Tough Customers

Don't let "service with a smile" leave your employees with frowns.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the May 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

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.

Structured Solution

Matt Friedman, 29, CEO and co-founder of Wing Zone, has witnessed the stress that angry customers can cause in his employees, who take the majority of the company's food orders over the phone. Friedman says his entry-level employees, who are mostly college students, just don't have the experience needed to handle these customers. Therefore, they've been trained to hand off overly demanding customers to the nearest manager right away. Wing Zone's managers then put the complaints back on the customers, asking them how they'd like the company to handle the problem. When both parties can't find some middle ground, managers refer the customer to the corporate office's toll-free number and Web site to file a formal complaint.

After 30 fruitless minutes on the phone with the angry customer who threatened him, Girau referred her to the corporate office. "I know that I will eventually deal with this customer again," he says. How does he get through these difficult situations? By staying calm in his responses. "I say what I can do, but sometimes no answer will satisfy a customer," Girau says. "[Customer complaints] are just part of the job."

Mark Csordos, 30, founder and president of Arden, North Carolina-based Customer Service Training Essentials Inc., says that dealing with demanding customers gets even tougher when leaders try to treat all customer complaints equally. "Some complaints are justified, and some are not," Csordos says. "If employees get reprimanded for an unjustified complaint by an unreasonable customer, they start to resent it because they did nothing wrong.

Friedman knows it can be hard for managers to deal with the frustration, especially when they know they're right. There are times when he has to explain why making the customer happy is the best thing to do. "Managers take it personally," he says. His advice? Make the customer happy, but also let the employees know that you support them.

Girau, who's the point man at corporate headquarters for complaints that escalate, thinks the company's strategy works because entry-level employees know how to handle angry customers, managers understand what they can offer and have the flexibility to problem-solve, and complaints with no easy solution can be routed up the food chain. Having procedures to follow at the store level, Girau says, has made life easier for everyone-including owners, whose input he now needs only in the most extreme cases.

Empowering Employees

How do you keep your employees from shouldering all the burden that comes with a difficult customer?

Service employees need to be empowered to make confident decisions on the spot, says William Ward, Warehime professor of business administration at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. "Employees need to be trained in problem-solving," Ward says. "This is where training and procedures pay off for businesses."

But employers can send mixed signals when they set time limits on helping customers or mandate a long list of daily priority tasks other than taking care of customers. These mixed signals increase the chances that a problem won't be resolved, making it natural for upset customers to unload on the closest target: the employee, who is torn between serving the customer and finishing his or her daily to-do list.

Another basic mistake is defining service with vague phrases like "service is our mission" instead of creating structures that guide employees through difficult customer service situations. "You see a lot of service employees with that look of 'Please don't ask me a question because I don't know how to answer it,' " Csordos says. "If you're unsure about what you're allowed to do for a customer, you feel silly."

Patrick Marchese is co-founder and president of Santa Ana, California-based Markzware, a 25-employee software development company. He believes in giving the nine customer service representatives in his company an arsenal for dealing with difficult customers who call the company's toll-free number.

Markzware's service employees know exactly how to route difficult callers up the company chain. "We get someone else in on the call right away," says Marchese. Employees also have a lot of leeway to throw in freebies like T-shirts and software. A little empowerment and teamwork can go a long way. "The customer service rep doesn't feel isolated in handling a problem," says Marchese, 41. "It's a big score personally for employees to successfully handle a difficult customer. When they get a thank-you at the end, they're on Cloud 9."

Rate Yourself

How can you support your customer service employees so they don't feel beleaguered by customer demands? If you answer no to any of the following questions, it may be time to reassess your customer service program and how it affects your employees' morale:

1. Are employees empowered to solve problems? Give your entry-level employees the ability to offer concrete solutions. Telling them exactly what to do boosts their confidence and morale.

2. Do you let service employees vent their frustrations? Grandey says you need to show employees you understand the challenges of working with the public. There are a few ways to do this. One is by holding a weekly meeting where service employees can talk openly about their most difficult customer interaction that week. Along the way, not only will you show support for their tough jobs on the front lines of the company, but employees will also learn from each other how to deal with customer problems that would otherwise leave them flustered. Another strategy: Give a short break to the employee who's just handled a particularly tough customer. He or she may need it to regroup.

3. Are you on the front lines? Employees will take notice when there's a lack of involvement from company leaders in dealing with customer complaints. Communicate and be involved. "Leaders want customer service complaints to disappear," Csordos says. "But don't leave employees holding the bag." That means spending time on the floor or on the phones to get a feel for their jobs. They'll appreciate it and feel more connected to the company. You'll also get a better feel for your customers.

"Take care of your employees," Ward says. "If they're happy, they'll take care of your customers." This site offers tutorials, articles and other information to help you train employees in customer service. This site includes articles on customer service topics. This is the homepage of consultant firm Employee Performance Strategies Inc. in Chantilly, Virginia. It offers contact information for consultants on various workplace issues, including customer service strategies.
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