Retaliatory discrimination: …Responding to angry customers

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

It has truly been an interesting past couple of weeks in that beautiful soap opera of a country called Ghana. The theme of this episode? Hair. Yes, hair—how to keep it, the length, its religious implications, relations to civil rights and whether the way one keeps one’s hair has any effect on one’s discipline and education.

At the time of writing this piece, the situation is far from resolved. Entrenched positions are actually being taken. On one side is a school that is adamant about taking in a student with a non-approved hairstyle. In support of the school are its Parents Teacher Association, Old Students Association and the National Association of Graduate Students. On the other side of the impasse is the family of the young man, threatening to go to court. Their side is supported by a number of organisations and a horde of social media commentators. The matter has even reached the chambers of the country’s Legislature, with a couple of MPs and even the Deputy Speaker speaking on it.

At the base of all the hullabaloo is that almighty D-word—Discrimination. One MP called the rule used by the School to deny the boy admission as being “patently discriminatory”. For as long as humankind has lived on this planet, discrimination of one kind or another has always existed. There has been discrimination along every imaginable parameter on this earth. Gender, sexual preference, religion, skin colour and race, age and educational qualifications are just a few of the popular ones. Some have even complained that have been discriminated against because of the food they like. One of my good friends, who happens to vertically challenged, says his height has been used against him on several occasions.

There is always an accusation of unfair treatment just around about every corner one turns. It is therefore not surprising that in the world of business a certain kind of discrimination has been found to occur. This discrimination is mainly practised at the front line, during the service experience. I prefer to refer to it as “Retaliatory Discrimination”.

It is common knowledge that the world of customer service is such that occasionally challenges with the service arise. Things do not always go according to plan and when that happens, customers have a right to express their feelings. When there is service failure, customers do lose their temper and say or even do unpleasant things to customer-facing employees. Studies after studies have proven that customers’ angry displays have negative effects on those serving them. For instance, it is known that these unpleasant experiences lead to stress and frustration, emotional exhaustion as well absenteeism, in some cases for those at the front line.

The beauty of customer service is that customers can lose their temper but customer service employees (CSEs) are not expected to. To retaliate, in any way, shape or form is a no-no. Although the natural, “human” side of the CSE might want to seek some sort of revenge or retaliation, the one is not expected to act out such intentions. It is expected of businesses to so train their employees, especially those who deal with customers on a daily basis, to a level where these CSEs would remain professional at all times, even in the face of the greatest provocation.

When things do not go according to plan, CSEs are expected to do two very important things—remain calm without expressing anger and also offer restitution for the service gone bad. In spite of the best intentions and efforts of businesses, there are those occasions when front line employees lose their temper, hit back at customers and even decide not to offer any form of restitution. But in hitting back at customers and holding back whatever it is that would help recover the situation, the question that arises is whether CSEs react in the same way towards all angry customers.

According to a November 2017 study, published in the Journal of Service Research, the answer to that question is “No!”. Titled “Service Employee Responses to Angry Customer Complaints: The Roles of Customer Status and Service Climate”, this particular study threw up some interesting findings. The study proved that Retaliatory Discrimination actually exists.

To achieve their research objectives, the researchers got professional actresses to act as angry customers at a number of fast-food restaurants somewhere in Germany. The actresses used for the study were members of a theatre group at a large research university. They each had more than 5 years of acting experience so were able to act out their roles to perfection.

To have a proper understanding of how response to angry customers plays out under different circumstances, the researchers observed different service employees in two different restaurant settings with two distinct cultures. One of the eateries was a global fast-food chain characterised by consistently high-quality customer service, well-designed and sophisticated processes as well as rigorous employee training on service processes. The other types of eateries were local fast-food restaurants that were not part of any chain. This latter eatery type was characterised by a weak service culture where there was “little process standardization, few service rules, and little, if any, formal employee training on customer service”.

One of the first findings of the study was that employees expressed more anger to low-status customers than they did to high-status customers. In other words, the reaction of a CSE was based on the perceived status of the customer. However, this only occurred in the local restaurants with a weak service culture. The second observation was that “employees expressed less anger and were more likely to offer restitution when working in a strong service climate compared to a weak one.”

In short, it was discovered that the display of anger from CSEs was dependent on the status of the customer and the service culture of the organisation. The higher the status of the customer and the higher the service culture of the organisation, the lower the display of anger and the higher the chances of restitution.

One can also surmise from the findings of the study that one clear proof that an organisation has a low service climate is the presence of discrimination by front line employees against customers based on the customer’s status. In an organisation where the right structures are in place and customer service employees trained properly, issues of Retaliatory Discrimination would be absent.

A couple of years ago, I did some work for a hotel here in Accra. During the interaction with the front line employees, I got to know that there was a particular guest that most of the employees were not very comfortable with. His brashness was legendary in the hotel and when things do not go his way, he is said to display such a hot temper. He has been known to occasionally get physical with staff who dare cross his path.

However, I found it intriguing that with all the negative things the employees said about that particular gentleman, employees always stayed very decorous when dealing with him. It was clear that they held that customer in such a high esteem that no one would dare show any level of anger towards him. One could only wonder if that same respect would be accorded some other customers, especially those who might not be in the position to afford the hotel’s best suites and order the most expensive wines. Clearly, this hotel needed to check the level of its service climate.

It is true that the reaction of customers to the behaviours of front line staff goes a long way in determining the repurchase intentions and, by extension, the profitability of the business. Therefore, this issue of discrimination cannot be treated lightly. Tackling discrimination of any kind at the front line must be two-pronged.

For starters, businesses must, of necessity, ensure that CSEs are trained properly. Many front line staff would find it laughable if you were to inform them that they discriminate against angry, complaining customers. This is because these acts of discrimination are mostly committed unconsciously. No CSE sets out to display more anger at one customer than another. However, the discrimination occurs, regardless. The one sure way to handle a behaviour that has its roots in the unconscious is to first bring out the behaviour in the open and then unearth the motivations behind it.

The other takeaway from all of this is that every organisation must strive to create a strong customer service culture. Devoid of this, and front line employees will begin to discriminate against low level customers. Having worked as a customer service employee for years, I know that CSEs are deferential towards high-status customers just because one is never too sure how powerful that customer is. If one phone call from that customer can get you fired, you had better behave, even if that customer is at fault. It would only take the knowledge that Management would not be easily swayed by an aggrieved customer to make a front line act non-discriminatorily towards an angry high-status customer.

This is also why creating a strong customer service culture would have to start from the top. Management that is interested in creating a great service climate will empower its front line employees. It will pull out all the stops in ensuring that the entire organisation is steeped in a culture of great customer service.

The statuses and stations of people would always differ. The Messiah is quoted in the Holy Scriptures as saying that “the poor you would always have with you.” In other words, there would always be customers of low status among an organisation’s customer base. Even among the world’s richest, there is always that 1% of the Top 1%.

There would, therefore, always be that temptation for those serving customer to regard one customer above another. This should not be so, since both the high-status and low-status customers add up to give the business its life. The least those at the front line can do is to treat all customers in equally friendly and courteous terms, independent of their status. Anything else would amount to Retaliatory Discrimination.

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