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How to End the Nastiness Epidemic That's Plaguing Customer Service Companies can no longer ignore the harm it can do to their bottom line.

By Shaun Belding

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Tom Werner | Getty Images

In early November, a San Antonio Popeye's employee and customer were caught on video arguing and throwing trays at each other. The altercation later moved on to a full-blown fist-fight in the parking lot. A day earlier at a Maryland Popeye's, a customer was stabbed to death for cutting in line. The trigger for both incidents was chicken sandwiches. Yes, you read right. Sandwiches.

If these were just isolated incidents, it would be one thing, but nasty employee and customer behavior has become far more common than you may think -- and increasing in frequency at an alarming rate. I've been collecting high-profile and case study-worthy customer service examples in the media for 15 years now. For the last seven, I've used them as fodder for annual "Top 10 Best and Worst" customer service lists. It was in 2018 that I began seeing the disturbing trend. Not only were the negative stories increasing significantly in numbers, but the candidates for the "worst" list were taking a decidedly nasty and often violent tone. I had to start excluding the most extreme examples, as they were straying from the realm of "poor customer service" to something more, well, evil.

Related: How to Give People What They Want Online

Customer Service Nastiness Is at Epidemic Levels

The trend has continued to accelerate in 2019, and a lot of the stories are truly shocking. Many involve violence, like a New Jersey Lowe's employee and customer getting into a fight over a bag of grout. A number include weapons, like an Arizona man pointing a shotgun at an employee because he forgot to include hot sauce in an order. And racism is raising its ugly head as well. A Vodafone employee in New Zealand and a viral video of a woman in a Canadian drug store are just two stark examples. Some of the stories are just bizarre, like the South African woman who angrily drove her car through the front doors of a bank because she didn't want to wait in line.

What I find even scarier is the knowledge that the stories I'm capturing are just a teensy fraction of what's out there. A quick search of "customer service" on Twitter will reveal thousands of complaints and rants every single day. McDonald's alone is reported to have had more than 700 incidents covered in the media over the last three years, with one of their restaurants making 1,356 calls to 911. If nasty behavior was a medical condition, it would be classified as an epidemic.

We're Living in an Angry and Impatient World

If you've been feeling like people are becoming angrier and ruder, it's not your imagination. A study released in July found that four out of 10 people admit to being angrier in the past year than ever before, with more than eighty percent believing that Americans are generally angrier now than a generation ago. Two other recent studies confirm that people's patience and tempers have both grown considerably shorter, and that the world is, in general, getting ruder. It is a truly ugly combination. And for people in business, this epidemic translates to customers and employees alike, increasingly defaulting to hideous behaviour at the drop of a hat.

Businesses Can't Afford to Ignore It

Many people I've spoken with believe that the increased nastiness in customer service is a touchstone for what's happening in our society in general. Whether this is true or not, it's a trend that organizations absolutely can't afford to ignore. There's just too much at stake. Negative events and negative word-of-mouth, regardless of their causes, can have devastating effects on a business -- particularly in this digital age.

It was scary enough in 1995, when David Collier's research identified that the average customer would tell eight-to-nine people about an unpleasant experience. Today, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and the myriad other social sites, the average customer has an immediate network in the hundreds. A single negative tweet or post going viral can influence millions.

Forget Everything You Believe About Conflict

The bad news is that the nastiness epidemic shows no signs of going away anytime soon. The good news is that a great many, if not most, of these emotionally charged situations with customers are very much preventable. Service failures, mistakes and frustrated customers don't have to end in negative outcomes, and certainly not violent ones. The secret lies in understanding the root cause of all this bad behavior, and the secret to understanding the root cause is to first set aside everything you believe about customer conflict.

The mistake most of us make is believing that customers get dissatisfied and emotional because of the problem they are facing. It turns out that this isn't the case at all. In 1990, researcher Mary Jo Bitner found that when a negative incident occurs, the negative emotions and dissatisfaction are actually created by how an employee responds, not by the incident itself. We don't, for example, get angry because our TV is on the fritz. We get angry because the person we called about it didn't seem to care. It's all about the skill of a company's employees. This is the even better news, because if we're the ones breaking things, we're in a position to fix them.

Related: How to Deliver More Authentic Customer Experiences

Service Recovery Is Increasingly Important

What we're seeing now is the increased importance of service recovery in business. While consistent use of outstanding customer service skills is still the best way to prevent conflict from turning to confrontation, employees also need specific skills, attitude and empowerment to effectively deal with people when things go sideways. Leaving employees to their own devices to face this epidemic without support is no longer an option. Training -- good training -- is imperative. Clear processes and policies need to be in place to make it easier for employees to reduce escalating emotions. Without these things, the epidemic is only going to continue.

This is something every company should have on its radar. People are fighting over chicken sandwiches. I think that's a sign.

Shaun Belding

CEO, The Belding Group of Companies

Shaun Belding is the author of six books, including The Journey to WOW! He is is CEO of The Belding Group of Companies, a global leadership and customer-service training company and consultancy. He speaks globally on topics of customer experience, leadership and positive workplace cultures.

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