Service and Experience: That’s rude–effects of customer incivility on front line employee performance

J. N. Halm

The barista at the coffee shop believed he had given the customer the very best of service that day. He had welcome the customer with a smile. He had spoken to the man well. To top it all up, when he proceeded to give the customer his coffee, he told the customer to “Have a nice day!” But that was the “mistake” he made. Because the customer got angry.


Because, according to the customer, the employee was being rude.


Because the employee should have rather said “Thank you” and not “Have a nice day”. According to the customer, the “Thank you” was ‘company standard’.” As a matter of fact, the customer was so angry that he actually wrote a letter to the Corporate Office to complain about the incident.

When I came across the above story I first thought it was joke. How is “Have a nice day” a worse response than “Thank you”? Who even gets angry at being told to have a nice day? I have no idea what that customer had eaten, drank or smoked that morning but something was not right with him.

And when I saw the part where the customer complained that the front line employee was rude, I could not help but laugh out loud. How is saying “Have a nice day” instead of saying “Thank you” an act of impoliteness? If that was rude, then I would not know what to call the many instances that customers have been nothing short of insufferable.

Case in point was a customer who went to a supermarket to purchase hand sanitisers. After walking down the aisle to pick the bottles of sanitiser, she brought them to the counter to pay for them. However, when she got to the counter, she realised that there were hand sanitisers also placed at the checkout counter, meaning she did not have to walk all the way to the aisles to find the sanitisers. The customer went berserk.

The fact that she had had to walk down the aisle to find, pick and bring the bottles of sanitiser to the front desk, only to find out that she need not have walked that far was too much for her. According to the story, she was so angry at the front desk professional she met that day. So much so that she let out a barrage of expletives, all directed that the front line employee. That was rude!

Rude behaviour can come in a plethora of shapes and forms—from rudely talking down on employees, staring down at employees, all through to customers threatening to beat up front line employees. The truth is that some customers can be so rude that sometimes it is even unbelievable. Sometimes, the actions of some customers make you wonder if they really know that the individuals being abused are also human beings with feelings. Rude behaviour from customers is a huge challenge for many organisations, especially so because in the long run, it is the customer who suffers.

It is not easy for the service and experience professional to be at the top of her game if she is dealing with a customer whose actions are nothing short of obnoxious. Having spent decades at the front line I know for a fact that this can test an individual to the one’s limit. To smile in the face of an annoying customer demands a lot of patience and self-control.

To remain professional while the one you are serving is trying everything in her power to get under your skin is not a job for the fainthearted. To keep serving a customer who makes you feel like less of a person is something that only few people look forward to. But this is what is expected of front line employees each and every day when they come to work.

The natural reaction of the average individual would be hit out at the annoying customer. It would be far easier to say something hurtful in return when one is being abused. However, that would be out of place for service and experience professional. A well-trained customer-interfacing professional is expected to know better and to do better.

This is why research shows that the personality of the customer service professional is very important when it comes to the success of the one as a front line professional. In other words, it takes a certain kind of individual to make for a great customer-facing professional. According to a study published in the September 2020 edition of the Service Industries Journal, the tendency for rude customer behaviour to affect the performance of the service employee was mediated by how the service employee sees herself. The study was titled “Rude Customers and Service Performance: Roles of Motivation and Personality”.

Individuals who believe in their inner worth and basic competence are better able to weather the storm of dealing with a rude customer. These are the employees with positive core self-evaluations, with low to no self-doubt whatsoever. These are the professionals who do not wait to be validated by the actions or inactions of others.

Self-doubt can be a very terrible issue to deal with. It is a canker that can really eat away at the confidence of an individual. One of the effects of self-doubt that might arise through customer rudeness is a tendency for the employee to not trust in his or her own abilities. This false evaluation of one’s capabilities can lead to manifestation of that lack of belief on the next customer. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The individual begins to believe he or she does not have what it takes to give customers a great experience. And because of that mind-set, they truly become incapable of giving their customers that great experience.

It is also important to realise that employees who had positive evaluations of themselves have also be found to be more satisfied with their jobs than those with negative core self-evaluations. I want to believe that their satisfaction with their job is something that will be able to keep the front line employee still in professional mode when dealing with impolite customers. If you love your job and part of your job comes with dealing with the occasional discourteous customer, I am pretty sure, you will be able to handle that. However, if you already have a problem with the job you have, then the slightest inconvenience can really set you off.

The truth is that rude behaviour, regardless of who exhibits it, has deleterious effects on the target individual. For instance, anger is one of the commonest effects of rude behaviour. An angry person is one who might not think right. When the one sees the red mist, it becomes very difficult for the one to see right. Therefore, when a customer is rude to a customer-facing employee, it would be easy for the employee to lose all of the one’s mental faculties out of anger. It takes a special well-trained and well-mannered individual to remain calm in the face of customer incivility.

It has also been found that self-doubt can also lead to a hindrance of the creativity of an individual. When individuals begin to have doubts in their own abilities, their ability to think creatively is curtailed. Therefore, at the front line, the employees who has been at the receiving end of a rude and uncivilised behaviour would be deprived all their ability to find creative solutions to the customer’s challenges, if the one is not super confident in the one’s own self-worth.

It is also an established fact that depression can result from receiving too much abuse and uncivilised behaviour from others. Many people are unable to handle so much abuse. They will crumble under such conditions. If the verbally abused is your average customer-handling employee, then the one can begin to exhibit signs of depression. This would definitely affect the quality of service the one will give to customers. The one will wake up and dread coming to work. If the one has no other choice than to report to work, then the one will do so reluctantly and the end result would be a morose and taciturn customer-handling employee.

Rude behaviour can also result in embarrassment and shame for the average customer-handling employee. This is especially true when the rude behaviour is done in the view of other customers. In this situation, the customer service employee might feel so terrible that he or she would not be able to give off of their best. Here again, it would take an individual with a tough skin to brush it all off and move ahead serving other customers, with a smile. As a matter of fact, by remaining calm, the service and experience professional takes away the power of the rude customer.

This discussion has direct implications for those whose job it is to bring new talent into the organisation. Human resource, personnel and talent managers must ensure that in recruiting new employees, they place an emphasis on how the prospects view themselves and their roles in the functioning of the world. Prospective employees who do not have a very high view of themselves would obviously struggle at the front line. When customers become rude, the quality of their output will suffer and that will end up negatively affecting the experience of other customers. Such individuals will not enjoy the work at the front line.

So really, what can a business, as a whole, do about rude customers? Very little, if you ask me. Some people are just rude by nature. All the business can do is to staff its front line with professionals who are confident in themselves, individuals who will not allow the behaviour of a few rude customers to cause them to deviate from their professionalism. This is because rude behaviour, if not handled well, has a penchant of perpetuating more rude behaviour.

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