Which Emotion Most Drives Customer Hostility?

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

The True Meaning of Customer Service Week

Customer Service Week arrives every first week in October with about as much media attention and fanfare as Physician’s Assistant Day on October 6 (remember to smile when you hand them your sample) and Leif Erikson Day on October 9 (don’t forget to order your Dragon Boat cake). Yet, I would argue that customer service week is far more important than Leif Erikson Day, and not just because Leif Eriskon is dead. Theoretically, customer service week is an opportunity for companies to show appreciation to their customer service employees as much as it is to show appreciation for their actual customers. Indeed, in most cases, it is the employees who need the appreciation more, much, much more. In my book The Squeaky Wheel, I devote an entire chapter to the stresses suffered by customer-service and call-center employees as well as what companies could do to mitigate such stresses. In addition, in a recent article in Psychology Today (The Last Bullying Frontier) I wrote about how many members of the public bully call-center employees and the impact their hostility has on the physical and especially the mental health of call-center workers.

As a response to the article I received many emails and comments from call-center employees (none from companies or call-center managers). To bring home the importance of Customer Service Week as an opportunity for companies to support, encourage, and recognize the efforts of their customer service employees, especially those who work in call-centers, here are quotes from five call-center employees who commented on the article, the stresses of their jobs and the impact those stresses have on their lives and happiness:

Quotes from Call-Center Employees about Job Stress

1. “I get callers that forget I'm a human and not the mere personification of their frustrations. I can understand their frustration, but I am not paid to be their punching bag… I sometimes see fellow employees in tears.”

2. “I've worked at two centers and I've left both after hitting breaking point with the abuse suffered. The first time I quit I took a month off before I was ready to try it again, this time in a significantly different field. The second time I quit saw a few months of daily binge drinking, serious depression, failed therapy sessions and finally starting to settle down after getting onto antidepressants… I honestly can't recommend this kind of work to any sane person.”

3. “There is an attitude among many Americans that anyone who dares to approach them for a sale deserves abuse.”

4. “Call center survivor here...Over the course of six years in tech support, I developed an aversion to phones. Every time the phone rings I get a knot of anxiety in my gut... an implicit sense of fear and dread. I've talked to others who experience the same issue, and many of us can no longer comfortably talk on the phone in our personal lives…And based on the number of people I've talked to who experience it, I can't help but think it's massively common in the industry.”

5. “Thank you for this article! My husband currently works for a major cell phone service provider in their tech support division and puts up with the most insane human behavior. We met while we both worked at a different call center, so I too know the abuses people are capable of and the toll it takes on the receiver… I hate seeing what it does to him, but we just cannot afford it [him leaving], especially in this economy. I just want to say to others, please, these representatives on the other end of the line are someone else’s loved ones. They have lives and families, just like you and no more deserve your anger and wrath any more than you would. They do not dictate company policy. They are just as much a slave to it as you are.”

Hopefully, both companies and customers can take heed and use Customer Service Week to raise awareness for the need to treat Customer Service Representatives with respect, civility, and appreciation for doing a job that is among the most stressful of all occupations.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Customer Service for the Undead

According to recent reports, 14,000 people a year are erroneously declared dead by the Social Security Administration. CNN reported that one woman discovered the error at her bank where the manager informed her that she was deceased. He then added insult to death blow by confiscating her ATM card and cutting it in half right in front of her, clearly oblivious to the unfortunate symbolism of his gesture. The manager's utter lack of tact was dwarfed only by his greater disregard for customer service. Even if his actions were in accordance with bank regulations, his appalling lack of consideration for his customer's feelings indicates a problem with customer service that can only be described as…deadly. Given how many people join the ranks of the ‘undead’ every year, banks, other financial institutions and even governmental agencies risk terrible damage to their reputations. One can find literally thousands of reports of such incidents, every single one of which seems to feature a financial or governmental agency displaying a complete lack of regard for the feelings (and mental health) of the customer or tax-payers in question. I came across virtually no accounts of bank managers or government agency representatives conveying compassion or understanding in these situations, or offering assistance and guidance in how the 'undead' in question can officially reanimate themselves.

While some victims’ initial response was to think the error quite hilarious, the thigh-slapping and giggles ceased rather quickly once the implications became clear. The Inspector General admits the biggest problem facing the ‘walking dead’ is that, “Erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination and cause severe financial hardship and distress.” Further, being reanimated, at least bureaucratically, can take weeks and months of paperwork and appointments. In the meantime, the person faces not just financial hardships but the risk of identity theft as well.

