[We’re pleased to welcome authors Christina Jerger of the Catholic University of Eichstaett–Ingolstadt and Jochen Wirtz of the National University of Singapore. They recently published an article in the Journal of Service Research entitled “Service Employee Responses to Angry Customer Complaints: The Roles of Customer Status and Service Climate,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Jerger reflects on the inspiration for conducting this research:]
It is not uncommon that customers behave aggressively in service encounters, especially after experiencing a service failure. In turn, front line service employees should not retaliate this customer misbehavior to not jeopardize effective service recovery. Furthermore, service employees are requested to not discriminate customers and to treat them equal in terms of their displayed emotions as well as offered restitution in the service recovery encounter. The equal customer treatment becomes even more important in our increasingly diverse societies but is scantly researched.
This research gap spans many fruitful avenues for the research I have conducted as part of my PhD thesis. This current study examines whether a customer’s status determines how well service employees respond when they get confronted with an angry customer complaint, and whether a firm’s strong service climate can help to reduce customer status effects. Specifically, to assess employees’ emotional (i.e., expressed anger) and behavioral (i.e., restitution offered) service recovery responses, we had to develop an innovative field experimental design: We conducted role-played complaints in fast-food restaurants and observed and coded employees’ actual responses. In addition, we conducted scenario-based experiments with restaurant waiters to find out more about how the employees’ background and their personality might influence their responses to angry customers of different status.
The studies’ findings confirm that in weak service climate conditions, employees treated low-status customers significantly worse; they expressed more anger and they were less likely to offer restitution. In contrast, a strong service climate moderated the effects of customer status on employees’ response behaviors in both studies. As a result, employees’ service recovery behaviors converged at what is generally considered good practice in customer service. The strong organizational rules, routinization of recovery processes, better employee skills and knowledge, and guidance by leadership meant that employees knew what is expected from them and led to better service recovery outcomes. Importantly, employees did not treat low-status customers worse than high-status ones.
Interestingly, although it didn’t reach statistical significance in both studies, we found a tendency that low-status customers were more likely to receive restitution in a strong service climate than high-status customers. It seemed that employees made an effort to not treat low-status customers worse than high-status customers, and in the process, they overcompensated low-status customers.
Furthermore, our findings show that service climate governs both employees’ immediate affective and delayed conative recovery responses. This suggests that a strong service climate is authentic, internalized, and on a level of deep acting. Therefore, it is effective in governing employee responses in difficult situations, including in establishing emotional display rules.
One major input to building a strong service climate is training. A strong service climate seems a necessary requirement for effectively dealing with angry customer complaints. Employees should be trained in handling their feelings and how to use emotional displays in an appropriate manner. Especially for organizations with a weak service climate, this training needs to include on how to treat customers equally and independent of potential biases employees may have.
Overall, this paper offers highly valuable insights for service theory and management and helps understanding how service employees respond to angry customer complaints.
Christina Jerger, July 18, 2017