One’s a good customer; ten’s a ……Crowd Phenomenon and Customer Service
“But I always say, one's company, two's a crowd, and three's a party” Andy Warhol
I must say I was a bit taken aback when I entered the banking hall that mid-morning. It was unusually packed for that time of the day and for that time of the month. It seemed there was something amiss because the queue was really not moving. Since I was only there that morning to submit a cheque requisition form, I was not too bothered about the seated mass. I knew the most time I was going to spend in there was just a couple of minutes and I was going to be out of there. As I stood by, waiting to catch the attention of any one of those at the customer enquiry desk I turned my attention to the crowd of customers, who it looked like had been waiting for some time.
It was a few minutes into my observation that something interesting happened. A particular middle-aged woman, it seemed, had had enough. It began with her mumbling a few words under her breath. From there, her words became more audible but first only to those around her. At first, she was just talking—directing her words to no one particular person at the time. She was complaining that she was going to be late because of the delay. Then she added the fact that no one was telling them anything about the cause of the delay.
It was at this point that another customer seated behind her—a gentleman in a worker’s overall, began supporting the aggrieved lady. As soon as he added his voice to that of the woman, the woman’s began to move up a few decibels. This seemed to embolden a couple of other customers who had otherwise been sitting quietly in the queue. Within a few minutes, the chorus had engulfed the entire mass of otherwise patient customers. The group that had earlier on seemed orderly was threatening to disrupt into a melee.
I must say from the reaction of the staff of the bank that they were knocked for six by the behaviour of their “sweet” customers. The reaction of the customers was the last thing they were expecting. While some of the staff were angry, especially with the woman who had started the whole commotion; others were more sympathetic.
From where I stood, I could spy a beehive of activity behind the scenes. Some individuals were busily making phone calls while others were crouched over a computer monitor. Obviously, it was all hands on deck trying to find the solution to the problem that was threatening to overtake the normally calm banking hall.
I could not help but smile as I witnessed this very interesting human behaviour. What I saw in the banking hall that day is what sociologists refer to as the Crowd Phenomenon—a situation where individuals tend to lose their individual identities in the midst of a crowd. What the staff in the bank were finding out that day was that even the most well-behaved of customers could readily changed in a gathering of other customers.
For decades now, researchers have known that individuals have a tendency to take on different behaviours when they find themselves in a crowd. There is something about crowds that tend to bring out the best or worst in people. In their 1945 publication titled, Social Learning and Imitation, American psychologists and social scientists, Neal E. Miller and John Dollard opined that individuals, for fear of rejection by others, will conform to the dominant behaviour of the crowd.
One explanation given for the crowd phenomenon is that the sheer number of people serves to increase whatever emotions the individual might be feeling. In our opening scenario, it was evident that some of the customers whose tempers had flared up would not have done so if they were alone. When one is angry and the one sees another person angry, it seems the two emotions come together, taking the anger to a whole new level. I prefer to see it as 2 plus 2 equalling 5, instead of 4.
The other reason given for the crowd phenomenon is one that I have seen on a number of occasions at very close quarters. During our days on campus, it was evident that when people came together either in a lecture hall setting and much more during fun activities, people felt a lowered sense of responsibility. It was as if individuals believed being in a crowd meant that they could do anything and get away with it. Normally mild-mannered individuals would instantly lose all sense of responsibility and do things that surprises everybody, including their own selves afterwards.
It is not every day that one gets to witness what happened that day in that banking hall. However, it is of great importance that those who man the front lines of their various organisations have a good understanding of the crowd phenomenon. Every time, the number of customers begins to grow, it is important to know that the potential for the crowd phenomenon is always higher. The kind of treatment given to customers in a crowd must be different from the treatment given to individual customers. The way you talk to one or two customers who are aggrieved should not be the same way you talk to a crowd of aggrieved customers. In the latter situation, the stakes are comparatively higher.
In my experience, when it comes to dealing with a crowd of unhappy customers, even the one who is mandated to talk to the customers must be higher up the organisation’s echelons. In the opening case in the banking hall, it had to take no mean a person than the branch manager to calm the customers down. Any one of the staff could have spoken to the customers but when the crowd phenomenon takes effect, the organisation should take no chances. It must bring out the big guns.
Another reason why it is important not to discount the power of a crowd of customers is the concept of the “Wisdom of the Crowds”. It has been known since the days of Aristotle that when many people come together as a group, they tend to be collectively smarter than even individual experts when it comes to issues such as solving problems, taking decisions or even predicting outcomes.
What this effectively means is that although you may be an expert in your area or profession, when there is an issue to be solved it helps if you listen to your customers. By their collective wisdom, they might teach you something useful or you might learn something from them. The average of the individual views of the customers in the crowd is more likely to be more accurate than you might imagine.
Life at the front line has thought us that no matter how well we plan for the day, there are days when things will just not go our way. Systems will freeze. The power might go off at the wrong time. Murphy’s Law might hit at the wrong time and we might have a line or group of customers who quickly become agitated. It is important that at such times, those at the front desk recognise that they are dealing with a very different beast. The crowd could be a group of familiar faces—customers you might have known for a long time. However, when they are together in a state of heightened emotion, they are a different animal, that must be dealt with very cautiously. So next time, you are faced with a crowd of customers, never forget that one might be a good customer but ten is a crowd waiting to explode.
Good evening, JN.
I am just coming back from town and I am not in a happy mood at all. I tried getting pizza from one of the popular pizza joints that moved into my neighbourhood recently. I must say the experience was really nothing to write home about. For starters, I had to really struggle to get a place to park my car. I spent about ten minutes just trying to park my car. When I entered the place, I just could not believe my eyes. There were plenty people waiting for their pizzas. I really wanted to have pizza this night otherwise I would have instantly turned my back and walked away. I waited for one hour 30 minutes before I had my order. The service was unacceptable. All around me I could see customers complaining. One woman just walked away. I really doubt if I will ever go back to that place again.
Thank you for taking time to send this message through. I can only imagine the ordeal you might have gone through. I admire your patience in waiting for your pizza before leaving. It seems the problem from the little I gather from you is a case of the place not having the capacity to deliver on their promises. As I drive through town, I see a lot of pizzeria advertising all matter of sales promotions. This might be driving in customer numbers but this must be accompanied by an increase in their production capacities. Failure to do so will result in situations such as what you faced. I pray this pizza joint does something about their service before the customer numbers begin to dwindle. Once again, thank you DKF for sharing.