Recent surveys report that customer complaints about call centers number in the hundreds of millions yearly and are on the rise. But new research focusing on center employees suggests that they are subject to a lot more mistreatment than they dish out.
A study in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal, based on data collected daily at a call center, suggests that about 20 to 25% of the calls workers field subject them to some form of customer mistreatment. Yet, instances of worker retaliatory sabotage for mistreatment (for example by misleading or hanging up on a customer) occur a lot more rarely -- probably in under one percent of calls.
Sabotage appears to occur in response to cumulative mistreatment from customers, as suggested by the study's finding that workers with lesser emotional self-control retaliated no more than those with greater self control in response to moderate levels of customer provocation. Only when mistreatment reached high levels was a sharp divergence seen between the two groups.
18 variations of mistreatment by callers were listed -- for example, "thought they were more important than others" (the most frequently chosen item), "did not understand that you had to comply with certain rules" (second most frequently chosen), "made exorbitant demands," "refused to listen to you," and "doubted your ability." Five sabotage items were listed -- "hung up on a customer," "intentionally put a customer on hold for a long period of time," "purposely transferred a customer to the wrong department," "purposely disconnected a call," and "told a customer that you fixed something but didn't fix it." Sabotage behaviors were usually carried out without the customer's full awareness or to terminate interaction with the customer.
Workers fielded a mean of about 75 calls a day. On average, their daily experience of each of the 18 forms of customer mistreatment fell about halfway between "not at all" and "a few times." They acknowledged sabotaging customers an average of about four times over the course of 10 days, which, the researchers estimate, translates into a less than one percent likelihood of sabotage per call.
Asking what firms can do to reduce customer-directed sabotage, the study notes that "an organization can still help those employees who have shorter job tenure, lower-level self-efficacy for emotional regulation, and higher-level negative affectivity through training, mentoring, counseling...and improving employee understanding, acceptance, and internalization of service rules... Organizations [should] openly discuss, set, and communicate their customer service rules with employees, to try to incorporate terms and protocols that aim to protect employees from customer mistreatment in their policies, and to implement enforceable incentive policies to reward commitment to and punish deviation from service rules."
More information on call center workers can be found at www.SupportIndustry.com.