New research finds that customer service agents are abusing customers


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At the end of March, Olga Khazan writing in The Atlantic published an article that asked “Why People Are Acting So Weird.” The article describes how, in addition to the widespread and much-lauded hand-clapping for healthcare workers that took place during the pandemic, we’ve also seen a general uptick in impatience, rudeness and, in general, anti-social behavior during the same time.

The article lists how people have variously punched gate agents at airports, lost it on planes, thrown tantrums on ski slopes, are driving their cars more recklessly, causing more accidents, and being more violent towards doctors and nurses.

Perplexed by this rise in rude and obnoxious behavior, Khazan investigated why we are seeing a surge in such behavior. After speaking to several experts, she concluded that, as social beings, the last two years of lock-downs and movement restrictions have changed us.

That may seem like an obvious thing to conclude, but she goes on to say that, for many, the last two years have gone a long way towards loosening the bonds and the social norms that would normally bind us together, and it is this loosening that has lead to an increase in rule-breaking and out of the norm behavior.

As Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, states in the article, “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened.”

The service and experience sector has not escaped these changes and has recently experienced its own rise in hostility and abusive behavior.

Research by The Institute of Customer Service in the UK found that more than half of all customer-facing staff have faced abuse and hostility since the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, on a recent podcast, Joel Bailey of Arwen told me that research conducted by Ditch the Label, a charity, found that “instances of and discussions around online hate speech have increased 38% since the beginning of the pandemic.”

But, it’s not only agents that are receiving abuse. Some of them are dishing it out too.

Netomi, a leading provider of AI-powered virtual agents, has just released some new research conducted in January of this year called The State of Customer Service and some of their findings are startling.

Here are some of the pertinent and startling headlines:

  • 33% of customers have screamed or sworn at a customer service agent,
  • 5% of customers admit to having threatened an agent’s job, and over 3% admitted to having threatened to assault an agent physically,
  • 73% of consumers report having been on the receiving end of rudeness from a customer service agent,
  • 44% have experienced an agent becoming agitated, and 38% have experienced an agent getting upset, and
  • Finally, over 25% of all customers report that they have experienced an agent becoming either hostile or mad towards them.

Now, the report reveals many other insights, including falling patience levels, complaints about long wait times, and how long it takes to resolve an issue.

But, these findings on how customers and agents treat each other alone are shocking. They are also not what we should come to expect from any brand or company that prides itself on the service and experience it delivers or attempts to use service and experience as a differentiator.

However, they show that agents are humans too and are suffering from the same stresses and strains that many other members of the public are experiencing.

So, is this just the way that it is now? Is this the new normal?

At the end of her article, Khazan says that experts believe that much of the rise in rudeness and hostility will fade away as restrictions are loosened, the effects of the pandemic recede, and we will slowly creep back towards a pre-pandemic status quo.

That’s not acceptable when it comes to customer service interactions.

It’s unacceptable because it’s tantamount to saying that while things edge back to normal, it is OK for more agents and customers to get abused.

That’s not right.

I’d like to see brands and customers do more to address this.

On the brand side, I’d like to see brands double down on the standards of behavior they expect from their agents. But, I’d also like them to be mindful of the high levels of demand their service and support teams are facing and how stressful this is.

I’d also like to see them provide the support their agents need to do a good job, whether that is the right tools, flexible scheduling, or the relaxation of some performance metrics. In fact, I’d like to see them do whatever is required to achieve a balance of agent well-being, performance and customer satisfaction.

Then, I’d like to see brands be more explicit about the behavior they expect from their customers and act with consequence when a customer becomes abusive or hostile. If they don’t, their inaction implicitly suggests that it’s OK for them to abuse agents.

Finally, I’d like to implore customers to be more mindful and respectful towards people trying to help them. Being a polite, decent and patient person when trying to get service does help.

The same goes for those that serve customers too.

This post was originally published on Forbes here.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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