The Undead Represent the Perfect Complaint Handling Opportunity

Banks, financial institutions and governmental agencies could easily turn these living-dead-people into their biggest fans and capitalize on the marketing and branding opportunities they present. All it would take to do so is to demonstrate basic care for their customers (or the tax payers who fund their agencies). For example, they could easily distribute customer service guidelines to their employees so they can better handle the situation when a dead customer walks in and stubbornly insists they are still alive. Specifically:

1. Instruct employees to handle ‘not-so-dead’ customers with both care and compassion.

2. Never argue with a customer about whether or not they are dead, especailly if they strongly feel otherwise.

3. Instruct employees to explain the error and its implications to the customer, state the banks limitations (e.g., “We’re so sorry but we are obliged to take your ATM card. However, don’t worry, we’ll issue you a new card as soon as the error is rectified and we’ll work with you to see if there’s anything we can do for you in the meantime.”)

4. Have available guidelines to give customers so they know how to remedy the situation. For example, the Identity Theft Resource Center recommends finding out who reported you as dead, getting a copy of the death certificate from the county clerk's or recorder's office where the death was reported, and filling out a form to amend the certificate. Then making an appointment at your local Social Security office to which you bring a photo ID and the certified copy of the amended death certificate.

5. Follow up with customers so they can be entered back into the system as soon as possible.

Following these steps would do much to mitigate the customer-service damage the bank or institution sustains. Instead of undead customers spreading negative word of mouth about how terribly the bank handled the situation (these days, stories about undead people spread like wildfire), they would let everyone they know how compassionate and caring their bank was and how lovely it was of them to follow-up with a phone to inquire about their efforts at bureaucratic ‘resurrection’.

Let’s be honest, when something this 'juicy' happens, everyone talks about it. By treating customers with compassion and offering them guidance and assistance, banks, financial institutions and local agencies could turn customer service death sentences into customers for life.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

You might also like Customer Service Blacklists: Throwing Out the Granny with the Bathwater

Should We Expect Customer Service at the Doctor’s Office?

Many of the pharmaceutical commercials we see on television end with the line “Talk to your doctor about (the medication in question)”, as if doctors would welcome such leisurely chats and were eager to hear our thoughts and ideas about treatment options. In reality, few doctors’ offices are renowned for their customer service. Waiting Room Blues

Today many of us are spending hours in waiting areas and treatment rooms for what amounts to only a few precious minutes of face time with our doctor, even after having waited months for an appointment. Complaints about our doctors’ bedside manners (or ‘examination-table manners’) are also extremely common. Yet very few of us feel comfortable voicing complaints about such matters, in part because it’s not easy to feel especially assertive while wearing nothing but a paper gown with all the structural integrity of wet toilet paper. Let's be honest, we’re complaining to someone who has the power to stick us with needles, or worse…fingers!

Even if we wanted to, few of us know how to complain effectively in such situations. So, here’s what you need to know:

Complain to the Correct Person

Those of us who do voice our objections to spending hours in a waiting room typically do so to the nurse or receptionist in the waiting area (much as we tend to complain to the host at a restaurant instead of to the manager). Even our doctor might not have the necessary authority to make procedural changes to how the medical practice operates. We should address our complaints to the head physician of the group, the office manager at the clinic, or the patient-relations officer at the hospital or president of the hospital.

A Medical Practice is a Business—Customers Have Power

Although we might think our complaint will not have an impact, the opposite is true. Clinics and hospitals are businesses as any other and we are their customers. Further, the long-term nature of most patient-physician relationships makes us extremely loyal customers, as we often see the same doctor for years. Loyal customers are the backbone of every business and as such we have more clout than we realize.

Put Your Complaint in Writing

Written complaints are more effective than verbal ones because they provide documentation a physician or clinic manager can share with other decision makers. Make your letter as factual and as non-emotional as possible. Remember to be reasonable. We can state that while we understand emergencies happen and doctors can run long with a given patient, we would like to be informed in a timely manner if that is the case. We can also state that if such delays happen regularly, we will have to consider transferring to another clinic or physician who has more consideration for our time.

Recruit Two Other Patients to Complain With You

Most administrators and decision makers are aware the vast majority of patients do not speak up when they are dissatisfied about issues such as waiting times, doctors’ bedside manners, or the necessity of certain procedures. If they were to receive three or more complaints about the same issue from different patients, they are likely to assume the same concern is shared by even more patients who simply haven’t voiced them. Therefore, three complaints are often sufficient to spur a clinic or practice to reexamine their procedures and address a specific problem.

The next time you find yourself waiting too long for your doctor, look around the waiting room. It shouldn’t be hard to find another patient who would be willing to write a letter if you told them how to complain effectively. Get the name of the head physician or office manager, share it with your complaining partner and banish those waiting room blues.

