Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Customer conflict resolution


…Dealing with customer incivility

Sometimes. Just sometimes, you wonder if all is well with some people. You sometimes witness the behaviour of certain people and you cannot help but wonder if all is well with them. There have been a couple of times, during my days at the front line as a customer service professional, when I have had to wonder that about certain customers. The level of uncivil behaviour that some customers put on display can sometimes be as shocking as they are ridiculous.

A pizza delivery guy tells a story of some customers who were upset with him because they had ordered their pizza to be delivered at 7pm and he had delivered the pizza at 6:55pm. Five minutes earlier. That was enough reason for the customers to lose their temper. Can you imagine that would feel like? Being screamed at just because you over-delivered on your promise.

There is also the story of a customer who got angry because she was not going to be given the refund she had come for. The manager explained to her that the receipt she had was a wrong receipt for the item she had returned. All she needed to do was to bring the correct receipt. She got so furious that she called 911 and brought the cops to the store. That story actually did not end too well for the customer. When the cops came and listened to the whole story, they gave her a verbal caution for wasting their time.

There are as many of these displays of incivility from customers as there are customers. In every hundred or so service encounters, there are always going to be a few customers who will show that they have some sort of baser instinct. One definition of “customer incivility” is “low-intensity deviant behaviour perpetrated by someone in the customer or client role, with ambiguous intent to harm an employee and in violation of social norms of mutual respect and courtesy”. By this definition, it can be said that when customers behave in those deviant ways, they do so to cause the employee or the organisation some harm. The harm might be mainly emotional but can also be physical.

Unfortunately, when these things happen, it is mainly the front line employee who tends to suffer. The stress of dealing with such customer behaviour can be so overwhelming that it sometimes does affect front line employees, both physically and emotionally. It is a truth that dealing with rude and unsavoury customers can make customer service professionals actually fall ill. Burnout, as a result of dealing with rude and uncouth customers, is more prevalent than it seems.

After a while of dealing with these rude customers, some customer-facing professionals can become hardened to their very cores. There are also those who are unable to bear the stress and they just walk away from those roles or just resign from those companies. Some realise that it is better for their health to just walk away. Those who cannot just walk might result in doing things that will take their minds of the stress they are experiencing.

The other outcome of dealing with customer incivility is that frontline employees can also counter with their own form of incivility. Employees might become rude to rude customers and this could escalate the situation to unbearable levels. There are many employees who have lost their jobs just because they could stand the rude behaviours of customers and so they also fought “fire with fire”. Whichever outcome results from customer-handling professionals having to deal with customer incivility, in the end, it is the quality of customer service that suffers.

It is also clear from the above that the individual characteristics of the customer service professional plays a very important role in handling customer incivility. There are those customer service professionals who will ran away from “the fight” and there are those who will stay to fight. Of the latter group, it is important that they have the right resources, both physically and emotionally, to manage the fight. These resources could include mental resources such as self-esteem, self-worth and job engagement.

In handling of their mental and emotional resources, research has shown that there are also two kinds of people. There are those who tend to conserve the resources they have. These employee as more prevention-focused, are more risk averse and are interested in preservation of their resources. They prefer to maintain the status quo. When dealing with customer incivility therefore, this group of employees will rather coil back. They will prefer to keep their distance. They will not want to get into any banter with the customer that will drain their emotional resources.

The second group when it comes to handling resources are those who are promotion-focused. These employees are more concerned about growth and achievement. They are all about obtaining gains rather avoiding loss. This group of employees tend to take more risks. When dealing with customers who are being uncivilised, these employees will prefer to get to know more about the customer.

A study published in the June 2022 edition of The Service Industries Journal threw some interesting light on the subject matter. The study was titled “Conflict-Solving as a Mediator between Customer Incivility and Service Performance”. Combining results from three studies, the researchers proposed a way to tackle the effect of customer incivility on customer service performance. The focus of the study was the conflict-solving behaviour of customer-facing employees.

The truth is that it is expected of every employee whose duties include dealing with customers directly to be able to handle conflict. This is because friction and tension are always to be expected whenever and wherever two or more people interact. Customer service professionals are always to behave in ways that minimise these conflicts. Handling this responsibility is not a problem if customers are to behave normally, with just a few misunderstandings here and there. The problem is when customers become uncivil in their interactions with frontline professionals. In that situation, the customer service professional has to go over and above the one’s call of duty just to handle the situation. 

The above-referred study found that the quality of the relationship between the customer and the organisation or the customer service professional had an effect on the level of customer incivility. Customers tend to be a lot more measured in their behaviour when they are on good terms with the one serving them. Customers would look to the level of relationship they have with the customer-handling professional and based on that, behave appropriately. The truth is that through relationships, frontline employees are able to acquire relational and social capital. These are just the resources that are able to reduce the effect of whatever uncivilised behaviour customers put up.

This is why the job of the frontline professional should necessarily involve initiating, building and investing in solid relationships with one’s customers. It is not enough to just serve customers and send them on their merry way. Customer-facing professionals must always keep in mind that their job involves having great relationships with their customers. A great relationship might prove to be the difference between dealing with a good-mannered customer and dealing with a mean-spirited one.

It is obvious from the ongoing discussion that of the two ways individuals tend to manage resources, it is better for customer-facing employees to be more promotion focused than prevention focused. This is because to solve conflicts that might arise out of customer incivility, the frontline employee will need a store of emotional and physical resources.

Since human beings have a limit to the resources they can contain, preserving what the resources one has will not be adequate to handle the challenges of customer incivility. It has even been argued that those who tend to conserve their resources are those who actually do not have any of those resources at all and have no idea how to acquire such resources. When these professionals are faced with situations that drain their mental and emotional resources, their first course of action will be to take a step back.

For instance, to handle conflict, the customer service professional must be able to listen and listen well to the customer. A customer who is behaving badly must have reasons for doing so and it will take patience and other resources such as time and effort to really listen to such a customer. Without adequate store of the right resources, the customer service professional will struggle to solve any such conflicts.

It is true that for as long a business keeps bringing in customers, the chances of rude and condescending verbal and behavioural responses from customers toward employees will not stop. From the ongoing discussion, it is clear that the organisation as well as the employee both have a role to play. For businesses, it is important that when it comes to recruitment, training, and continuous education, organisations must have a clear policy. Organisations that are interested in tackling customer incivility will bring in the right people and train them well. These businesses do so because they know that it takes the right people to handle the wrong issues well.

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