Summation of stimuli:…when the negatives add up

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

To say it took the whole office by surprise would have been an understatement. We were shocked to the bine! He was the most accommodating of our entire bunch. None of us had seen him ever lose his temper or ever heard him even raise his voice. He was as gentle as a gentleman was supposed to be. He was the quintessential banker—calm, cooperative and always well-behaved.

But that late afternoon, the office witnessed a side of him that no one had no knowledge he possessed. What made his outburst the more shocking was the fact that it was not directed at any of us, his work colleagues. His anger was directed at a customer. Not even those of us who were generally regarded as outgoing, happy-go-lucky hotheads would have ever dared to snap a customer.

But that day, my good friend did.

Our first reaction was that the fault had to be the customer’s. We were all convinced that the customer might have said something particularly hurting or infuriating to have gotten the mild-mannered gentleman to have lost his temper to that extent.

However, when we got to hear the details of the interaction that had led to the unfortunate outburst, we realised the customer did say something wrong but it was not as bad as we had all thought or expected. What the customer said to our colleague was something we had all heard before. They were insults we hear on a daily basis, to the extent that we had become immune to the effect of those invectives. As front line employees, those kind of hurtful statements were a part and parcel of our very existence.

That really got us thinking. Could it be that our friend had something against that particular customer? Our inquiries proved that that was not the case. They had no prior history. They had never met before outside of the office. As far as we knew, the relationship was strictly professional. So what really happened?

That episode was so strange. I recall our boss being so confused, she did not know how to handle the case. The gentleman in case was so hardworking, so obedient. Coupled with the fact that this was the very first time, something of that nature had occurred, our manager did not think it was fair to fire him. He was, however, given a query. I believe that was all the punishment he received. And until I left that company, I never heard he had repeated that behaviour ever again. He went back to being his normal amiable self. So what happened that fateful day?

It has been more than a decade since that incident. However, it was only recently in my regular studies that I believed I came across the most tenable reason why my good friend blew his top that day. It was while digging deep into some psychological work that I came across an idea that perfectly explained what happened that day.

When someone loses his or her temper in response to an incident, there is usually the assumption that that single incident is responsible for the extreme reaction. We tend to believe that it was that one insult, that one wrong word, that single mistake, etc. that got the one angry. But if the results of many studies are anything to go by, then that assumption might actually be faulty.

Psychologists are led to believe in something referred to as the “Summation of Stimuli”. According to this understanding, stimuli or emotions tend to build up over time before finally reaching a tipping point. Whether in life generally or in dealing with customers specifically, individuals become receptacles for the emotions that are generated in them. Like gaseous substances that build up in a receptacle, emotions build up gradually over time.

This is typically how summation of stimuli plays out at the front office. Let us start with a customer service employee (CSE) who starts the day all fresh and without an iota of frustration—although that is almost impossible. As the CSE begins to serve customers, chances are that one customer after another customer might do something that would irritate the CSE. Each negative encounter would lead to a negative emotion in the individual. However, being the early interactions and encounters of the day, the CSE might allow some of these irritants to pass without uttering any word in return. The irritant can sometimes be so small that it passes without notice. On its own, a single stimulus might be too small to elicit any response from the individual.

Being the first irritant of the day also means that it would be ignored. This explains why people find it out-of-place when they see someone lose his or her temper early in the morning. The one is expected to have started the day freshened up. Therefore, it is expected that the one does not have enough frustrations added up to warrant any display of anger early in the morning.

However, as the day goes by, these irritants start adding or summing up. This is what is referred to as Heightened Irritability. At this point, the gauge will be tipping towards the “red or danger zone.” Therefore, if the day does not end quickly enough, one poor customer is going to face the wrath of this CSE for something seemingly “small”.

That seemingly little matter becomes the figurative last straw that breaks the camel’s back. That unfortunate last customer would end up “paying for the sins” of all those who had come ahead of that last customer. Unconsciously, what happens is that the CSE treats that one customer as if he or she had committed the same over and over again throughout the day. The one customer becomes a representation all those that had been causing the CSE frustration from the very beginning of the day.

Things would be totally different if an emotional build-up from one encounter can be wiped clean from one’s system before the next encounter. According to psychologists, that is not what happens. Emotions, even when they are dissipated, leave residues behind. The phenomenon of the Residual Effect states that our most recent experiences leave emotional residues behind. In other words, the way the last customer made the customer service employee feels has an effect on the way the CSE will react to the next customer. So in the end, there is a build-up of negative emotions as the frustrations from previous incidents keep adding up until the CSE “blows up”.

The concept of summation of stimuli has many interesting implications for those who manage customer service. For starters, this finding means that timing is very important when it comes to offering great customer service. At the start of the business day, when the stress level is expected to be at a zero, it would be easier for the front line staff to stomach a lot of the frustrations. However, as the frustrations add up, during the day, the chances of the one losing it increases. This is why some front line staff become unbearable as the day stretches on.

It is for this reason that customer-handling employees are advised to take breaks from the job—during the day—just to unwind and de-stress. Depending on the one’s job schedule and the level of customer traffic, it is important that the CSE takes a break, no matter how brief. The idea is to dissociate from the stress and to break the connection. It could be something as simple as just getting up from one’s desk to stretch one’s legs for a few minutes.

Beyond the average workday, it is also important for those who deal with customers to also take breaks during the year. The truth is that as emotions add up during the day, so do emotions build up day after day and week after week. A lack of vacation is essential to clear whatever residual negative emotions might be building up over the year.

A very important corollary of the phenomenon of stimuli summation is emotional exhaustion. As emotional residue continues to build up, they begin to get heavier and start to weigh down the individual. As the negative emotions build up, it is only a matter of time before the individual cracks under the weight of the stress. The time frame however differs for each individual—some people have a shorter timeframe before they start showing signs of stress.

Another implication of the Summation of Stimuli is that it means the level of customer traffic is very important to the quality of customer service. The number of customers and the regularity with which they are served will determine the amount of emotional residue that they leave behind. This, in turn, means that within the shortest possible time enough residue would have piled up to cause the individual serving lots of customers to be negatively affected. Managers must therefore ensure that CSEs working under high-pressure conditions are given “special treatment” during the working day. They need it.

Summation of stimuli is an issue that every customer-handling employee should aware of. Customer-facing employees must know themselves and know when the emotional residues are piling up and getting dangerously high. If a CSE feels that he or she is getting to a level where things are getting unbearable, the one should be confident enough to ask for help from an immediate superior. And the one must be given the permission to step away from the front line, even if for a few hours, weeks or months—just to refuel. Anything less, and there might be a blow-up similar to what happened with my good friend, the kind and gentle fellow.

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