Even though customer incivility towards frontline employees is on the rise, organisations still advise them to appease the customer and grant exceptional concessions. However, this strategy carries a high price tag. Other clients who observe the incident may find the situation unfair. Omid Kamran Disfani, Ramin Bagherzadeh, Ashok Bhattarai, Maryam Farhang and Lisa K Scheer suggest constructive resistance as a better strategy to deal with the problem.
In many organisations, value is created through and depends on direct interactions between customers and frontline employees. These employees play a key role in the relationship between organisations and their customers by providing services, responding to inquiries and facilitating daily business operations. The sustained delivery of value to customers and the ongoing profitability of organisations require that both customers and frontline employees adhere to fair and socially acceptable interaction norms. In many instances, however, customers deviate from the expected and fair norms in their interactions. Their uncivil behaviour not only impedes the smooth delivery of service but also leads to a dysfunctional and unpleasant environment for employees as well as other customers. The rising prevalence of uncivil behaviours by some customers towards frontline employees demands new actionable strategies to be used by these employees, with support by high-level management.
In recent years, customer incivility in its various forms has been on the rise. Rude or demeaning remarks, verbal aggression and hostile gestures toward frontline employees such as customer service representatives, cashiers, servers and flight attendants are not only unfair and unfortunate. They also negatively affect firms, their employees and other customers who abide by the rules. The recent COVID pandemic undoubtedly exacerbated the problem; with many of us having seen or heard of uncivil behaviours by customers, directed especially at frontline employees.
Tolerating uncivil customers
Conventional wisdom suggests that frontline employees should appease uncivil customers to swiftly resolve conflicts and minimise the distraction and associated damage. Many organisations implicitly or explicitly advise their employees to tolerate incivility as “part of the job,” because “customer is king” and “the customer is always right.” It is true that customers are necessary for organisations to continue their business and for employees to have a job. However, tolerating uncivil behaviours by some customers, who typically demand unfair and exceptional treatment or outcomes, can be very costly to firms, their employees and other customers who respect social and ethical norms and treat employees fairly.
We began our research by interviewing frontline employees across various contexts and listening to their experiences. The interviews provided us with first-hand and, in some cases, shocking stories about customer incivility and the lack of proper reaction by employees, as advised by their supervisors or managers. One interviewee mentioned that her supervisor gave her gift cards to offer to uncivil customers to calm them down and resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Another interviewee noted that he was given the authority to bend organisational rules if needed to appease an uncivil customer and put an end to the encounter. Interviewees also mentioned that they were not aware of any company-wide or consistent strategy against customer incivility, and in most cases they had to surrender to incivility to maintain job security and ensure that they had a paycheck at the end of the month. Collectively, we heard moving stories of uncivil encounters experienced by our interviewees, and the common advice they were given, one way or another, was to appease and surrender to incivility.
Impacts on customer observers
We define customer observers as other customers who witness acts of incivility directed at frontline employees by fellow customers. Studying these observers is crucial as every instance of incivility towards an employee may be witnessed by multiple customer observers who see the encounter and the employee’s reaction to incivility. At the very least, these observers experience some level of stress from witnessing such incidents. More importantly, however, the observers could think about how they may be financially affected by paying higher prices or fees in the future. When a firm responds to incivility by granting exceptional concessions to uncivil customers, the cost is then passed on to all customers. Customer observers’ perspectives and perceptions need to be considered very seriously; future business with those customers can be jeopardised by an organisation’s lack of proper response to incivility.
The case for constructive resistance
We argue that companies can’t ignore customer observers when appeasing uncivil customers. Observers think about uncivil encounters and how firmly employees respond to incivility. Their observations lead to fairness evaluation and perceptions which, in turn, affect their future business with the company and the way they treat the company’s employees. Previous research found that a polite and assertive reprimand by a frontline employee was viewed favourably by customer observers. That ultimately benefitted a firm’s image in the eyes of those customers. We build on that work to provide a more comprehensive strategy against customer incivility. Specifically, we suggest constructive resistance as a strategy to be employed by frontline employees in dealing with the problem. The concept of constructive resistance was introduced in management literature in the context of employees defending themselves against abusive supervisors. Using the concept as a starting point, we defined and developed constructive resistance as an actionable strategy in the context of encounters between frontline employees and uncivil customers.
Our suggested constructive resistance strategy involves three important components:
- Communication to the uncivil customer of the inappropriateness of their behaviour, clarifying that it impedes the achievement of the customer’s desired outcomes and explaining that those outcomes are unfair to other customers and/or against the company’s rules;
- Frontline employee’s active engagement in gathering more information and seeking clarification about the cause of the uncivil behaviour as well as potential remedies that could be offered without bending the rules; and
- Providing options and alternative solutions through which the uncivil customer can achieve desired outcomes fairly.
Findings and implications
In a series of studies, we tested our suggested constructive resistance strategy. We examined how customers who observe the interaction between a frontline employee and an uncivil customer react to the implementation of constructive resistance. Interestingly, we found that even though observers are not subjected to incivility, they care about it and view constructive resistance as a fair response. As a result of this perception of fairness, observers were more likely to engage in future business with the firm, spread positive word-of-mouth about it and avoid misbehaviour toward the firm in the future.
Our findings provide initial evidence of the potential benefits of politely confronting, rather than ignoring or surrendering to, customer incivility by means of constructive resistance. No firm or organisation can realistically aspire to satisfy every customer, and attempting to do so may damage a firm’s image in the eyes of other customers. Conceding to or ignoring incivility can also encourage other customers to behave uncivilly if they see that such behaviour is ignored, or worse, rewarded. We encourage managers to consider constructive resistance and empower their frontline employees to implement it against uncivil behaviour. Implementation of constructive resistance requires support from higher management and empowering employees, without which it is unlikely to yield significant positive outcomes.
Finally, we think our research may be of interest to policymakers in suggesting policies to hinder customer incivility. Reducing customer incivility should not just be an organisational and business goal, but also a societal imperative.
- This blog post is based on Constructive Resistance in the Frontlines: How Frontline Employees’ Resistance to Customer Incivility Affects Customer Observers, Journal of Service Research. It is published in partnership with SAGE’s Business and Management INK.
- The post represents the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
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