a high emotional and physical toll on employees, says Dr. Alicia A. Grandey, assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology. What exacerbates the stress for employees is the feeling that they have nowhere to go; they simply have to take it -- or else.

"Ultimately, this state of affairs costs the employer in the form of reduced efficiency, worker burnout and absenteeism," she adds. "It a no-win situation for everybody, including the customer."

Grandey is lead author of the paper, "The Customer Is Not Always Right: Customer Aggression And Emotion Regulation Of Service Employees," which appeared recently in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. Her co-authors are David N. Dickter, of PSI Inc. in California, and Hock-Peng Sin, graduate student, industrial-organizational psychology, Penn State.

The researchers analyzed responses from 198 call center employees at two work sites. On average, the employees reported experiencing four to five calls a day where a customer would yell at and abuse them, with some employees reporting no incidences of abuse and others, 50.

One way for so-called "service sector" employers to help their workers deal with difficult clientele is to allow the employees some control over their working environment, the researchers say. This could mean allowing them to leave their workstation so that they can talk a break and enjoy a cooling off period. It might mean allowing employees to tell unreasonable or abusive customers when they have crossed the line.

"Employers need to reassure employees in private that they are not always at the mercy of customer whims and that they are just as valued as the customer," Grandey says.

The researchers confirmed that employees confronted by customer aggression react in three ways. "The first is engaging in behavioral change by suppressing or faking expressions, which can lead to burnout and lower service performance," Grandey notes. "The second is to let their emotions surge out of control and lash back at customers. Obviously, this isn't a desirable outcome either."

A third employee reaction is to change individual perspective - to think about the customer or the situation to avoid taking it seriously, or refocus attention on some positive (or humorous) aspect of the encounter with the customer, the researchers say. This was found to be related to lower levels of stress in response to angry customers.

"Management should attempt to enhance the sense of job autonomy for service representatives so that such confrontations with customers are less stressful, and provide employees with training in emotional regulation for responding to customers who are not always right," Grandey says.

Penn State

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