Customer service initiatives should be grounded in integrity and reality. One aspect of that reality is that in fact customers are not always right. It undermines one’s credibility to contend that they are. This paper is an important contribution to the understanding that there are dysfunctional customers, and that their behaviors have serious consequences.
While I agree with most of the propositions in this paper, I have one fundamental disagreement. In my long experience at the front lines of customer service, I have found that dysfunctional customers are rare. More often than not, disruptive behaviors can be avoided by (1) providing good customer service in the first place, and (2) managing situations before they get out of hand.
I should probably note that the most egregious manifestations of dysfunctional behavior cited in this study occurred in bars.
Excerpts from The consequences of dysfunctional customer behavior
Lloyd C Harris & Kate L Reynolds in Journal of Service Research
This article addresses dysfunctional customer behavior, which refers to actions by customers who intentionally or unintentionally, overtly or covertly, act in a manner that, in some way, disrupts otherwise functional service encounters.
Classifications of dysfunctional customers
Zemke and Anderson, typology of five "customers from hell":
- abusive egocentrics
- insulting whiners
- hysterical shouters
With the objective of gaining faster, superior, or even free service, such customers use service encounters in a dysfunctional manner (at least from the perspective of service providers and other customers).
- rule breakers
- the belligerent
- family feuders
Drivers and forms of dysfunctional customer behavior
- psychological characteristics - personality traits, attitudes, the extent of moral development, aspiration fulfillment, the desire for thrill seeking, and aberrant psychological dispositions
- demographic characteristics - age, sex, education, and economic status
- social influences - socialization, norm formation, and peer pressure
- contextual factors - physical environment, types of products/services offered, level of deterrence, public image of the firm
- perceptions of a store's relative power
- customer dissatisfaction - consumer retaliation due to customer perceptions of inequalities and the need to restore equity
- combination of the interaction characteristics
Key findings of this study
- All of the customer-contact employees interviewed reported that they witnessed, or were involved in, some form of dysfunctional customer behavior on a daily basis
- 82% of customer-contact staff had either witnessed or been subjected to violent or aggressive behavior within the last calendar year
- 54% believe that their working lives were "significantly affected" by unrelenting dysfunctional customer behavior
Figure 1 is a framework of the consequences of dysfunctional customer behavior. Briefly, the framework presents three main consequences of dysfunctional customer behavior, namely, effects on (1) employees, (2) customers, and (3) the organization.
Effects on employees
Long-Term Psychological Consequences
- sustained feelings of degradation, humiliation, or subjugation - feelings of worthlessness and humiliation long after specific events
- stress disorders - caused by extreme dysfunctional customer behavior that years later continued to result in memory flashbacks, anxiety, and sleeplessness
Short-Term Emotional Effects
93% of employees interviewed indicated that dysfunctional customer behavior negatively affected their emotional state.
- short-term emotional distress, such as fear, stress, frustration, anger, hatred, and irritation
- feigned emotional display - what has become known as emotional labor
- low levels of motivation and morale among customer-contact employees.
- high levels of esprit de corps and effective customer-contact employee teamwork
- increased desire of customer-contact employees to retaliate, to take revenge, or to sabotage the efforts of dysfunctional customers
- violence toward an employee
- damage of employees' personal property
78% of informants reported that they had witnessed or encountered more "restrained" forms of physical violence by customers.
Consequences for customers
- collective expression of sympathy toward the frontline employee who has been a victim of "unreasonable" customer behavior or, less frequently
- the contagion of dysfunctional customer behavior by witnesses of the customers' behavior, particularly vociferous or illegitimate complaining
Spoilt Consumption Effects
Exposure to acute or sustained dysfunctional customer behavior increases the likelihood that the consumption experience of proximate customers will be negatively affected.
Indirect Financial Costs
- increased workloads for members of staff who are required to deal with dysfunctional customer behavior, thus reducing employee time to serve functional customers effectively
- negative financial implications for personnel in terms of staff retention, recruitment, induction, and training
46% of informants claim that they had no long-term career plans in their employing organization or even the broader hospitality industry due to frequent exposure to such behavior.
Direct Financial Costs
Acute or sustained dysfunctional customer behavior increases the likelihood of direct financial costs, in terms of expenses incurred in restoring damaged property, additional legal costs, increased insurance premiums, property loss, costs incurred in recompensing customers, and the costs accrued through "illegitimate" claims by dysfunctional customers.
Discussions and Implications
- The current study illustrates the pervasiveness of dysfunctional customer behavior and, in this regard, undermines the veracity of the notion of consumer sovereignty in that dysfunctional customer behavior is consistently found.
- Not only are customers "not always right," in fact, they can frequently lie, cheat, act abusively, and even physically or psychologically harm customer-contact employees.
- The mantra "customer perception is reality" is too frequently mentioned to the detriment of the accuracy, legitimacy, validity, and communality of such a reality. From the perspective of customer-contact employees, many customers' views of reality are not simply incorrect but, all too frequently, personally damaging and in some cases intentionally biased.
- In many organizations, there appears to be dichotomous realities for those serving and in daily contact with customers and those who generate and enforce customer-related policies. Thus, the espoused cultural beliefs and prescribed procedures enforced centrally appear somewhat divorced from the perceived reality of the customer interface.
- This study also provides another illustration of the need of customer service encounters to be, in the broader sense of the term, "managed." That is, these results confirm and further emphasize the need for service organizations to ensure that every aspect and moment of service encounters is considered, organized, carefully staged, controlled, and supervised by the firm. The contribution of the current study is to highlight the need for the differentiated management of functional and dysfunctional customers.
- The emphasis placed on improving service standards in the 1990s and the earlier stress on customer focus in the 1980s have overemphasized the view of customer sovereignty and underplayed the dysfunctional, the deviant, and the dark side of service.