A Hidden Reason to Be Polite to Rude Customers

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I distinctly remember the first time I apologized on behalf of America.

It was 1995 and I was living in Dublin, Ireland. I wandered into a gift shop near Grafton street to purchase some Waterford crystal to send home to my mom.

As I walked around the shop, I observed another customer berating an associate. This lady was RUDE. She obnoxiously demeaned the employee while constantly stating that she was an American.

As if being American entitled her to treat people with utter disrespect.

The associate politely tried her best to help the woman. She was calm, patient, and kind, though I could tell she was unnerved by the customer’s outrageous behavior. Amazingly, she kept her cool until the customer eventually stormed off.

The customer was an embarrassment. What if word got out that all Americans are this boorish? As an American, I felt compelled to apologize to the associate for the rude customer and assure her that we aren’t all this way.

A study published in the May 2017 Journal of Service Research suggests the retail associate’s reaction to the rude customer prompted me to be supportive.

Here’s why that’s a thing.

Our Instinctive Reaction to Rude Customers

Let’s get one thing out of the way: being polite to a rude customer is not easy. It’s not even natural.

Most of us instinctively experience the fight or flight reaction. Our normal response to a rude person is to fight back (with words, presumably) or flee the situation. The norms of customer service don’t allow us to do that.

We’re supposed to smile and take it, just like the retail associate did when confronted by that rude customer.

It can get even worse when other customers are watching. A demeaning customer might trigger feelings of embarrassment that cause us to lash out in defense of our pride. It’s a completely normal reaction, yet completely unacceptable in customer service.

The amount of emotional intelligence required to be good at customer service seems severely underestimated when you consider situations like this!

It takes a lot of effort to be polite to a rude customer, though my experience in Ireland shows there’s an added benefit to making the effort to be polite in the face of rudeness.

The next customer will like you even more.

What Researchers Discovered

The study was authored by Alex Henkel, Johannes Boegerhausen, Rafaeli Anat, and Jos Lemmink. They conducted a series of experiments to see how an observer reacted to a customer being rude to an employee.

In one experiment, participants watched a video of a customer service interaction where the customer was rude. The video showed the employee reacting one of four ways:

  • The employee was rude to the customer
  • The employee was polite to the customer
  • The employee politely, yet assertively admonished the customer
  • The employee asked the customer to leave

Participants were then given asked to evaluate the employee’s customer service. Compared to the rude employee, researchers found observers rated the polite employee 65 percent higher. The polite and assertive employee was rated 69 percent higher than the rude employee.

This shows that politeness in the face of incivility prompts observing customers to feel compassion for the employee. So treating a rude customer with respect isn’t just about serving that customer, it’s about serving every other customer who happens to be watching!

Take Action

You can learn to react positively when you encounter a rude, angry, or upset customer. Start by learning to recognize the Fight or Flight Instinct. This short video will show you how.

Serving rude customers isn’t easy, but you’ll find most other customers will be on your side if you handle the situation correctly.

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