Are your customers awful - and what should you do if they are?by
Reports of customers abusing staff have soared during the pandemic. But what if customers have always been awful - and are conditioned to be that way?
One of the many painful repercussions of the pandemic for businesses has been customer aggression.
During the lockdown, cases of abuse by customers directed at staff soared as anxiety and frustration boiled over into verbal - and even in some cases physical - attacks.
The UK’s largest grocery chain Co-Op, for instance, reported 133 cases of abuse by customers in just one day during lockdown. The situation quickly got so bad that new research by USDAW found that one in six retail employees were suffering abuse on a daily basis. USDAW found that 61% of employees working in retail reported verbal abuse during the pandemic with a third threatened by customers, while The British Retail Consortium reported that threats to cough and spit at staff became a regular feature of being a key worker.
Gethin Nadin, director of employee wellbeing at Benefex, wrote at the time: "The situation has got so bad that some supermarkets (including Co-Op and Waitrose) have had to invest in body cameras to protect shop workers, while others are trying to force the government to take more action. Co-Op Food CEO Jo Whitfield has started a petition for greater protection for retail staff to be written into legislation. MP Chris Evans co-chairs an all-parliamentary group on customer service and is leading calls for the government to mark abuse on retail staff as a specific crime."
Truly ghastly. Won't it be a relief when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and customer behaviour returns to normal, right?
Yet a new article on The Atlantic serves up a controversial hot take: customers are a nightmare, and they were a nightmare long before the pandemic.
While author of the piece Amanda Mull is ostensibly talking about American shoppers, when she outlines the evolution of customer service and the socioeconomic pressures that has turned customers into monsters, it's easy to see how this would be applicable to many other countries and cultures.
"Americans work long hours, and many of those with disposable income earn it through what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”— the kind of empty spreadsheet-and-conference-call labor whose lack of real purpose and meaning, Graeber theorizes, is an ambient psychological stressor on the people performing it. What these jobs do provide, though, is income, the use of which can feel sort of like an identity," writes Mull.
"This is not a feature of a healthy society. Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer-service interactions particularly conflagratory. Being corrected by a salesperson, forgotten by a bartender, or brushed off by a flight attendant isn’t just an annoyance - for many people, it is an existential threat to their self-understanding. “How many kinds of status do most of us actually have?” [historian and author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market, Susan] Strasser, asked me. “The notion that at the restaurant, you’re better than the waiters, it becomes part of the restaurant experience,” and also part of how some patrons understand their place in the world. Compounding this sense of superiority is the fact that so many service workers are from historically marginalized groups - the workforce is disproportionately nonwhite and female."
When the pandemic arrived, shoppers were further reminded of how little control they have over so many parts of their lives, Mull suggests: "For generations, American shoppers have been trained to be nightmares. The pandemic has shown just how desperately the consumer class clings to the feeling of being served."
The impact of awful customers
It's a disturbing portrait of modern society, and whatever your thoughts on Mull's conclusions, there is arguably at least some truth in it. In December 2019, when COVID was still only a problem in China, I wrote a piece about the growing hostility from customers and the issues that this posed for customer experience management.
The Gallup Global Emotions Report had revealed that anger had increased in its rankings to reach a new record high, while Shaun Belding noted some stories demonstrating how service staff were being regularly embroiled in a “nastiness epidemic” - including a New Jersey Lowe's employee and customer getting into a fight over a bag of grout and an Arizona man pointing a shotgun at an employee because he forgot to include hot sauce in an order. At the same time, research from CallMiner released in 2019, which reviewed more than 82 million customer service calls, found unprecedented levels of bad language aimed at call centre agents.
The repercussions of this are significant. First and foremost, there is a efficiency/financial impact. These kinds of irate engagements take longer to deal with - the CallMiner research, for instance, found that foul-mouthed calls last an average of 497 seconds (8.3 minutes) longer than those from calmer customers.
But more significantly, there is also the mental health damage for customer service staff.
Gethin Nadin notes that studies have found that when customer service employees receive a heighted number of angry or abusive customers, it impacts them psychologically and emotionally.
"Customer outbursts can be damaging psychologically to employees, and ultimately can contribute to depression and an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease," he has noted. "Other studies have found that even when controlling for other factors that would lead a customer facing worker to resign (like low pay, working hours and working conditions), researchers have found a significant link between customer mistreatment and employee quit rates."
