The Frontlines of American Anger: Customer Service

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Yes, we all know that modern-day customer service is awful. But there’s something that just might be equally awful: working in customer service.

Today, the WSJ discusses how customer service reps deal with customer anger—a whole, heaping lot of customer anger. Among the factoids presented are these from a 2007 survey:

Research shows 70% of customers who have problems with a product or service are in a rage by the time they talk with customer-service workers; 24% yell, 8% threaten to sue, and 5% start cursing

Why is rage all the rage? I’d hypothesize that most customers don’t get worked up all at once and then immediately call customer service to rant. There’s a snowball thing that happens: First, you’re peeved that something you just bought breaks, or doesn’t work properly. So you attempt to fix it on your own. Why not just call customer service right away? Because you recall plenty of previous annoying and fruitless experiences dealing with customer service, and you figure it’s easier, less time-consuming, and less aggravating to do it yourself. To help your cause, you read and re-read a nonsensical manual that seems to have been written by a non-human. Then you head online to see if any humans have dealt with the issues you’re trying to address. As each of these paths fail, the anger, frustration, yelling, and swearing builds.

By the time you get in touch with customer service, you’re agitated and seriously in need of a live human being to help you out. Unfortunately, chances are you don’t get a human being until you jump through several frustrating automated hoops aimed at steering you away from human contact. Finally, after you’ve screwed up, pressed the wrong button on your phone, called back, and waited on hold while being forced to listen to promotions for the company that is currently driving you nuts … well, is it any wonder customers are in a rage by the time they actually speak with a customer service rep?

All this said, the truth is that the customer service rep you’re talking to—and perhaps swearing or yelling at—hasn’t done anything wrong. They don’t make the rules, and they’re just working a job, one that can be as frustrating as, well, dealing with awful customer service policies.

The WSJ story shows how some customer service reps handle especially angry callers. Reps might keep their cool by staring at the ceiling and relaxing their breathing. They might also actually fix the customer’s problem, which will make the customer, customer service rep, and company alike happy (so long as the solution doesn’t cost the company any money).

For the most part, however, customer service reps unsurprisingly aren’t all that happy—which is a problem because they’re supposed to be cheerful and friendly, with the idea that a good mood and attitude will cross over to customers who most definitely are not in good moods:

Turnover ranges from 25% to 300% a year. Part of the problem is having to fake happiness, according to a German study. Call-center workers who were instructed to remain polite and friendly with angry, rude customers had elevated blood pressure long after ending a call, researchers found. Those allowed to react naturally and defend themselves were far less stressed.

They were probably also less likely to keep their jobs, but that’s another issue entirely.

Anyway, why should consumers care that customer service reps have tough jobs? Aren’t customer service reps in cahoots with the company that’s incompetent or worse, that just ripped you off? Aren’t they the enemy?

No, they’re not the enemy. They’re just regular folks doing a job. They’re just human beings, and deserve to be treated as so. They’re stuck in the middle and they’re getting squeezed, just like you. And, practically speaking, if hope to get much help out of them, you shouldn’t treat them like the enemy. You probably shouldn’t swear at them either. It’s just unproductive.

Read more:
A Few Thoughts on the God-Awful State of Customer Service