The customer is NOT always right

Most employers expect staff to grin and bear it when customers are rude. They might take a different approach if they understood the impact it can have on their business.

Copping abuse from customers is seen as part of the employment deal for millions of Australians working in the service sector. Business owners and line managers are often reluctant to back up an employee being criticised, ridiculed or yelled at by an upset customer.

Research shows enduring such abuse is stressful, especially as ‘display rules’ require staff to continue providing service with a smile no matter how obnoxiously they are being treated.

Research conducted by Patrick Garcia, an Associate Professor at Macquarie Business School, suggests that this ‘the customer is always right’ mindset can result in demoralised staff. This often leads to unimpressed customers, which may see patronage and profits plummet.

As counter-intuitive as they might find the idea, Garcia suggests business owners and managers consider siding with staff over customers when disputes arise.

“Most employers now understand the costly consequences of employees bullying each other; many have now cracked down on that toxic behaviour”, Garcia says. “Yet many employers continue to believe their staff should suck it up when they are tormented by customers.

“That’s always been an ethically questionable approach. My research suggests it’s likely to also be a commercially counterproductive one. Employers need to decide whether risking staff morale to hold on to customers who are unreasonably demanding is a smart business decision.”

Service-sector chaos theory

Almost everyone has had experience in both dealing with obnoxious clients and unhelpful store assistants, waiters or call-centre workers, Garcia says. “There’s been lots of research done on how workers and customers react to these interactions in the short term. However, little attention has been paid to longer-term impacts on the worker and the business that employs them.”

Garcia warns that in 2019 a single altercation can have a domino effect.

“Let’s say I’m a waiter and at the start of my shift a customer is rude to me because they feel their meal is taking too long to arrive,” Garcia says. “There are essentially three ways I can make sense of that interaction. I can conclude that the customer was justified to be annoyed and put the incident behind me. I can decide the customer was being unreasonable but still put the incident behind me. Or I can believe I was treated unjustly and seethe about it for the rest of that shift and possibly future shifts as well.

“Research shows this reaction is common if the staffer thinks the customer has caused the problem they are expressing dissatisfaction about. For example, they’ve asked for a dish that is not on the menu and are now complaining that it is taking longer than usual to make.”

That last response is also likely to have unpleasant consequences for the worker, their ‘downstream’ customers and the business owner.

“A waiter who has an unpleasant experience may decide they are no longer going to do any more for customers than the bare minimum,” Garcia says. “So, they do the basics, such as taking orders, but no longer smile at customers, make an effort to converse with them or check they are enjoying their meal.

“Now there’s one customer who is angry with the waiter and many more who feel the service they got from them was, at best, businesslike. A proportion of those customers are going to tell friends and family they had a disappointing experience. One or two might go to an online review site and criticise the restaurant. Now lots of people who might have patronised this business choose not to.

“Like a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane thousands of kilometres away, it’s possible one brief, negative customer-staffer interaction can result in a business missing out on significant amounts of revenue and acquiring a bad reputation on a review site that lasts for years.”

A real-world experiment

It’s an intriguing theory but is that how things work in the real world?

Garcia, a Filipino-Australian, conducted an experiment in Manila to find out. Along with five colleagues, over a three-month period, he surveyed 153 restaurant servers, 153 of their co-workers, 149 of their supervisors and 306 of their customers.

Garcia and his colleagues set out to test their theory that service staff who felt unfairly mistreated by customers would be less interested in providing good service, which would result in their customers – as well as their co-workers and supervisors – rating their performance poorly.

Servers were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “The customers have wronged me”. Their co-workers and supervisors were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “This person voluntarily assists customers even if it means going beyond requirements”. Customers were asked whether they were likely or unlikely to “recommend this establishment to your friends and colleagues”.

“Those servers exhibiting, to use the academic term, ‘high customer-directed blame’ were seen by their co-workers and supervisors to be less customer-focused,” Garcia says. “Also, customers who interacted with a high-customer-directed-blame server were less likely to recommend the establishment that employed them.”

Vent about or take a vacation from customers

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from Garcia’s experiment is that some personality types are better suited than others for service-sector roles. “It’s no coincidence that airlines, five-star hotels and fine-dining restaurants invest lots of time and money in weeding out applicants who aren’t empathetic and customer-focused during their recruitment processes,” Garcia says.

But that still leaves millions of jobs that need to be filled by individuals without an extraordinary commitment to fulfilling their customers’ needs.

“Many service-sector employers do provide formal or informal customer-service training,” Garcia observes. “They realise staff will inevitably seek to make sense of their interactions with customers and seek to shape how they do so. Employers want staff to resist getting angry at customers or themselves. They therefore instruct their staff to blame neither themselves nor the customer for negative interactions.

“Unfortunately, pulling off those kinds of mental gymnastics is beyond most of us.”

Given service-sector workers will have to deal with unpleasant customers and will, at least some of the time, become upset about being treated rudely, what can business owners do to avoid staff getting burnt out and treating customers poorly?

“The research suggests allowing staff to vent to co-workers provides a degree of catharsis,” Garcia says. “Many hospitality employers intuitively understand this. That’s why they provide pre-shift meals or end-of-shift drinks where staff can blow off steam together.”

Taking a break from customers for a spell after a harrowing interaction can also be helpful. “Smart managers realise that, where possible, they should offer a worker who’s been on the end of a customer diatribe the opportunity to regroup,” Garcia says. “A shaken employee should be offered the opportunity to take a break. Or at least spend some time doing tasks that don’t involve interacting with customers.”