Does your doctor have good customer service? Leave us a comment with your thoughts. I promise it won’t hurt…

UPDATE: Here's an example of the right attitude in this article by Dr. Henry Pinkney. I'm not saying Dr. Pinkney read my blog post (mostly because...he didn't) but he 'gets it' nonetheless.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

What I Learned about Corporate Culture by Speaking at Google

When I was invited to give a talk about my book The Squeaky Wheel for their Authors@Google YouTube channel in their New York City offices I was thrilled. But then I visited the Google offices and my excitement turned to worry. Could a talk titled How Our Complaining Psychology Impacts Our Lives and Relationships garner any interest at a company whose offices featured game rooms (in case you feel like playing pool or ping pong), sleeping pods (in case you feel like napping), massage rooms (in case you pulled a muscle during a rigorous ping pong game or napped in weird position), not to mention gourmet free lunches and food stations at every corner? I mean, what would Google employees have to complain about? Further, my talk was scheduled for noon which meant I’d be in direct competition with the free lavish gourmet lunch being served upstairs. Personally, if I had to choose between sushi on an outside terrace with a stunning New York City view and a talk about complaining psychology, I’d reach for the chopsticks in a flash (I hear ping pong works up quite an appetite).

After seeing that the auditorium seated over 100 people I became even more concerned because nothing makes for sadder YouTube viewing than watching a presenter speak to an empty room.

The First Lesson I Learned at Google

The first thing I learned at Google was that when a company has a corporate culture that fosters autonomy, creativity and personal responsibility among its employees, these qualities will come through in everything they do. For example, as I expected, flyers announcing my talk were posted all around the huge office floors (the space is so large they have scooter stations to help folks get around). However, I did expect the flyers to be accompanied by an additional more ‘subliminal’ marketing campaign.

For example, as I passed by meeting rooms I saw a sign posted that said, HAVING TROUBLE FINDING A FREE MEETING ROOM? Apparently, it can be tricky finding a free room for meetings at Google NYC. In small print at the bottom of the sign was an invitation to attend my talk and learn about complaining psychology.

In one of food stations I saw a deep tray stacked with melting ice cubes. Apparently, the ice cubes are brought in every morning but they tend to melt before the day is over making it hard to find ice cubes in the afternoon. A posted sign said WISH WE HAD AN ICE MACHINE? Again info about my talk was in small print below. There were similar signs throughout the vast space in all of the ‘problem’ areas.

I thought the idea (implemented by my host at Google Tomer Sharon) was both hilarious and brilliant. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether the ‘subliminal’ campaign had an impact on attendance or not but suffice to say, the auditorium was full by the time my talk began.

The Second Lesson I Learned at Google

The second thing I learned at Google was that when a corporate culture fosters autonomy, people are free to express themselves and ask all manner of questions without feeling judged. I decided to leave 15 minutes for a Q & A at the end of my talk but was worried there would be no questions (another potentially sad YouTube moment is when “Are there any questions?” is followed by the sound of chirping crickets).

My host reassured me that at Google talks, people always have questions. Questions are great things in companies. Employees that feel free to ask and to question are also free to challenge, to brainstorm and to problem solve.

Indeed, the Google folks had many questions for me, ranging from dealing with New York City taxi cab complaints to complaints about colleagues, and even a complain about how to complain about another person’s complaint. We even went slightly overtime and had to cut some questions short.

The Third Lesson I Learned at Google

In a previous post (Toes, Toes Everywhere) I discussed my uncanny ability to offend people inadvertently when giving talks. The third thing I learned at Google (albeit not about corporate culture) was that my toe-stepping streak remains intact.

During the talk I made a hilarious quip about how annoying it is that customer service representatives always have foreign accents (hilarious, I thought, because I too have an accent). It got no laughs whatsoever. I wasn’t sure why until the Q & A began. After having to ask the first questioner to repeat their query three times because I couldn’t understand their accent, the penny dropped and I had my answer.

I had a great time at Google! After the talk I went back to my own office, looked around and felt somewhat empty and bereft. I have a very nice corner office in midtown Manhattan with a great view of the Flatiron building from one window and of Queens from the other.

But inside, there’s not a ping pong table or sushi roll in sight…

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Finding Customer Service Solutions within Customer Complaints

Customer complaints provide valuable information for companies because they alert them to potentially costly problems with their products, services or procedures. Fixing these problems can improve customer service and reduce customer attrition. But companies who listen closely to customer complaints might find more than mere information—they might find inspiration too. Last month I was traveling to Orlando Florida and had an early flight back to New York City. I had already checked in online and had no luggage to check so I arrived at Orlando International Airport (MCO) an hour before my departure time and was dismayed to see a huge mass of people waiting to pass security.

I would have joined the line, except there wasn’t one. Instead, people stood in a pulsing mass letting the movement of the crowd funnel them toward the distant point at which roped lanes began forming orderly lines. Progress was slow causing many passengers to worry they would miss their flight. But with no airport personnel in sight to assist such passengers and the mood of the crowd being as it was, no one attempted to go around the mass of people to the front.

