The Contagion of Customer Misbehaviour: dealing with the Ripple Effect of Misconduct

J. N. Halm

In an ideal world, the word “misbehaviour” would not have existed. Everyone would do what is expected of the one. However, this is not the case. The world we operate in is far from ideal. Customers, just like every other human on Planet Earth, occasionally behave badly.

“Customer misbehaviour” has been described by experts as “the act of deliberately disobeying commonly accepted codes of conduct in a consumption situation by inappropriate handling, damage, or overuse of the product.” That is a mouthful but I believe you get what the experts are trying to say.

Customer misbehaviour can take many forms, from customers behaving rudely towards customer service personnel, customers verbally abusing customer-handling professionals all through to customers even getting into fights with employees. The ways in which customers misbehave can be varied. There are also instances of customers misbehaving towards other customers, such as cutting in on a queue of waiting customers or getting into arguments or even fights with other customers.

However, when we talk of customer misbehaviour, it is most especially to do with the misuse of a product, deliberately or unintentionally. The context in which customer misbehaviour is used is also more of an indirect kind of action. These are actions that customers take when there are no other people around. It is what the customer will do when there is no one watching that amounts to indirect customer misbehaviour or not.

Evidently, customer misbehaviour arises in situations where the customer does not actually own the product but rather just pays for the use. In a case where other customers have to come and use that product later, there is a need for the business to ensure that the customer leaves the product in the right condition. In this situation, the use or misuse by one customer can have an effect on the subsequent use by the next customer. This the case in most access-based services, i.e. services in which customers pay just for the use of a facility and not for outright purchase.

For instance, traditional services such as hotels, motels, inns, hostels and any facility that offers short stays as well as more contemporary services such as Airbnb have to grapple with this very issue. Other services that have to deal with customer misuse are rental services. Those hiring out chairs, canopies, mobile potties, etc. know that the state of the facilities after use by one customer can affect the experience of the next customer. Then there are the very popular ride-hailing apps such as Bolt, Uber, Yango, etc. These all fall under the access-based services category.

It is clear that one of the very important effects of product misuse by customers is the cost to the organisation. When an organisation has to repair or replace something after every use, there is definitely going to be a drain on the finances and hence, the profit of the said organisation. Recovery of service facilities to optimal states can be very costly. Even if all the organisation needs is a cleaner to make sure the facility is tidy enough for the next customer, that cleaner must still be paid.

There is also the case of the organisation acquiring a poor brand reputation. When customers begin to complain that the facilities at a particular business are always broken down or breaking down, it begins to affect the image of the organisation. Reputational loss is a very important consideration for businesses because it eventually leads to financial loss.

There have been studies that have shown that customer misbehaviour even has a negative effect on employees. The stress of having to deal with poor acts of customers can really get to employees. Having to clean up after a customer is something that eventually take a toll on customers, leading to a number of physical, mental and emotional conditions.

The task therefore for businesses that are affected by such customer misuse is quite simple—reduce customer misuse through misbehaviour and enhance customer experience. This is however easier said than done. It takes quite some effort to mitigate customer misuse of facilities. I know of businesses that got of the student hostel business because the damage to their facilities on a regular basis was too much.

One way organisations can handle resource misuse by customers is to always have someone on standby to ensure that the resource is ready for the use of the next customer. This might cost the organisation some money but if that is what it will take to ensure that the next customer has a good experience, then so be it.

Another popular way to curb the penchant for misuse of facilities by customers is via the deployment of the safety deposit scheme. This is where the customer is expected to deposit a certain amount of money with the business that would be used to defray any cost that might arise from the customer’s misuse of the product or facility. Knowing that there is money at stake can cause customers to behave properly, especially if the money to lose is quite high.

It is one thing for customers to misuse a facility or product. It is however a different ballgame when that misuse leads to further misuse by other customers. This is the contagion of customer misbehaviour—and it is a real problem, especially among access-based service providers. A customer comes into a facility and sees it in a certain not-so-ideal state, obviously from a misuse by the previous customer. The behaviour of this new customer will be influenced, among other factors, by the one’s perception of the social norms within that customer group.

In other words, the bad behaviour of one customer can trigger similar bad behaviours in subsequent customers. Although, the subsequent customers did not see the prior customers behaving poorly, by observing the results of the bad behaviour, the tendency increases for subsequent poor behaviour. This was among findings in a study that was published in the July 2015 edition of the Journal of Service Research. The article was titled “Contagious Effects of Customer Misbehavior in Access-Based Services”.

In the said Journal of Service Research study, researchers proposed three ways by which access-based services could mitigate against the negative trend of customer misuse of their facilities. The first of those ways was for organisations to invest in their brands. According to the study, customers were less likely to catch the misbehaviour contagion when dealing with strong brands—brands that were very reputable. Even when customers see signs of misuse by previous customers, they tend to write it off as one-off incidents and not norms.

The second thing an organisation can do to curb the tendency of customers to catch the misbehaviour contagion is to get close to its customers. According to the researchers, when customers feel that an organisation is anonymous, there is an increase in the tendency for misbehaviour. However, the closer the organisation gets to its customers, the less that tendency.

The last suggestion by the researchers was for organisations to foster and promote a community feeling among its customers. They were of the belief that when customers feel a part of a community, they become a lot more responsible and would not allow certain negative behaviours to occur.

A later study published in the December 2021 edition of the Journal of Services Marketing found two other ways to lessen the contagion of customer misbehaviour. According to the study titled, “Addressing Customer Misbehavior Contagion in Access-Based Services”customer-company identification was one way to mitigate the contagion of customer misbehaviour.

Customer-company identification is that psychological feeling of belongingness that customers develop for a particular organisation or brand. It is that affinity that a customer develops for a brand that makes the customer become so committed to the brand. It has been found that when customers enter into strong, committed, and meaningful relationships with certain companies, they become champions of these companies and their products. When customers therefore have a strong affinity for an access-based service, that customer will naturally begin to treat the facilities of the business, as they would their own properties. This should therefore inform organisations to endeavour to create strong emotional bonds with customers.

According to the above study, the other factor that can lead to the reduction in customer misbehaviour contagion is a reduction in interpersonal anonymity. It is a fact that people tend to misbehave when they feel no one knows them. Anonymity tends to bring out the worst in people. Under the full glare of public scrutiny most people will behave in a fit and proper manner. In other words, organisations should ensure that proper Know Your Customer (KYC) procedures are adhered to when dealing with customers. Customers coming to use an access-based service should not be given the freedom to operate in anonymity.

Of the many things that makes for a great customer experience, the facility or product is one that cannot be treated lightly. The kind of experience a customer will have will depend on whether the product or facility is in the best of states. This is why any action or inaction that affects the use of a facility must be treated with all seriousness.

In creating the kind of experience that would keep customers coming back for more, it is important that each and every organisation leaves nothing to chance. For those businesses engaged in access-based services, it is super important that they do everything possible to ensure that in no way should one customer’s actions (or inactions) negatively affect the experience of the next customer. That next customer might not be too forgiving. That customer would walk away with negative impressions of the quality of service. And we all know what happens when a customer is dissatisfied. He or she will tell a lot more customers about that experience and before long, the business in question will begin to suffer—all because of one’s customer’s misbehaviour.


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