Customer abuse is growing

In a previous post, I discussed one of the business world’s most enduring mantras, “The customer is always right”. I argued that the notion has invariably been damaging both for companies and for the people they aim to serve. In this post, the first of a short series, I would like to revisit a few of the fundamental points and begin to explain in more detail why this long-established idea, to be blunt, is utter nonsense, due to growing customer abuse.

“The customer is always right” was a well-intentioned sentiment back in the day – and by “back in the day” I mean more than a hundred years ago. It was coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge to reassure shoppers at his swish London department store that any complaints they might have would be treated with the utmost seriousness.

Within a few years, its wisdom was being questioned in print. Critics warned that a policy of responding to any claim with unswerving quiescence, irrespective of how arbitrary or outlandish or spectacularly self-serving that claim might be, could well prove unwise. In the words of Frank Farrington, author of Successful Salesmanship: “We shall be treated to inevitable losses.”

On the whole, though, despite the weight of evidence to the contrary, Selfridge’s dictum is still taken as gospel today. Even though customer abuse is a growing phenomenon, with those on the front line of the service economy increasingly subjected to fundamentally intolerable behaviour, the opinion of a man from the sepia-toned era of top hats and handlebar moustaches continues to hold sway. How can this be so?

The legitimisation of customer abuse

A major hurdle in overthrowing Selfridge’s maxim and all it has come to represent is the widespread conviction that customer abuse is a problem caused exclusively by individuals. This belief remains notably prevalent among managers, and it has unhappy implications for all concerned – chief among them those whose role, in the words of a McDonald’s employee interviewed for an early-’90s ethnography of retail work, is “to take the crap”.

It’s quite true, of course, that “bad apples” play a part. No walk of life is free from people who aren’t especially nice, and customers certainly provide no exception to the rule. There is plenty of inherently rude, disingenuous and nasty folk out there.

Yet humanity’s innate capacity for unpleasantness is only half the story. Instead of dismissing customer abuse as the unfortunate corollary of lots of disagreeable people taking turns to demonstrate their ability to cause offence, we should be looking at the bigger picture – and the bigger picture is that much of the fault lies with the very fabric of the service economy.

To put it another way: customer abuse is in large part a perfect storm of companies’ own making. It’s something that organisations and their managers routinely legitimise – however unwittingly – and which employees, by direct extension, are doomed to suffer. In short, it’s systemic.

Why customer abuse flourishes

As stated in my earlier post, a paucity of three qualities, in particular, contributes to the existence and legitimisation of customer abuse. At best these attributes are lacking; at worst they’re wholly absent.

  • Power

Customer abuse is more likely in situations where workers possess limited power. Sometimes this is because their skills are deemed of negligible market value; sometimes it’s because they have no collective voice. Unions once constituted the weapon of choice in this regard, but their influence has waned in recent years.

  • Status

Many service work positions are occupied by people with gender, ethnic and social class characteristics of low status. This status might be conspicuously low in relation to that of customers. When customers somehow feel entitled to “look down” on employees, as various studies have shown, abuse is more liable to occur.

  • Relationships

Whereas repeated interactions between employees and customers can lead to familiarity and maybe even friendship, one-off interactions offer scant opportunity to build mutually beneficial relationships. By way of illustration, consider the difference between dealing with a corner shop and dealing with a call centre.

Reassurance versus reaffirmation

The failings detailed above are organisational, not individual. Each is central to a culture that condemns frontline workers to bear the emotional costs of their customers’ aggression and affords them virtually no recourse in the face of actions that all too frequently go beyond the bounds of acceptability. Managers might well counsel “empathy”, but where’s the empathy for their staff?

This isn’t to imply that employees should be given free rein to respond as they see fit. That would be less a solution and more a prelude to unmitigated disaster. What they must be afforded, though, not least in the absence of meaningful regulation, is reassurance.

Above all, frontline workers should be confident that their own reasonable reactions to obviously unreasonable conduct will be met with a suitable degree of management sympathy. Selfridge’s credo may well have been quaint, charming and even appropriate in Edwardian times, but today it’s hopelessly archaic – and that’s why, as I’ll explain further in subsequent posts, its inflexible reaffirmation must finally come to an end.

Marek Korczynski is a Professor of the Sociology of Work at Nottingham University Business School.


Nottingham_University_Business_School - People Development Magazine

Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.