Tough Customers

Don't let "service with a smile" leave your employees with frowns.

Robert Girau had had about enough. A corporate manager for Atlanta-based fast-food chain Wing Zone, he'd just spent 30 minutes on the phone with an irate customer who hadn't received her order. "She said I was a liar," Girau says. She also threatened him. But as an employee, Girau knew he had to keep his cool and try to solve the problem. "It was frustrating," he says. "No matter what the customer is saying, you [have to] try not to take it personally."

A lot of employees find themselves in Girau's shoes. After all, every company has customers who can be overly demanding, angry, even abusive. But, as the business mantra goes, the customer is always right. For employees on the receiving end of a customer interaction gone wrong, there's incredible pressure to simply grin and bear it. Service with a smile is always good business.

Or is it? Alicia Grandey, an assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Penn State University in University Park, studies the effects of "emotional labor," what employees face when they must manage their emotions on the job. She says employers need to be aware of how stressful customer interactions are affecting the morale and health of their employees.

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Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Tough Customers.

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