Business Psychology

Article No. 375
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Customer Service Failure

New findings help customer service employees keep control.

What causes customer service failure? Three root causes come to mind: indifference, ignorance, and losing control.

Indifference finds service employees indifferent to the needs of either the customer or the business. Other concerns weigh more heavily on their minds, and the successful completion of a transaction doesn't seem to be a high priority. Any loyalty customers feel to this business soon begins to feel foolish. Customers seriously consider shopping around.

Service ignorance resembles indifference. Employees don't care enough about their roles to learn of their products or policies, and they fail to understand the uses customers make of the products and services their firm offers. Customers who encounter ignorant customer service employees form a revised opinion of the company, and it is definitely a lower opinion.

Customer service failure based on losing control most resembles a temper tantrum. Angry words and actions leave little doubt that the employee does not want this customer troubling him/her anymore. These customers vigorously search for an alternative, they retell their stories to anyone who will listen, and they do their best to divert future customers from this business.

Preventing customer service failures is a high priority. The stakes are high, and all of the tools of management are arrayed toward this end: selection, training, and close control of performance.

David Walker from the University of British Columbia studies the interaction between customers and customer contact employees, and in his most recent research focused on service failures occurring through loss of control.

No one arrives at work planning to lose control, but it's not exactly an accident, either. Losing control has similarities to fumbling a football. Players don't practice fumbling, and there's no game plan for fumbling, but defensive players do practice causing fumbles.

Walker examined more than 36 hours of audio recordings of customer-employee interactions of 66 employees at a call center of an insurance company in Canada. He used a variety of analysis tools to study 464 calls, and his goal was to identify interactions where service employees lost control and then to note exactly what customers did and said that prompted the employees to lose control.

Interacting with customers is work. When customers are pleasant and relaxed, the work is pretty easy. When customers are angry and quarrelsome, the work is taxing. Walker believes that angry, quarrelsome customers require service employees to draw down their self-control resources. It is when this draw down reaches critical levels that employees get pushed over the edge and lose control. So what is it exactly that pushes people beyond their ability to keep control of themselves? Professor Walker actually found out!

Walker discovered two things. First, customers add second-person pronouns to their angry, aggressive comments. "This product is a rip-off!" becomes "Your product is a rip-off!". "I feel cheated!" becomes "You cheated me!". When customer contact employees find themselves personally mixed up with the customer's emotions, then they have greater difficulty controlling their responses.

Walker's second discovery often accompanied the first: customers interrupted employees. Either alone or in addition to adding second person pronouns to aggressive comments, interrupting contact employees frustrated their best efforts to help in a controlled manner. It also violated an implied agreement in civil conversation where people are allowed to speak and complete their thoughts.

In football, players practice holding onto the ball as others try to strip it from them. Practice helps reduce fumbles. We can do the same with our customer-contact employees. We can arm them with strategies and responses to help, and we can role play customer-from-hell scenarios and help them identify exchanges that are likely to lead to service failure. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it certainly makes better.

Another of Walker's findings offers an additional suggestion. Walker found that positive emotion words spoken by customers in heated exchanges actually served to calm and reenergize employees and prevent service failures due to losing control. Examples of positive emotion words include happy, fun, joy, and good. Others have provided lists. See for example, "Linguistic inquiry and word count" by J.W. Pennebaker, M. E. Francis, & R. J. Booth (2001). Armed with a few of their favorite positive emotion words, skillful customer service employees will find ways to prompt angry customers to use these words, perhaps by using them first and allowing customers to hear them. This will help, too.

Reference: David D. Walker, Danielle D. van Jaarsveld, and Daniel P. Skarlicki (2017) Sticks and Stones Can Break my Bones but Words Can Also Hurt Me: The Relationship Between Customer Verbal Aggression and Employee Incivility. Journal of Applied Psychology 102, 2, pp. 163-179.

© Management Resources

Keywords: customer service, incivility, interruptions, second-person pronouns, verbal aggression
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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