Business Psychology




Article No. 335
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Customer Sabotage

New research explores the causes of customer sabotage by service employees.

Most people don't have to think very long to recall an incident of deliberate customer sabotage. My most vivid memory occurred in Terminal 3 at Logan International Airport in Boston. We'd just been dropped off, and a check of the monitor let us know we had a problem, so we sought out a ticket agent who booked us on another flight on a different airline which was departing shortly from a gate in Terminal 2. Our trip would not be unduly delayed except for one thing. There was no way for us to get to the gate in time to make the flight. Of course, we didn't know that as we thanked the nice ticket agent and paddled away pulling our bags, but the dirty trick became apparent as soon as we arrived at the now-closed gate and watched our plane taxi toward the runway.

Notice, I didn't name the airline, but soon enough, friends and family learned it, and you can be sure we remembered the name the next time we booked a trip. The ticket agent apparently derived some satisfaction from his actions, but he never had to answer for them. We did not complain. We didn't know his name, so his actions were invisible to his superiors. Do you suppose this happens in your business?

Mo Wang from the University of Maryland recently completed a remarkable study in which he explored the subject of deliberate customer sabotage by employees. It was a remarkable study because of the questions he was able to answer: How often does it happen? Who does it? When do they do it? And why do they do it?

Wang studied 131 customer service employees who worked at a call center for a cell phone company in southern China. The employees sat in cubicles all day with a computer screen and a telephone and answered calls. An average day found them talking to 75 different people, and these calls were recorded "for quality assurance." Seventy-one percent of the employees were women, and the average job tenure was 1.4 years. Wang's study lasted nearly a year, and for one 10-day period, he collected data every day.

Now the questions. First, how often does it happen?

In this call center, located in China, deliberate acts of customer sabotage occurred about once every other day for each employee. You can do the math, but it's a lot, and if you remember that this is China, you may want to pause and reflect on what this means for your business. Chinese cultural traditions demand courtesy and deference, even in difficult circumstances. In the U.S., we have no such cultural traditions. Deliberate customer sabotage is most likely a big problem for us.

Second, who does it?

Several employee qualities emerged: 1) people with short tenure, 2) people lacking confidence in their ability to manage their own emotions, 3) people who tend to be negative, and 4) people who lack a personal commitment to the company rules and customary practices that dictate courteous interactions with customers.

Third, when do they do it?

Wang discovered a clear triggering event: customer abuse of employees. These abusive events trigger a customer-sabotage response by abused employees, and it happens on the same day but not to the customer that abused the employee. It was a later customer who received the retaliatory actions.

Fourth, why do they do it? Two interrelated reasons emerged in Wang's study. Employees get robbed of something they value, and they get angry.

Pleasant, productive customer interactions are rewarding. Unpleasant, abusive interactions are not. The rewards of pleasant interactions mean a lot to people. It's the "thank you" comments and the grateful looks of satisfaction and pleasure that your people remember in the evening after a hard day of work. Abusive customers take that all away, and they trigger an automatic, self-protective reaction that leads to actions intended to preserve the positive experience of their jobs. Sometimes those actions include deliberate sabotage of customers.

Rude, demanding, insulting, and belittling actions by customers provoke anger. Controlling one's anger is difficult. Taken together, the automatic reactions to protect oneself and the anger reaction to unjustified abuse present a challenge that is best met by employees with longer tenure who have experience and confidence in managing their own emotions . . . by people who tend to be positive and people who are committed to standards of courteous conduct with customers. Itís not an easy recipe to fill.

What to do?

Wang's study suggests training protocols that give employees guided experiences with abusive customers. Let them practice in role-playing over and over again. It also suggests guidelines for hiring. Look for positive people who are confident they can manage their emotions even when abusive customers provoke their anger.

A recent U.S. study found that customer service employees encounter abusive customers an average of 10 times a day. That's a big challenge for anyone. Thanks to Professor Wang, we now have insights into this process that give us something to do that will help.

Reference: Wang, Mo, Hui Liao, Yjjie Zhan, and Junqi Shi (2011) Daily Customer Mistreatment and Employee Sabotage Against customers: Examining Emotion and Resource Perspectives. Academy of Management Journal, 54(2). www.businesspsych.org

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