EMBEDDEDNESS: When the pressure gets too much

At the risk of sounding like a broken record to the regular readers of this column, I would like to say that it is not easy dealing with people. And if the “people” happen to be those who have a say in how much money you take home at the end of the month, then dealing with them becomes a tad bit dicier. Handling customers at the front line is not a walk in the park. The stress that comes with dealing with customers on a daily basis can pierce through even the toughest skin.

The quantum of emotional labour needed by a CSE to handle customers satisfactorily on a constant can be as, if not more, crippling as the physical labour exerted by the labourer at the construction. Both the former and the latter go home feeling drained—sometimes, dreading the thought of going back the next day.

It has been alleged that the over-emphasis on promoting the “customer is always right” mantra causes many customers to behave in some not-too-desirable ways. The superfluity of options available also makes some customers feel they are indispensable to many a business and therefore these customers feel can do almost anything and get away with it. When a customer comes into a transaction with that kind of mind-set, it is the poor customer service employee (CSE) that suffers.

Sometimes, customers can push a CSE so much to the wall that the one would just snap. It is therefore not at all surprising that the stress of dealing with customers has been claimed to be one of the main reasons behind the turnover of many CSEs.

During my days in banking, there was a lady who was posted to my branch as a cashier. She did not last for a year. The pressure of the job was so much that she eventually had to throw in the towel. The pressure came from all angles—from the sheer number of customers she had to deal with in a given day, from colleagues making fun of her struggles and from superiors threatening her with the sack anytime she could not successfully balance her end of day work. One day, she could not take it anymore and she just quit. Those stories are as common as dusty cars on a Harmattan day. In a high-pressure job like banking, you must find a way of surviving or you jump ship.

A study published in the October 2019 edition of the Journal of Service Theory and Practice sought to show how dysfunctional customer behaviour affected employee turnover. The study was carried out among more than two hundred workers of two hotels, one in South Korea and the other in the United Kingdom. Led by South Korean researcher, Taeshik Gong, the study found out that dysfunctional customer behaviour truly affected customers, but only to an extent.

One factor that has a moderating effect on whether CSEs are stressed out by poor customer behaviours is how “embedded” the customer is on the job. Job embeddedness has been defined as the set of influences that keeps an employee on the job. In other words, embeddedness seeks to answer the question, “why does an employee stay on job or what are the factors that an employee considers when the one decides to come to work every day?”

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There are many merits of embeddedness. For instance, embedded employees are more likely to have more relationships in the workplace. Gong’s study found that the more embedded an employee was on the job, the less the chance of dysfunctional customer behaviour causing the employee to quit the job. The reason is that such an individual, with more connections and relationships related to his or her job, will experience greater disruptions if he or she were to leave the job. When the one considers all the friends that he or she would be leaving behind, the one reconsiders the decision to quit the job.

The individual who is not so embedded can easily leave because the one is not tied to the office whether emotionally or mentally. He or she would not miss so many people and also knows that not many people will miss him or her. Therefore, quitting due to pressure from customers is not too difficult for the one.

Embeddedness is that root that ensures that when the pressure gets too much, the employee does not fall. It is the anchor that holds when the storms of customer dysfunctional behaviour begin to beat down on the CSE. Those whose foundations are not so deep in the organisation are those who will easily walk away when the pressure becomes too much.

There are many factors, however, that affect the level of embeddedness of the employee on the job. Factors such as the employee’s relationship with co-workers, how the employee enjoys the work he or she does, how the employee feels his or her work is contributing to a greater good and the demands of the job have all been linked to what keeps an employee staying put on a particular job.

A research carried out with a sample of some full-time employed nurses in two hospitals in Jakarta, Indonesia found out that there were other factors that influenced embeddedness. The study found that the time it took for the employee to commute to work played a major role in the level of embeddedness. The shorter the distance one travelled to work, the more attached the one felt to the organisation and the lesser the chance of the one quitting. This is very understandable because if the one has to travel over a long distance and sit in traffic for hours only for the one to come to work and go through stress at the hands of customers, then the possibility is high that the one would not be too embedded.

The researcher on the Indonesian study also found that the views of the employee’s family members had an influence on the embeddedness of the individual. If the one’s family have positive views of the organisation, it reinforces the one’s decision to stay on the job. The family’s role in whether a particular individual feels embedded in an organisation is a construct that has been widely studied.

One of the factors that also aids in strengthening one’s embeddedness on the job is what social scientists refer to as “fit”. This refers to how comfortable an employee feels on the job. When the individual perceives that his or her skillset, as well as values, are correctly aligned and compatible with the job, that person becomes more embedded on the job and in the organisation.

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It is important to also note that, apart from embeddedness on the job, another factor that moderates the effect of dysfunctional customer behaviour on employee stress is the cultural value orientation of the employee. Psychologists claim that, when it comes to the issue of cultural values, human beings are either individualists or collectivists.

Individualists are those who are motivated by their own personal goals and ambitions in life. They are those driven to work on their own and strive for autonomy in the workplace. In school, you see the individualists as those who are not too excited when group tasks are given. They are more comfortable if each individual is given his or her own task to do. Then there are the collectivists. These are those who are motivated by group goals. They are team players who will readily sacrifice their personal comfort for the greater good of the whole team.

The findings from Gong’s study was that collectivists were more likely to be more embedded in the job. Thus, they are more likely to handle the effect of customer stress better than the individualists.

The stress associated with dealing with customers is not going away anytime soon. It is very much a part and parcel of the whole service game. Those who intend to excel in that field therefore must prepare for the stress that it comes with. The ongoing discussions mean that CSEs must be more embedded on the job if they are to survive—and excel at the front line.

This discussion also has implications for HR and Admin managers. In putting people at the front line to face customers, managers must be on the lookout for traits that would ensure embeddedness. HR managers must also ensure that on a regular basis, there are systems and structures that reinforce a sense of embeddedness in the employee, especially the CSE.

For CSEs to last on the job and for the one not to jump ship at the slightest provocation, frustration or inconvenience, the one must learn to build more relationships on the job. The one must also necessarily love what he or she is doing. Serving customers is something the one must love so much that he or she would be willing to do it, even if he or she was not going to be paid.

Those I have come across, who survive the stress of dealing with customers, are those who genuinely love meeting and interacting with people. They have a natural fit for the job. It is this love that keeps them embedded on the job. They do not allow customers to stress them out to the point of quitting. When the stress becomes too much, they know they can always take a well-earned rest on a bed of embeddedness.

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