Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 245
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Supporting Customer Service

A simple, supportive practice demonstrates a profound impact.

What do these employees have in common?

1) A nurse in an acute care wing of a hospital who tends to an elderly, deaf patient who has come from the recovery room with a pin in her hip. This patient is refusing all liquids and her veins barely tolerate IVs. She doesn’t understand when attempts are made to explain why she must drink.
2) An airline ticket agent who learns that a flight has been cancelled but faces a gate full of people who expect to take that flight.
3) A youth care worker who has broken an unruly youth’s arm while attempting to calm him and prevent him from harming himself or others.
4) A retail clerk who must stop and wait for a price check for a young mother with a fussy baby while a long line of customers wait.

What do these people share? Each has emotional needs that will compete with the emotional needs of the people they serve, making it more difficult to provide the interpersonal concern and care that’s needed. The nurse will harden herself to prevent overwhelming sadness from reducing her to tears. The airline clerk will become mechanical to prevent personal attacks from arousing his anger and his desire to retaliate. The youth care worker will feel guilt and anxiety. He will avoid similar situations in the future. And the retail clerk will think of her aching feet and avoid the angry customers’ stares.

Because of these reactions, the nurse’s patients who need emotional care the most will encounter a hard, unfeeling nurse. Airline passengers will remember a ticket agent who didn’t seem to care if their travel was disrupted. Unruly youth will pose a greater danger because of the youth worker’s reluctance to act. And retail customers will try to find another store for future shopping trips.

These employees are not unique. We can find people carrying private burdens because of stressful encounters in nearly every business. Is there something business owners can do to help them? Victoria Parker, from Boston University, believes there is.

Professor Parker explored the relationship between the quality of care provided and the features of employees’ work groups. She found a simple practice that supervisors employed in one of the settings she studied that had a profound impact.

At the beginning of staff meetings, a period of unstructured time is allowed for casual discussion of difficult encounters and problem patients. This discussion usually begins with follow up on concerns raised in the previous meeting. Sometimes a comment will lead to fifteen minutes of discussion. Sometimes it will pass by almost unnoticed.

There is no agenda for this open discussion, but the supervisor initiates it and guides it. The result, says Parker, is a quality of social support in the group that is very helpful.

This social support enlists the helpfulness of each person to provide emotional concern, instrumental aid, information, and informal appraisal information that helps people quietly evaluate themselves. It is a preventive measure that balances client needs and employee needs. It gives people the benefit of others’ insights and others’ responses to difficult situations. It gives people strength knowing that others share their concerns and experience similar stresses. And it gives them something to watch when they return to their jobs. They can watch how others handle situations to see if what they say matches what they do.

The results Parker observed were dramatic. Employees were able to remain engaged and responsive in difficult encounters. They used good listening skills, and they were able to respond to vulnerability in customers and clients without indifference or flight. Their customer service was superb.

Work groups, says Parker, need to be conscious of themselves as groups that serve important functions in supporting the work of their members. The greater this consciousness, the more support they’ll provide, and the better the customer service will be.

Reference: Parker, Victoria A., (2002) Connecting Relational Work and Workgroup Context in Caregiving Organizations. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 38 (3), 276-297.

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