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Cranky Customers' Toll on Front-Line Workers

A group of business people standing in a lobby.

​We've all had that moment when a bad experience with a product or service creates anger or frustration and we vent to a customer service representative. That angst can lead to a confrontation in person, on the phone or through an online chat. The tenor of these conversations ranges from minor annoyance to rudeness and hostile interactions in worst-case scenarios.

Front-line workers bear the brunt of venting. While nearly everyone can relate to initiating a conversation like this, it's uncommon to consider what these interactions do to the worker's job satisfaction and emotions. HR leaders who are managing service staff are seeing firsthand the toll these interactions take on staff.

"Cranky customers have always existed, and there will always be cranky customers," said Adam Lukoskie, vice president of the National Retail Federation (NRF) Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based association serving retailers.

Dealing with grouchy customers is a part of doing business, but the rate at which front-line staff are experiencing hostile interactions is increasing. In a report from ASAPP, a company that develops artificial intelligence technologies to support service representatives, 8 out of 10 customer service representatives reported verbally abusive customer interactions.

The ASAPP report adds that nearly half (1.2 million) of people working in customer service resign from their positions each year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in November 2021, quit rates in leisure and hospitality were double the national average, nearly 6 percent compared with 3 percent overall.

"It is a 'right now' kind of society where people tend to be less patient than before," said Errol Allen, a business operations expert who operates EA Consulting in Houston. "The pandemic likely increased that. But it's always about asking, 'What can we do internally' to reduce or alleviate some of the customer tension and unhappiness and provide better service to the customer?"

With soaring resignations among staff who play one of the most critical business roles, it's essential to look at how to support these individuals to encourage retention. 

Set Them Up for Success

Customer service roles are demanding, and a person must have the right temperament for the position. Ideally the individual is empathetic and able to handle confrontation. Start by hiring a person who is right for the job. 

"We had to let one woman go because she hated taking or making phone calls. She also responded to e-mail inquiries poorly, fueling the customer's anger instead of solving the problem," recalled Becky Ramsey, marketing director for an automotive group in Glens Falls, N.Y. Her role includes overseeing a small customer service staff for the online parts sales division. 

"When I hired her replacement, I looked for the right fit—the representative has a degree in psychology and knows how to talk someone off a ledge," Ramsey said.

Firing someone amidst a national staffing shortage can be nerve-wracking, but a poor-performing employee can cost the company money in lost sales.

Ramsey pays the new customer service representative nearly $10 an hour more than the company's average starting rate. That's well above the median wage for customer service workers, but worth it, Ramsey said, for the employee's skill set. According to the BLS, the median wage was $17.75 as of May 2021, with some sectors and states paying far more.

Provide Training

Lukoskie says more employers are providing in-depth training for customer service staff that includes strategies for handling contentious customer interactions. The NRF Foundation created a 70-minute online course with the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) to teach retail workers how to de-escalate conflicts.

Called RiseUp, the course based on the CPI Crisis Development Model focuses on four pillars:

  • Identifying customer anxiety, acknowledging concerns and offering support.
  • Recognizing the customer is not satisfied by the response from the action taken above and using company protocols or policies to address the issue.
  • Acknowledging rising customer stress levels when they become a risk to themselves or another person, then directing the person to an area with fewer people and getting help from other staff or security as needed.
  • Taking time to rest.

"After an associate or an employee has dealt with a challenging situation, there is the need to take a step back. They can't go from one customer and jump to next," Lukoskie said. "Have them take five minutes for 'tension' reduction in a quiet place to let adrenaline and nerves calm down."

Danielle D. van Jaarsveld, co-author of the study, "Unpacking the Relationship Between Customer (In)Justice and Employee Turnover Outcomes: Can Fair Supervisor Treatment Reduce Employees' Emotional Turmoil?" suggested role-playing to provide an opportunity for staff to prepare for those interactions.

Put It in Perspective

At the end of the day, remind front-line employees that the bad interactions, while troubling, are almost always outweighed by the good interactions.

"You're going to get those calls. It's the nature of people," Allen said. "You have to ask what percentage of calls are like that. You cannot translate that one call to others. It's something I used to remind myself and my staff of often."

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.


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