We’ve all heard “The customer is always right”—and while this maxim is at the foundation of good customer service, any professional in that industry will also tell you that “the customer” can sometimes be rude and insulting.
Unfortunately, for service professionals, this type of mistreatment has become somewhat commonplace—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful. In fact, a recent study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in September 2022 and co-authored by Feng Qiu, assistant professor of organization studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Isenberg School of Management, found that happy service employees who experience this mistreatment feel more depleted than their emotionally neutral coworkers.
“Happy employees subconsciously expect good things to happen to them,” Qiu explained. “This is disconfirmed when employees encounter mistreatment from customers—an action viewed by the employee as a clear violation of the social code of conduct. We call this ‘positive expectancy disconfirmation.’”
Before reaching this conclusion, Qiu and his co-authors conducted four experimental studies to gauge how employees feel after mistreatment—research that also shed light on methods managers can use to minimize the negative effects of mistreatment on workers.
In the first experiment, Qiu and his team randomly assigned online participants to listen to a piece of joyful music while recalling a happy event or listen to a piece of calm music while recalling what they did the day before. Each participant then listened to a voice recording of a customer making a regular request or a customer making rude remarks at them. After experiencing one of the four possible combinations, each participant responded to a survey that measured how they felt.
“We found that participants who listened to the joyful music while recalling a happy event felt significantly more depleted after hearing the customer abusing them than participants in any other group,” Qiu said.
Next, Qiu conducted a similar experiment in the field with e-commerce employees based in Asia. Participants were randomly assigned to watch a comedy and view three happy pictures or watch a silent clip and view three neutral pictures. All participants then went into customer service training where they were presented with live chats of customers making abusive remarks.
“Our results found that participants who watched the comedy and viewed the happy pictures felt more depleted after the training,” Qiu said. “When evaluated at the end of the workday, these same participants reported experiencing more mistreatment throughout the day and a greater need for detachment from their job when they are finished with work.”
For the third experiment, Qiu used the materials from the first two experiments to manipulate the workers’ moods to establish either a happy or neutral affect. Then, before listening to the rude customer recording, participants read one of two emails from their manager; one had instructions about some tasks to complete, while the other briefly mentioned an uptick in customer mistreatment to prepare participants.
“The results followed the outcomes of previous experiments, except those who had a positive mood and received the warning email from their managers reported significantly lower levels of depletion than those in a positive mood who received the control email,” Qiu said. “We replicated this experiment in the field and found similar results.”
Ultimately, Qiu suggests, managers should be aware of and prepared for this type of mistreatment and provide staff with reminders and support. He also stressed what may be the study’s key finding—that encouraging a positive mood may come at a cost for employees who constantly receive negative feedback from customers.
According to Qiu, the study’s findings can hold true in other industries—but for service employees, a neutral mood could be beneficial as it may help improve people’s coping response to mistreatment.
“Mindfulness meditation can help induce this neutral mood,” Qiu said. “But managers should not prevent employees from seeking joy in the workplace—overall employee contentment is still the goal for a good manager and leader.”
Download the paper here.