Tough Customers

Putting On The Mask

There are days when being on the front lines of a business can be draining. Ask employees in industries from food service to customer call centers, and they'll be able to recall their most difficult customers in vivid detail. Girau has days in which he receives five or six complaints. "By then, I know it's a bad day," he says.

"Employees are expected to take whatever the customer doles out," says Christine Pearson, research professor of business management at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School and an expert on civility in the workplace. Service workers, Pearson adds, tend to be seen as an "impermeable buffer" between owners and customers off the pressure that flows from above while smiling away the incivility coming from the customer.

But "smiling away the incivility" might have ill effects, literally. In late 1998, Grandey surveyed 168 administrative assistants to learn how they controlled their emotions. She found that employees who faked a good mood were more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion and burnout. These workers also received significantly lower marks on their customer service abilities from co-workers. "Employees who constantly must ignore their true feelings may become estranged or alienated," Grandey says.

Laboratory research has also found physical effects from this bottling-up of emotions: overworked cardiovascular and nervous systems and weakened immune systems. In other words, stress, which costs U.S. businesses millions every year in absenteeism, turnover, replacement costs and health insurance.

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

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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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