In my previous posts, I outlined the causes of customer abuse and its effects both on employees and on the workplace in general. Arguably the most fundamental point that managers need to understand is that this isn’t exclusively a problem whose roots lie in the unpleasant actions of individuals: rather, it’s an issue that all too frequently results from systemic failings in the very fabric of the service economy.

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of those failings. Among the most significant is the lack of power that workers have; their low status in comparison to those they serve; and the widespread absence of non-superficial client-provider relationships in an era of ever-intensifying centralisation. These are organisational shortcomings, and they’re central to a culture in which frontline staff routinely bear the emotional costs of customer aggression.

Also crucial is the notion of “consumer sovereignty”. This, remember, is the idea that companies unswervingly base their production decisions on customers’ preferences. Like the hoary precept that the customer is always right, it’s a principle from another age. It’s when the myth of consumer sovereignty is exploded that customer abuse usually occurs.

Can we find anywhere less in the grip of these outdated and damaging tropes? And, if so, is it possible to discern signs of how a different approach might lead to better outcomes? One arena that appears to offer encouraging evidence is the social market economy.

A Scandinavian model

Historically, much of the academic research into customer abuse has been carried out in the US and the UK. These are classic liberal market economies. A social market economy, such as one might find in Germanic and Scandinavian nations, is dissimilar in several key respects.

For example, employees in social market economies are more likely to be regarded as legitimate stakeholders. They have a voice. They aren’t seen as subordinates or serfs. This being the case, they’re also more likely to receive authentic support from their managers. How they view the people they interact with and how they respond to the behaviour they encounter might also be quite different from the norms so dismally familiar to their counterparts in liberal market economies.

This is very much what I found when I carried out a study of customer abuse in Denmark. I focused on staff within a State Administration family unit, which at the time, as a consequence of budget cuts and reorganisation, was struggling to cope with a sizeable backlog of casework and therefore mired in a sustained period of customer abuse.

Employees were confronted by anger and sometimes even violence. As one new recruit remarked in recalling her co-workers’ advice: “All they said was: ‘You’ll quickly become immune to being called a stupid bitch.’” It was a challenging time. So why were so many of them able not only to stand their ground but to develop apparently genuine resilience?

Sovereign consumer or fellow citizen?

The answer, at its simplest, is that they had both backing and status. With management overtly sympathetic to their cause, they felt confident in resisting customers’ attempts to dominate them.

Moreover, the myth of consumer sovereignty couldn’t be shattered, because it was hardly present in the first instance. Staff sought to see customers not as omniscient, irreproachable, superior beings but as fellow citizens who often had grounds to be upset; and customers, in turn, tended to see staff a little less as faceless, would-be punchbags and a little more as professionals dedicated to trying to help them. As one worker commented: “It’s actually amazing that people are so understanding.”

It was by no means a perfect world, of course. A member of staff who had formerly worked in the police department quit after admitting she would rather go back to dealing with criminals. Some employees formed “communities of coping”. One worker, albeit laughingly, said of the required mindset: “You must be a masochist. You really must be.”

On balance, though, resilience was strong. There was talk of a “customer-contact spirit”. Employees felt valued and respected. The threat of a toxic spiral of dehumanised and internecine relationships in which workers themselves become increasingly indifferent and uncaring was significantly reduced by the happy expedient of proper organisational and cultural practices.

A simple question of support

What we don’t know is how long resilience of this kind can realistically endure. It’s probable that everyone gets worn down eventually and that the greatest and most well-intentioned management mechanisms on Earth are ultimately no guarantee against the cumulative wear and tear that customer abuse inflicts over the long term.

But maybe this brings us back to a familiar axiom that warrants repeating: prevention is better than cure. Thanks to an almost unique set of circumstances, the subjects of the above study were in the eye of an uncommonly fierce storm. This research underlines how we might better react to the issue of customer abuse, but we shouldn’t forget that in social market economies it’s less likely to occur in the first place – and the reason for this is that the conditions that allow it to flourish are far less prevalent.

As I said before, it’s not a question of granting employees free rein to indulge in a full-blown ding-dong. Instead, as the study discussed here indicates, it’s a question of allowing them to feel justified, safe and, above all, supported in delivering an entirely acceptable retort to thoroughly unacceptable behaviour. All things considered, is that really too much to ask?


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

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