Working on the front line of any industry presents unique challenges, particularly when working with clients and customers. While helping customers can be very fulfilling, it can also be difficult and emotionally-draining work. With common phrases such as “the customer is always right” and “the customer is king,” employees can often be at the mercy of their less-than-understanding customers. In recognition of this, researchers and managers have begun investigating customer incivility.
Customer incivility is a low-intensity deviant behavior in violation of norms for mutual respect and courtesy. Such behaviors might include a customer speaking over an employee, questioning their competence, or neglecting to say please or thank you.
Though these small, uncivil events seem relatively minor, they happen with an alarming frequency. In our research, between 50% and 100% of frontline employees from across industries report experiencing at least some incivility on a monthly basis.
Luckily, organizations are not powerless to equip employees to both 1) reduce the impact and 2) reduce the incidence of customer incivility. Below, we outline some of the ways to prepare your employees to deal with difficult customers.
#1: Training, Training, Training!
Customers are more likely to be rude when an employee is unable to meet their needs. Does a service rep have the skills they need to succeed at the job? Can they answer the questions that they should be able to answer? Can they provide the services that they should be able to provide? Or, do they rely heavily on their supervisor to help customers? By ensuring that frontline employees are well-prepared for their job, they will be more likely to quickly help customers, therefore experiencing less incivility.
An added bonus is that is a well-trained employee can focus more on the customer and less on their tasks-at-hand, increasing customer loyalty.
#2: Employee Personality
Employee personality can play an important role with whether a customer is satisfied or uncivil. Some people are simply not meant for service work—they do not enjoy speaking with others, or, more importantly, listening to others. By implementing personality testing into the selection process, an organization can ensure that they are hiring people who can both 1) consistently be friendly and empathetic with customers, and 2) deal with the inevitability of incivility.
#3: Workplace Climate
Incivility can spread throughout organizations like a virus and become the norm. If, between coworkers and supervisors, incivility is the norm, then employees are more likely to engage with customers in a manner that might instigate incivility. But, if the workplace has a climate of mutual respect, employees will treat the customers similarly.
#4: Lens of the Customer/Empathy Training
Some organizations have instituted Lens of the Customer or Empathy training, teaching employees to take the perspective of a customer. This can help both to 1) understand how to best meet the customer’s needs, and 2) understand the emotions of a customer. Most relevant to customer incivility, employees can be shown that a customer’s anger/incivility is not directed at him/her, but rather at the situation or the organization. By understanding this, and reflecting on times when the employee him or herself has been frustrated, employees can be more sympathetic to the customers. This will help both the customer and the employee.
#5: Mindfulness/Burnout Training
More and more organizations are equipping employees with ways to cope with stressors at work, providing them with mindfulness techniques for reducing the impact of these stressors. For instance, employees can practice breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and listening activities can help an employee cope with the stressors of work. Some possibilities can be found here.