Customer stress

What is 'job embeddedness' and how does it help staff deal with customer stress


How do you help your customer-facing staff when the pressure gets too much?

17th Mar 2020

Handling customers at the frontline is not a walk in the park. The stress that comes with dealing with customers on a daily basis can pierce through even the toughest skin.

The amount of emotional labour demanded of customer service employees (CSEs) to handle customers satisfactorily can leave them feeling drained - sometimes, dreading the thought of going back the next day.

It has been alleged that the over-emphasis on promoting the “customer is always right” mantra causes many customers to behave in some not-too-desirable ways. The proliferation of options available today also makes some customers feel they are indispensable to businesses and therefore these customers think can do almost anything and get away with it. When a customer comes into a transaction with that kind of mindset, it is the poor employee that suffers.

It is therefore not at all surprising that the stress of dealing with customers is one of the main reasons behind the turnover of many CSEs. And this scenario is only exacerbated by the kinds of crisis that the world is facing today (read this article for an example of how service staff in the travel sector are bearing the brunt of customer frustration in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak). 

What is job embeddedness?

A study published in the October 2019 edition of the Journal of Service Theory and Practice explored how dysfunctional customer behaviour affects employee turnover. The study was carried out among more than 200 workers of two hotels, one in South Korea and the other in the United Kingdom. Led by South Korean researcher Taeshik Gong, the study found out that dysfunctional customer behaviour truly affected employees - but only to an extent.

One factor that has a moderating effect on whether CSEs are stressed out by poor customer behaviours is how “embedded” the customer is on the job. Job embeddedness represents a set of influences that keeps an employee in the job. In other words, embeddedness seeks to answer the question: “why does an employee stay on job and what are the factors that an employee considers when they decide to come to work every day?”

There are many components of embeddedness. For instance, embedded employees are more likely to have more personal relationships in the workplace. Gong’s study found that the more embedded an employee was on the job, the less the chance of dysfunctional customer behaviour causing the employee to quit the job. The reason is that such an individual, with more connections and relationships related to his or her job, will experience greater disruptions if he or she were to leave the job. When they consider all the friends that they would be leaving behind, they reconsider the decision to quit the job.

The individual who is not embedded can easily leave because they are not tied to the office, emotionally or mentally. He or she would not miss so many people and also knows that not many people will miss him or her. Therefore, quitting due to pressure from customers is not such a wrench.

Embeddedness is that root that ensures that when the pressure gets too much, the employee does not fall. It is the anchor that holds when the storms of customer dysfunctional behaviour begin to beat down on the CSE. Those whose foundations are not so deep in the organisation are those who will easily walk away when the pressure becomes too much.

What influences embeddedness?

There are many factors, however, that affect the level of embeddedness of the employee on the job. Factors such as the employee’s relationship with co-workers; how the employee enjoys the work he or she does; how the employee feels his or her work is contributing to a greater good; and the demands of the job have all been linked to what keeps an employee in a particular job.

Research carried out with a sample of some full-time employed nurses in two hospitals in Jakarta, Indonesia found out that there were other factors that influenced embeddedness. The study found that the time it took for the employee to commute to work played a major role in the level of embeddedness. The shorter the distance one travelled to work, the more attached he/she felt to the organisation and the lesser the chance of them quitting. This is understandable, because if an employee has to travel over a long distance and sit in traffic for hours only to arrive at work and then go through stress at the hands of customers, it doesn't nurture embeddedness.

The Indonesian study also found that the views of the employee’s family members had an influence on the embeddedness of the individual. If the employee's family have positive views of the organisation, it reinforces their decision to stay on the job. 

Another factor that strengthens embeddedness is what social scientists refer to as “fit”. This refers to how comfortable an employee feels in the job. When the individual perceives that his or her skillset, as well as values, are correctly aligned and compatible with the job, that person becomes more embedded in the job and in the organisation.

Individulalists vs collectivists

It is important to also note that, apart from embeddedness on the job, another factor that moderates the effect of dysfunctional customer behaviour on employee stress is the cultural value orientation of the employee. Psychologists claim that, when it comes to the issue of cultural values, human beings are either individualists or collectivists.

Individualists are those motivated by their own personal goals and ambitions in life. They are self-motivated and strive for autonomy in the workplace. In school, individualists are those who aren't enthusiastic about group tasks. They are more comfortable if each individual is given his or her own task to do.

Embeddedness seeks to answer the question: why does an employee stay on job and what are the factors that an employee considers when they decide to come to work every day?

Then there are the collectivists, who are motivated by group goals. They are team players who will readily sacrifice their personal comfort for the greater good of the whole team.

The findings from Gong’s study was that collectivists were more likely to be more embedded in the job. Thus, they better handle the effects of customer stress than the individualists.

Nurturing embeddedness in your service team

The stress associated with dealing with customers is not going away anytime soon - and is likely to be more acute, given the current global crisis. But it is also very much a part and parcel of the whole service game. Those who want their service teams to excel therefore must prepare them for the stress that comes with it. This means that CSEs must be more embedded in their jobs if they are to survive - and excel on the frontline.

In putting people at the frontline to face customers, managers must be on the lookout for traits that can ensure embeddedness. Managers must also ensure that there are systems and structures that reinforce a sense of embeddedness in the employee.

For CSEs to thrive on the job and not jump ship at the slightest provocation, frustration or inconvenience, they must learn to build more relationships on the job. They must also be passionate about what they are doing. Serving customers is something they must love so much that they would do it, even if they were not going to be paid.

Those I have come across who survive the stress of dealing with customers, are those who genuinely love meeting and interacting with people. They have a natural fit for the job. It is this love that keeps them embedded in the job. 


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