Managing Corrosive Customers

Strategies for mitigating the negative effects of nasty on-the-job encounters.

A restaurant patron berates a waiter for delivering the wrong entrée. A traveler cuts in line at an airline ticket counter and demands immediate service. A manager refuses to gather the documentation an outside consultant needs to provide services. As these examples suggest, the obnoxious customer has many faces. Equally troubling, the reasons behind corrosive customer behavior — whether unrealistic expectations, sheer orneriness or just ignorance of company rules — are not always clear.

One thing is certain, however: When a customer behaves poorly, businesses pay a high price in declining employee satisfaction and performance. Companies can therefore benefit from understanding what’s behind nasty customer outbursts and by designing effective interventions. A new study identifies common problematic behaviors and proposes intervention strategies, relying on service employees’ accounts of unpleasant encounters with customers — on the assumptions that servers’ emotional responses affect a company’s ability to satisfy customers. The October 2004 working paper is titled Negative Customer Behavior in Service Encounters: Implications for Service Management by Ray W. Coye, associate professor of management at DePaul University’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, Chicago, and Rohit Verma, associate professor of management and Thayne Robson Fellow at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.

The researchers base their conclusions on a three-year study in which nearly 425 employees from numerous industries (including hospitality, health care and education, as well as financial, IT, legal, retail and travel services) were asked during structured interviews to describe a “very unpleasant” service encounter they experienced within the preceding six months. The study used the critical incident technique, which Verma defines as “an observable human behavior that significantly contributes to or detracts from some overall endeavor.” In this effort, critical incidents were specific customer behaviors associated with server perceptions of unpleasant service encounters.

Coye and Verma identify four categories of negative customer behavior:

Service failure. For example, the wrong meal is brought to a restaurant patron, prompting complaints. Or the correct meal is delivered, but the customer believes a mistake was made. Customers may also grouse about employees’ legitimate refusal to satisfy a service request (“What do you mean, I can’t have another drink?”).

Inappropriate customer behavior.

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