Indeed, tensions in the ‘throng’ ran high and the complaints were flying. People griped about the lack of crowd control, the stupidity of not extending the roped areas to accommodate the extra passengers or the lack of signage offering apologies for the extended wait times and crowded conditions. I heard several people pledge never to use this particular airport again.

Once I reached the civilized haven of the roped lines things improved only marginally. The TSA workers had to halt the scanners periodically because it took a while for people on the other side to retrieve their belongings. An elderly couple in front of me took minutes to pick out coins from their plastic bin (“Larry, don’t forget the dimes! They’re little! Look in the corners!”).

All in all, going through security was a customer service nightmare, one that must cost MCO untold revenue in customer attrition alone.

However, any airport executive standing in line with me that morning and actually listening to their customers would have been shocked to discover that the solution to every single one of their customer service problems was present in the complaints voiced by their customers!

1. Extend roped lines to accommodate the extra passengers waiting to go through security.

2. Include signage to apologize for the long lines and inform customers of wait times.

3. Have workers patrol the lines so they can assist passengers who are late for their flights.

The final customer service idea came to me when watching the elderly couple fish for pennies (and dimes) in the plastic bins after they had gone through the scanner:

4. Place receptacles for various charities before people go through the scanners. This will provide travelers the option of donating their change to charity and avoiding the ‘hunt & peck’ exercise to retrieve coins from the plastic bins. International travelers are often thrilled to get rid of their change and many domestic travelers will opt to donate their change as well—benefitting both the airport by having lines move quicker and many charities.

I should add that when I mentioned this idea to the TSA worker at the scanner, her eyes lit up and she rushed her supervisor over so he could take my name and write the suggestion down on a comment card. I have no way of knowing if my idea made its way to airport executives but their front-line employees certainly thought it should.

In short, companies that truly listen to their customers’ complaints will discover both information about important problems and often, the solutions to these problems as well. In many situations, such as the case at Orlando International Airport, fixes are easy to implement and cost effective.

Companies should therefore do more than just listen to customer complaints they should actively seek solutions within them.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Customer Service Leadership and Parallel Processes

Twenty years ago, I received couple therapy training from one of the preeminent masters in the field who had a unique approach to teaching and supervision. He believed the manner in which a therapist presented a case in supervision paralleled the couple’s faulty dynamic. If a couple was angry and explosive, the therapist often sounded irritable and intense when presenting the case in supervision. The therapist of a passive and distant couple would sound helpless and indifferent. Our teacher’s approach was to convey his suggestions to the therapist in the supervision group in the exact manner and style in which he wanted the therapist to interact with the couple. If the couple, and consequently the therapist were too passive and indifferent, our supervisor would become extremely animated, raise his voice, move around the room and wave his hands as he spoke to the therapist about their case. If the couple was explosive and the therapist too intense and stirred up, our teacher would instruct them to present the case over again but to do so in a slow whisper.

These exercises and demonstrations of parallel process were effective ways to get the therapist and consequently, the couple to change their dynamic and interactional styles. My years teaching and supervising couple therapy and the attention I gave to emotional and psychological parallel processes in the supervision process heavily influenced my views on customer service, corporate culture and leadership and especially consumer psychology and they informed my thinking when writing The Squeaky Wheel.

Parallel processes are not only common in couple therapy training and supervision groups, they are features of all human systems and organizations. Parallel process in workplace environments operate in extremely similar ways. The emotional tone, communication style and relational dynamics that upper management convey in their interactions with middle management and through them to a company’s front line customer service representatives are always be mirrored to some degree or another in how customer service representatives interact with customers.

Such ideas are confirmed by studies in numerous domains. For example, one study demonstrated that when call-center employees feel unjustly treated by their supervisors the ‘injustice’ trickles down to the employees’ treatment of customers (Rupp et. a., 2006).

In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states, “Leaders set much of the emotional tone that flows through the halls of their organizations; this is turn has consequences for how well the collective objectives are met. Leaders need to nurture “social wisdom,” the qualities that allow the people we connect with in the workplace to flourish” (Goleman 2006, 315).

Corporate culture therefore encompasses not just a company’s stated values, ideals, and beliefs; it is embedded in the dynamics of how company leaders communicate and interact with managers and employees through the ranks. In other words, it is not what compan leaders say, it is what they do that create parallel processes of psychological and emotional dynamics that ripple down the company hierarchy to have a direct impact on their customer service representatives and consequently on their customers.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

You Might Also Like:

Are Consumers Paying More Attention to Customer Service?

The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?

References:

Denhardt, Robert B. and Denhardt, Janet V. 2006. The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Goleman, Daniel. 2006. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Rupp, D. E. et al, 2006. When customers lash out. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91 (4) pp. 91-978