"The customer is not always right, but your job is never to show them how they're wrong. Your job is to be professional, courteous, accommodating … even (and especially) under stress." — Steve Dorfman, Driven to Excel

When consumers know they are always right, they may breed a sense of superiority or entitlement, expecting the frontline employees to comply with any customer behaviors. A report shows that 98% of service employees had experienced unpleasant customer behaviors; over 50% of employees encountered rude customers at least once a week. In a more recent case, a female customer pulled out a gun and fired shots at Burger King because she felt it took too long to receive the order.

In organizational research, consumers' unpleasant behaviors toward the service staff are often referred to as either consumer incivility or consumer mistreatment. Current literature has identified customer mistreatment's negative effects on employees' psychological states and work-related intentions/behaviors. Still, the link between customer mistreatment and employees' customer-focused voice behavior is under-researched. In the business setting, companies want to promote employees' customer-focused voice behavior, through which they can gain first-hand knowledge about their customers and identify potential issues for service improvement.

The empirical study about customer mistreatment and employee customer-focused voice

I worked with Dr. Yung-Kuei Huang at National Ilan University in Taiwan on a project entitled “Customer mistreatment and employee customer-focused voice: The bright and dark sides of felt trust.” We published this study in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management (free downloads for the first 40 copies).

The hypotheses being tested

H1: Customer mistreatment is negatively related to customer-focused voice

H2: Customer mistreatment is negatively related to organizational-based self-esteem (OBSE).

H3: OBSE is positively related to customer-focused voice.

H4: OBSE mediates the negative effect of customer mistreatment on customer-focused voice.

H5: The negative effect of customer mistreatment on OBSE is weaker for employees who feel more trusted by their supervisors.

H6: The negative relationship between customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice through OBSE is weaker for employees who feel more trusted by their supervisors.

In this research, OBSE is referred to as the self-perceived value that individuals have of themselves as important, competent, and capable within their employing organizations. Felt trust is about employees’ perception of their supervisors’ positive expectations and willingness to be vulnerable to their actions.

The data and the analysis

We collected 319 valid paired responses from 319 frontline employees and 118 supervisors from 33 four-star or five-star hotels in Taiwan. We asked frontline employees to rate customer mistreatment they experienced, their OBSE, felt trust by their supervisors (two dimensions of felt reliance and felt disclosure), and customer-focused voice behavior. Furthermore, employees’ customer-focused voice behavior was also assessed by their immediate supervisors. We tested the hypothesis with regression analyses.

The key research findings

Customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice

We did not confirm the direct negative relationship between customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice (not supporting H1). On the contrary, we observed a significant, positive relationship between customer mistreatment and supervisor-rated customer-focused voice after controlling for the effect of OBSE. Then, our sample rated “hotel facilities and amenities” as the most frequent cause of mistreatment incidents. Such findings suggest that customer mistreatment can inform frontline employees of the areas that need improvement. It is also plausible that frontline employees might want to speak out about facilities and amenities (instead of themselves).

OBSE's mediating effect

OBSE indeed mediates the negative effect of customer mistreatment on customer-focused voice (supporting H2, H3, and H4). Frontline employees may perceive customer mistreatment as negative feedback or embarrassment that poses a threat to their OBSE. Lower OBSE may, in turn, discourage them from voicing the service issues or making suggestions for improvement.

Felt reliance vs. felt disclosure

Contrary to our predictions in H5 and H6, felt reliance intensifies customer mistreatment's negative effect on OBSE and its indirect, negative effect on both self-rated and supervisor-rated customer-focused voice through OBSE. Felt disclosure marginally significantly buffers the effect of customer mistreatment on OBSE, but it does not affect the mediating relationship between mistreatment and either self-rated or supervisor-rated customer-focused voice through OBSE. In order words, H5 was partially marginally supported, but H6 was not supported. It can also be concluded that felt reliance and felt disclosure have different moderating effects on (a) customer mistreatment and OBSE and (b) customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice through OBSE.

The implications

Besides this study's theoretical contributions to organizational literature, businesses can draw a few managerial implications from the research findings. For example, we recommend managers take the following actions (exclusive content that is not available even in the original research article).

  • Encourage employees to share their experience of customer mistreatment during daily briefing sessions or meetings to prevent them from building up their negative feelings (or OBSE) at work (drawing from the result of H1).
  • Acknowledge the negative impacts of customer mistreatment on employees to lower its negative effect on OBSE (from H2).
  • Educate employees that customer mistreatment might also help improve customer service (from H2).
  • Let employees know they should not take customer mistreatment personally (from H2).
  • Establish a support system within the organization that makes employees feel valued and appreciated, allowing them to feel more open to sharing their suggestions and feedback (from H3).
  • Solicit feedback and suggestions from the employees who demonstrate high OBSE (from H4).
  • Reassure that employees’ reputation is not judged based on isolated incidents (from H5).
  • Encourage supervisors and employees to share one or two critical life events during orientation or networking events to foster trust among them (from H6).
  • Organize socialization events among supervisors and employees to build personal bonding (from H6).

The conclusion

This research suggests that it is critical that distinguished the two dimensions of felt trust, including felt reliance and felt disclosure. Felt reliance refers to employee's perceptions of supervisors' willingness to depend on their work-related decisions and actions. Felt disclosure embodies employees' perceptions of supervisors' willingness to share sensitive information and personal views and work.

On the one hand, it can be beneficial for managers and supervisors to rely on frontline employees to make work-related decisions or actions. On the other hand, they shall probably not share too much personal information or feelings at work. Would you agree?

Meanwhile, what strategies does your organization employ to minimize the negative effects of customer mistreatment? What are the effective ways to promote employees' customer-focused voice behavior?