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Sunday, April 18, 2010

May I Help You? Passive Aggressive Behavior in the Customer Service Industry

The customer service industry is especially ripe for situational passive aggressive behaviors in that service professionals are expected to demonstrate hospitable behaviors at all times. When faced with demanding patrons and customers, these workers may maintain their public smile while privately seething and plotting revenge. In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior In Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed., we share this real-life anecdote:

Sharon went to the Customer Service counter of a local Supercenter to return a pair of brand-new, never-worn shoes she had purchased on Clearance the previous day. The tags were still on the shoes and Sharon had her receipt in hand. After waiting in line for what she felt was an unreasonable length of time, Sharon's exasperation was apparent to the customer service representative. "I'm in a hurry!" she barked when it was her turn in line. "I want a refund on these shoes."

The young woman behind the counter smiled graciously and took the shoes from Sharon. She began to inspect them.

"There's nothing wrong with them!" said Sharon.

"No problem, Ma'am," said the worker. "I just have to check. Do you have your receipt?"

Sharon threw the receipt at her. "I just bought them yesterday. I never wore them. They are the wrong color. And they look so cheap. Everything in this store is hideous."

The worker, continuing to smile, looked at the receipt carefully and replied, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but these shoes were purchased on Clearance. We have a no-returns policy on Clearance Items. All sales are final."

"I want to speak to your manager!" yelled Sharon. "This is ridiculous! How dare you?"

"Certainly, Ma'am. All referrals to management are handled at that counter" she said, pointing to a line, ten people deep, across the aisle.

Fuming, Sharon grabbed her shoes and walked out of the store.

The next customer in line overheard the loud scene created by Sharon. As soon as she approached the counter, she politely explained that she too had a Clearance item for return and would move on to the other line. The Customer Service Representative stopped her, saying, "No problem. I'd be happy to take care of that for you right here."

In our one-day workshops, based on The Angry Smile, we’ve had participants share many similar stories, including the following:

Awake and Alert at 35,000 ft.

My workplace was the perfect setting for passive aggressive behavior. When you are 35,000 feet above the Earth, you have many opportunities to graciously and politely respond to the demands of obnoxious, authoritarian passengers.

It was a snowy January evening and we were taxiing to the runway, getting into position to depart O’Hare airport, when the pilot made an announcement that our departure for Washington D.C. would be delayed because we had to have our wings de-iced. Before the announcement ended, a call button rang. As I approached the passenger, he demanded to know how long we would be delayed, because he had an important meeting very early the next morning. Of course, this was the same man who had just given me a hard time about stowing his over-sized bag under his seat, a few minutes earlier.

I politely explained that safety was our first priority. He insisted that I ask the pilot how long it would be before departing. Before I had the chance to respond, the pilot informed the passengers that we were next in line for de-icing. The passenger gave me a dirty look and demanded that I bring him some decaffeinated coffee. I told him that he would have to wait until we were up in the air.
Shortly after take-off, before it was even safe for me to unbuckle my seatbelt, his call button rang again. I waited longer than was necessary before I made my way to his seat. He wanted his coffee immediately, but wanted to make sure that it was decaffeinated, reminding me of his important early morning meeting.

I politely told him that I would make the coffee and bring him a cup as soon as it was ready. Less than ten minutes later, I served him the first of five cups of fully caffeinated coffee. I don’t know about him, but I slept very well that night.

Aren’t You Forgetting Somethng?

An irate customer stormed into the store where I work and approached my co-worker, Cindy. Cindy tried to be helpful as the customer made a huge scene over trying to return a non-refundable item. Cindy attempted to explain the store policy and politely pointed to the bright orange, “Final Sale” label on the item, but the customer would have none of it. He insisted on speaking to the manager.

Cindy explained the situation to our boss. The boss was busy and told Cindy to “deal with the problem.” Cindy informed the customer that she would allow him to return the item, as long as he had the receipt. After digging in his wallet, the customer was able to produce the receipt, so Cindy promptly issued the return—intentionally giving the customer the wrong amount of change.

When the customer pointed out her mistake, she apologized sweetly and corrected her error with a smile on her face. When the customer turned to leave the store, Cindy noticed right away that he left his wallet open on the register counter. She thought about pointing this out to him…then decided not to.

Have you fallen prey to a customer service professional’s passive aggressive behavior? Have you been the one to dish it out? What are your stories of private anger in public service?

1 comment:

  1. Hey Signe,

    Great topic! So, I'm no psychologist, but being around customer service my entire career, I've experienced this phenomenon a few times. Trying to segment the root causes from my perspective, I think they fall into three categories: 1) inadequate employee empowerment 2) misalignment of expectations, capabilities and reward structures within customer service and 3) positioning of the customer service function within the corporate structure (some industries still refer to it as the "complaint dept). Most critical, though, is the lack of empowerment drives customer service people to attempt to regain that power and control through some other mechanism. Passive aggression seems to be the tool of choice for some.

    So, that being said, here's an experience I blogged about a while ago where all three drivers where in play. (I've changed the names, not to protect the innocent, but I ranted about this company enough over on my blog for one life time)

    "How Many Times Can You Alienate A Customer In One Interaction?

    [Unnammed Airline] baggage claim at Philadelphia International Airport is a disgrace.


    After an eight day trip from Philadelphia to Tucson to Vegas, I arrived back home at around 11pm on flight 1750 and here's what greeted my already cranky, tired worn out self:

    The plane parked at terminal A and my car was parked in terminal C. So, the baggage handlers had no control over that. But, is it too much to ask to return to the same terminal from which I departed? Again, probably out of USAir's control but it just set the tone for the rest of the story (I sound like a pissed off Paul Harvey - RIP). Did I mention it was pouring rain and terminals A and C don't connect indoors in Philadelphia?

    I get to baggage claim in terminal A and nowhere is my flight listed on any of the carrousel monitors. So I assume its the one with all the people standing around it looking as clueless as me.

    I wait

    I wait some more

    I wait until all the bags are gone, the carrousel has stopped and there's just me and one baggage rep left in the area

    I ask him where my bag is. "If you want it, go to terminal C or too bad". (alienation #1)

    So I'm irritated but I rationalize that its ok because that's where my car is parked anyway.

    I walk outside, in the rain, to terminal C

    Inside the baggage claim office were three claims reps. I walk in. Not one of them lifts their head. They continue their conversation as if I'm not there. I hand my claim ticket over, granted, with a bit of an attitude, And I ask for them to do what it takes to get me my bag. I'm going home.

    As one representative slooooowly reaches for my ticket and, with equal quickness, looks up my info, without ever making eye contact, her colleague tells her "you can't file a claim yet. you have to wait ten minutes"

    "Wait ten minutes!?! Are you kidding me?" I snapped back

    "Its policy" (alienation #2)

    First rep looks up and says "You better lose the attitude" (alienation #3) [ok thats not passive aggression. thats just rude!]

    First rep tosses the ticket back in my direction and says "Its right out there!" - (alienation #4)

    "Out where?" I asked

    "Right out there on carrousel 1"

    Oh right. I should have known that my bag would have come up on a different carrousel than the rest of the entire a different terminal. My mistake. I waited another 10 minutes. My bag came out. I went home.

    So what's the answer? Apparently for me, its 4 times."