It is, of course, important to note that - even with the socioeconomic background highlighted by Amanda Mull - most customers maintain a common decency most of the time. But there are indicators that people are becoming angrier, and this was the case long before the pandemic. So what can businesses do about this?
Protect the wellbeing of your staff
"Finding ways to better support customer facing employees with ways to decompress, relieve stress and protect staff from abusive customers should be high on your employee wellbeing strategy," says Nadin.
"Making open, board level commitments to helping your people as well as putting employee wellbeing at the centre of your culture is a great place to start. Employers should commit to asking their people what help and support they need and making sure that the wellbeing of staff is something that involves every area of the business."
Anda Robescu, strategist at Buyer Brain, has recommended the following ways that CX leaders and project managers can protect the mental wellbeing of their service staff:
- Assess employees’ fatigue and wellbeing periodically, by conducting performance testing or daily interactions or discussions, in order to detect behavioural fatigue symptoms in an early stage.
- The manager is the go-to-person for every work-related inquiry, so he/she must be a model for their employees regarding the normalization of mental health talks in the office.
- Remove the stigma regarding acknowledgment of fatigue, anxiety, or burnout and encourage every member of your team to open up and share their stories.
- Position trust and open communication as core values of your organization and practice them daily.
- Encourage your employees to address mental health specialists if their acute fatigue turns into burnout.
- Educate and empower your employees by adopting Mental Health programs inside your organisation.
- Respect their off-work hours and encourage them to take a break even if they work from home, especially during these stressful times.
Better understand and respond to customer emotions
Back in 2019, Forrester wrote about the strong role that emotion plays in customer experience, arguing that emotion holds the key to achieving customer service differentiation. Understanding and appropriately responding to customer emotions is absolutely crucial to de-escalating situations, and employees must be given the tools and support to assist them.
As Peter Dorrington, founder of XMplify consulting, notes in the MyCustomer research report Empathy in customer service - a consumer survey: “You need empathy to deescalate a stressful situation – people need to feel that they are being listened to and that all their needs are being understood and considered, whether those needs be practical or emotional. Empathy helps the agent and consumer relate to each other and establish rapport."
Customer outbursts can be damaging psychologically to employees, and ultimately can contribute to depression and an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease.
In a survey of call centre managers by the CCA, key traits required for modern-day contact centre agents included having high empathy and emotional intelligence. So it makes sense for contact centre recruiters to prioritise applicants that rank highly on these qualities, and also focus on this in training.
Steve Rescorla, managing consultant for customer engagement at Capgemini, adds: “‘Soft skills’ and in particular “emotional intelligence” will become a core competency for all customer-facing roles. Organisations who are not already anticipating this will have to quickly adapt their recruitment, training and performance management processes to this new reality.”
There are also a host of tools and techniques that organisations can utilise to support staff over and above recruitment and training, including sentiment/emotion detection, empathy/emotion mapping, AI-supported call routing/escalation on the basis of biometrics or predictive scoring, and human-centred design, including empathetic design principles.
Stop serving awful customers!
The third response to bear in mind, is whether you should cast aside awful customers altogether.
Dr Graham Hill of Optima Partners notes: "As anyone who has worked on the frontline with customers will tell you, there is a certain type of customer you can never satisfy, no matter what you do. And within these already difficult customers there is a further subset that become rude and abusive when they don’t get exactly what they want.
"Nobody should have to accept these bad customers; they are bad for staff, they are bad for other customers, and they are bad for business. Companies have a moral duty to support their frontline staff by giving them permission to refuse to serve customers who step over the line. This is an inconvenient truth for many of those who would have us believe ‘the customer is always right’. The truth is that being a customer brings a mixed bag of rights and responsibilities with it.
"It is simply wrong to take advantage of the rights and not expect to have to bear the matching responsibilities. Nobody should accept bad customers like these, no matter who much revenue they bring in. They should be shown the door and banished until they behave themselves."
So while there are steps that organisations can take to protect their staff from the mental damage that aggressive customers can cause, and there are also measures that can mollify and de-escalate customer hostility, perhaps it's high time businesses no longer accepted the tyranny of awful customers, and abandoned them altogether. What do you think?
Neil Davey was previously the editor of MyCustomer from 2007 until May 2023. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management.
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