WITHDRAWAL: Dealing with customer incivility

J. N. Halm

For a moment, she could not believe she had heard right. Her ears could be deceiving her. The sting in the words of the customer momentarily stunned her. Thief? How dare this customer? Why call her a thief? What of his had she stolen? She did not have to wait long for the answers. The angry customer in front of her was unrelenting in his verbal assaults. As a matter of fact, he was just getting started.

“I came to withdraw money yesterday and when I got home I realised that some notes were missing in the bundle,” he blurted out.

“I went straight home from this place, so who else could have stolen my money?” he bellowed. “Young lady, who else?!”

By this time, the customer’s outcry had risen by several decibels. The outbursts of the obviously-aggrieved customer drew the attention of all those in the banking hall. From the look on the face of the poor teller, you could see that she was experiencing a mix of emotions. On one hand, it was clear that she was embarrassed. However, it was also clear that she was furious. The customer had no right to exhibit such crass behaviour towards her.

She really wanted to take on the man but she knew better than to do that. She knew the bank’s policy towards arguing and fighting with customers. As much as she wanted to give him a piece of her mind, she knew it was not going to end well for her. Thankfully, she did not need to say anything directly to the customer. Within minutes of the man’s outburst, the other customers came around to the teller’s defence.

“You cannot talk to a lady like that!” a smartly-dressed gentlemen countered. “No matter what, you cannot do that!”

“What is your proof that she took your money?” another man asked.

The branch manager, having heard the commotion came rushing in, with other staff in tow. If the unruly customer meant to create a scene to embarrass the young lady, he had definitely succeeded. With her manager in, the teller explained what had transpired in as few words as possible. When her boss took over the matter, she remembered something she had learnt at the last customer service training she had attended—something to do with handling angry customers.

She felt that was a good time to apply that knowledge. She excused herself from the scene, directing the customers in front of her enclosure to the other tellers available and withdrew from the scene. She knew it was not the best of actions to take but at that moment, she felt it was her best option. She needed to take a step back to regain her composure.

Withdrawal, as a coping mechanism when dealing with hostile situations, is something many front line employees do. Sometimes, the withdrawal might not be in the physical sense as the case of this teller. In the case where there are no other colleagues to take over the workload, the individual might not physically walk away from the encounter. However, that person would become emotionally withdrawn.

No manager would want to her front line employees (FLEs) withdrawn at the front line. Having employees fully engaged is every manager’s dream. There is enough proof that when FLEs are engaged on the job, they are able to offer better service to customers, thereby increasing the satisfaction level of customers. Therefore, a withdrawn employee would be the last thing the manager would want to see.

It is important to note that the withdrawal being referred to is not meant to take forever. It must be for a brief period. Withdrawal is not about taking the day off just because a customer insulted you. It is about just taking a break to get one’s thoughts and emotions back in order before returning to work. The typical workplace is not structured like a football team. There are rarely places for substitutes in the office. Therefore, if an FLE is to take off for a days just because of a customer’s insult, the work will end up suffering. This will eventually lead to more customer dissatisfaction.

Customer dissatisfaction levels tends to rise when FLEs become withdrawn, especially when they are withdrawn while on the job. Customers will definitely complain when the one they are dealing with behaves in that withdrawn manner. Nothing is more irritating than dealing with a customer contact employee who would rather be anywhere else but the workplace.

If the findings of a recent study are anything to go by, then it seems withdrawal might really be the best thing a front line employee can do when the one encounters customer incivility. The study was titled “When Heroes and Villains Are Victims: How Different Withdrawal Strategies Moderate the Depleting Effects of Customer Incivility on Frontline Employees”. Published in the October 2020 edition of the Journal of Service Research, the study was emphatic that there are benefits when FLEs withdraw after a bout of incivility.

According to the study, withdrawing from the scene of the action, whether on-task (remaining at post and continuing one’s duty but doing so with a reduced effort) or off-task (physically leaving the scene of the action), served to replenish the resources of the FLE. The researchers found that each kind of withdrawal served a different purpose. On-task withdrawal was a form of protection of one’s emotional resources. Off-task withdrawal, on the other hand, was a way of gaining or acquiring new emotional resources.

The concept of emotional exhaustion is very real for FLEs. In adjusting their emotions to suit different customer situations, FLEs get drained emotionally. On a normal day, an FLE will go home exhausted emotionally. An encounter with an ill-mannered customer takes things to the next level. The encounter has the potential of not only increasing the stress and strain on the individual but also helps in accelerating the drain on the customer’s emotional resources. This is why withdrawal from the front line is needed to help replenish the FLE.

It is important to note that not all forms of withdrawals happen to be very effective. The researchers in the above-mentioned study concluded that on-task withdrawal had only marginal increases on the FLE’s emotional resources. They even further stated that staying on the job and serving customers while suffering internally could even aggravate the situation for the FLE. In other words, a customer-handling employee will be in big trouble if the one does not have a manager who understands the importance of off-task withdrawal. If the manager insists that the one continues serving customers—instead of giving the one a break—the employee, the customer and the organisation will all end up suffering.

Withdrawal that happens outside of working hours or one that happens outside of the office tend to be very effective. If the withdrawal is timed to coincide with something like a lunch break, then it can also be very helpful. A good meal and good laughter can do wonders for the one’s mood. Another occasion when withdrawal is effective is when it happens during one’s holiday, vacation or leave period. This is also why it is of importance that FLEs never miss their annual leave period and occasionally take breaks from work. Taking a total break from the pressures and stressors of dealing with customers can really be invigorating.

With an increase in the options available as well as the pressure of trying to make it in an increasingly-competitive world, it is little wonder that customers of today are becoming more and more bad-mannered. The scenes that played out on television screens all over the world at the peak of the COVID-19 was enough to show that human beings can lose all their civility under intense pressure. This is why it is important for those whose job it is to handle customers to be equipped with the requisite skills to do so and do so effectively.

Organisations must understand that the performance of those they place at the front line is very much dependent on a number of issues, including the emotional and mental states of these front liners. In putting in place the right structures and systems to ensure that customers are given exceptional experiences every single time, many organisations would not consider things like emotional state of FLE. This is most unfortunate since human beings are very emotional beings.

So what happened to our good friend the cashier, who was verbally assaulted by the aggrieved customer? According to her, when she excused herself, she went to the washroom and wept. She said the tears were really helpful as it made her feel far better. Afterwards, she applied her makeup and came back to her post, refreshed and replenished. That brief step away from the scene of the incivility was really important to her mental and emotional wellbeing. She came ready to take on any new customer incivility.

Just like the ram that goes back, way back, when it is in a tough fight, she did not run away from the fight. Just like the ram, she withdrew because she had to replenish her strength for a fresh assault. That is something you might have to do occasionally if you intend to excel at the front line.

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