- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

The American shopping experience may change forever.

Countering one of the most basic of all service tenets, a group of occupational analysts has declared that the customer is not always right.

That’s because customers are getting downright rude, aggressive and combative in an increasingly uncivil society, exacting a psychological toll from the clerks and other attendants on the front lines and undermining workplace morale and productivity.

“Ultimately, this state of affairs costs the employer in the form of reduced efficiency, worker burnout and absenteeism,” said Alicia Grandey, an industrial psychologist at Penn State University who went to the troubled heart of things for her study.

Miss Grandey and a team of researchers followed almost 200 customer-service employees who were routinely badgered and abused by angry patrons.

“It a no-win situation for everybody, including the customer,” she added, noting that some of the workers were yelled at up to 50 times a day.

It is a harsh reality for many, however.

A poll of 857 airline, bus and train workers released in January by the nonprofit research group Public Agenda found that passenger “rudeness and disrespect is the top cause of workplace stress and tension” in the travel industry.

A fifth of the respondents had witnessed an uncomfortable situation escalate into physical confrontation, and 70 percent agreed that rudeness begat rudeness, noting they would be more likely to shelve their own polite instinct when customers got testy.

This contentious environment has caused some analysts to re-evaluate old service norms.

“Results-Based Leadership,” a 2002 book by Dave Ulrich, Jack Zenger and Norm Smallwood, debunked traditional ideas about the mighty, money-wielding customer. The “customer is always right” is a myth, they wrote.

The tough-talking reality is that “some customers are more right than others,” the writers continued, suggesting that companies develop their own “ideal” customer profile and simply omit customers who don’t conform to it.

Manhattan restaurateur Pino Luongo advises his peers to become both a manners “role model and enforcer” for customers.

Rudeness toward employees “needs to be checked immediately,” he told Restaurant and Institutions magazine recently, adding that “sometimes customers, especially affluent ones, mistake privilege for ownership.”

But the customers have beefs as well. In a poll of 1,000 adult travelers released earlier this year by the online trip planner Travelocity, the respondents cited “rude company personnel” as the biggest travel problem — followed by lost luggage, reservation problems and rude fellow travelers.

All this bad behavior has been brewing for a while, however. Two years ago, another Public Agenda poll of 2,000 adults found that 79 percent said lack of courtesy in American society “is a serious problem,” and two-thirds said the rudeness was getting worse.

Meanwhile, Penn State’s Miss Grandey found that service employees under siege felt trapped.

“What exacerbates the stress for employees is the feeling that they have nowhere to go. They simply have to take it — or else,” she said. “Employers need to reassure employees in private that they are not always at the mercy of customer whims and that they are just as valued as the customer.”

Miss Grandey added that persistent abusive situations “might mean allowing employees to tell unreasonable or abusive customers when they have crossed the line,” or focusing “on some positive or humorous aspect of the encounter.”

Her research was published in the current issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

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