Which Emotion Most Drives Customer Hostility?

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Two customers with the same exact complaint contact customer service representatives to voice their dissatisfactions. One of them expresses their problem calmly and with civility while the other, with the exact same complaint, explodes in hostility and aggression. This rather common situation raises 3 questions:

1. What is it that accounts for the huge difference in the two customers’ complaining behavior?

2. How should customer service representatives respond differently to each of these customers?

3. Can management mitigate the impact of hostile customers on frontline employees?

A new study in the Journal of Service Management examined the different emotions we bring to complaining situations such as rage, regret, and anxiety. They found that one emotion was more prominent in fueling customer hostility than all others—frustration.

Customers who experienced high frustration tended to bring a significant amount of hostility and aggression to their interactions with customer service representatives, making them extremely emotionally challenging for the frontline representatives laboring to assist them.

In my book The Squeaky Wheel, I discuss the various ways in which how dealing with hostile customers negatively impacts the productivity and mental health of customer service and call center employees. I also discuss and give examples of the steps companies can take to mitigate these effects, as well as the managerial models that have been proven effective in doing so. Therefore, understanding that frustration is often the main driver of customer hostility means that customer service practices need to be adapted to consider the following guidelines for dealing with hostile complaints:

1. The only way to attain a satisfactory service recovery in such situations is to first manage (and reduce) the customer’s hostility—otherwise the hostile complaining behavior will persist or even increase (see my article: The Antidote to Anger and Frustration).

2. Customer service representatives must therefore postpone entering into a discussion about potential remedies and solutions to the problem and allow the customer to fully explain their frustration and the situation creating it.

3. Representatives must then offer customers both an apology (see my article: Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?) and display empathy (see my article: How to test Your Empathy).

4. Customers who feel their emotions were understood and validated will immediately feel less frustrated and be more open to service recovery efforts (watch short video: How to Apologize to Customers).

5. Frontline employees must manage significant amounts of stress when performing service recoveries in this way. To continue functioning at the highest levels they will need their own support and empathy from their managers and supervisors.

CONCLUSION: In order to perform effective service recoveries and sustain a productive staff, both frontline employees and their supervisors/managers must be trained to express support and empathy in and after encounters with highly emotional and hostile customers.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

References: Tronvoll, B. (2011). Negative Emotions and Their Effect on Customer Complaint Behaviour. Journal of Service Management, 22(1), 111‐134

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