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Customer Anger Causes Emotional Injuries to Service Reps

Why we shouldn’t misdirect our anger toward customer service representatives

The shopping season is also one of heightened frustration toward companies and consequently, angry calls to customer service representatives. While we might have every right to be dissatisfied with the products or services we purchase, frustrated consumers rarely express anger toward the correct person.

Why We Get Angry at Customer Service Reps and Why We Shouldn’t

Customer service representatives are entry level employees. They usually receive only a few weeks of job training before being deployed to the front lines of the service industry. Although we perceive them as representing the company, they personally had nothing to do with the problem that is making us angry. Yes, the procedures the company has in place might be extremely annoying and frustrating but they didn’t determine those procedures, they are merely paid to follow them (literally by reading scripts from which they are not allowed to deviate).

Customer service employees often average up to 10 hostile calls a day and must tolerate personal insults, screaming, cursing and even threats—regularly. They are required to stay on the line and ‘salvage’ even the most hostile calls. Unfortunately, it isn’t unusual to hear otherwise decent people confess to treating call-center representatives in a manner they would consider verbally abusive and reprehensible in any other context.

There are several reasons we tend to dehumanize customer service representatives. First, we view them as literal representatives of the companies that are responsible for our frustrations and problems, and by doing so, we ascribe blame to them personally. In addition, never seeing their faces allows us to switch off psychological filters such as civility and empathy. Lastly, we often anticipate such calls to be so annoying that we enter a veritable battle mentality even before dialing the toll-free number.

The Impact of Customer Hostility on Customer Service Representatives

A recent study found that when customer service representatives receive a heighted number of angry or abusive calls it impacts them psychologically and emotionally. Not only do they brood at night about these encounters, it also damages their moods the next morning. In other words, our outbursts literally cause representatives psychological wounds that spill into their lives after their shift is over. Indeed, brooding and rumination is a damaging psychological habit that is indicative of emotional distress and can lead to depression, helplessness, and an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease (read The Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding and Ruminating here).

Not surprisingly, customer service representatives have one of the highest employee attrition rates in any industry because few workers can manage the heavy barrage of psychological and emotional assaults they sustain. As a result, companies have to regularly hire and train new call-center employees, causing a vicious cycle in which a chronic influx of new workers increases their hesitance and inexperience, which then frustrates us and inflames our tempers even further.

We customers must remember that treating customer service representatives as emotional punching bags represents a form of bullying that should be as intolerable to us as any other form of bullying. We are entitled to feel angry but when we do, we would be much better served writing an email to a company executive than yelling at a customer service representative. After all, it is the executive that makes the decisions, produces the products, and instills the procedures that are angering us in the first place, not the entry level employee who answers the phone when we call a toll free number.

On the other side of the phone, customer service representatives should treat their emotional wounds when they sustain them and not allow them to get worse. For example, they should become aware of the dangers of brooding and ruminating over angry encounters with customers, and they should practice treating that and other psychological wounds as soon as they sustain them.

Perhaps if we all made efforts to improve our interactions with customer service representatives, especially over the holidays, it would be a happier holiday season for all.

View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:

For more about brooding and rumination check out, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Click here for my talk at Google NYC on YouTube about recovering from emotional injuries.

Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

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1. Guy Winch, Ph.D. The Squeaky Wheel (Walker and Company; New York, 2013)

2. Wang, Mo; Liu, Songqi; Liao, Hui; Gong, Yaping; Kammeyer-Mueller, John; Shi, Junqi

“Can’t get it out of my mind: Employee rumination after customer mistreatment and negative mood in the next morning,” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 98(6), Nov 2013, 989-1004. doi: 10.1037/a0033656

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