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Journal cover: Journal of Services Marketing

Journal of Services Marketing

ISSN: 0887-6045

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Subject Area: Marketing

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Problematic customers and turnover intentions of customer service employees


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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/08876041211266512

Article citation: Amit Poddar, Ramana Madupalli, (2012) "Problematic customers and turnover intentions of customer service employees", Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 26 Iss: 7, pp.551 - 559


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The Authors

Amit Poddar, J. Whitney College of Business, Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, Georgia, USA

Ramana Madupalli, Department of Management and Marketing, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, Illinois, USA

Abstract

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the effects of problematic customer behaviors on customer service employee attitudes and subsequent turnover intentions from the organization and also the occupation.

Design/methodology/approach – Data from five semi-structured depth interviews and 215 quantitative surveys using structured questionnaires were used to develop and test the theoretical model. Customer service employees working in different call center companies serving American customers were approached using an established survey panel.

Findings – Results using the partial least squares (PLS) methodology showed that problematic customer behaviors drain customer service employees emotionally. Emotional exhaustion is negatively related to job satisfaction, and subsequently, employees' turnover intentions. The results also show that turnover intentions with organization and occupation are positively related to each other.

Research limitations/implications – As regards implications, this study provides an understanding of the relationship between problematic customer behaviors and employees' turnover intentions. Future researchers can utilize the findings from this study for investigating other consequences and antecedents of problematic customer behaviors. A limitation of the study is its use of cross-sectional data.

Practical implications – This paper provides call center managers with an understanding of the effects of problematic customer behaviors on employee attitudes. It discusses the need for understanding problematic customers and ways to manage the effects of such experiences.

Originality/value – The study investigates an under-researched phenomenon, i.e. problematic customer behaviors. The study provides evidence of the relationship between problematic customer behaviors and turnover intentions in service employees. This study is also one of very few in marketing to investigate the relationship between organizational and occupational turnover intentions.

Article Type:

Research paper

Keyword(s):

Problematic customers; Emotional exhaustion; Job satisfaction; Organizational turnover intentions; Occupational turnover intentions; Employee behaviour; Human resource management.

Journal:

Journal of Services Marketing

Volume:

26

Number:

7

Year:

2012

pp:

551-559

Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

ISSN:

0887-6045

An executive summary for managers and executive readers can be found at the end of this article.

Introduction

Employee turnover has been one of the most widely investigated phenomena among academic researchers and practitioners. In the call center industry, which is the context of this study, turnover rates are estimated to be in the range of 35 percent to 50 percent every year (Sawyerr et al., 2009). When competent and well trained employees leave, it is difficult for organizations to immediately fill those positions and maintain high organizational performance (Babakus et al., 1996). Organizations invest significant resources in replenishing the workforce for effective service delivery and high turnover rates can directly hurt the bottom lines of organizations. Also, organizations cannot maintain good service quality without managing service employees' turnover.

In recent years, many firms have created global service delivery models in an attempt to improve service quality and reduce service costs. Generally firms outsource the service component of the product to dedicated call centers in developing countries where high quality manpower is available at cheaper costs (Budhwar et al., 2009). If call center organizations are unable to curb such high turnover rates, the delivery of high quality service and subsequently the cost advantage of such organizations could be in jeopardy (e.g. Hurley and Estelami, 2007).

The high turnover rates among customer service employees (CSE) in call centers are often attributed to the stressful nature of the work (Sawyerr et al. 2009). As part of the customer service job, CSEs engage with different types of customers every day. Some of these customers can be characterized as “problematic” (Grandey et al. 2004), who might be rude and difficult to handle. Anecdotal evidence from interviewing CSEs suggests that these consumers sometimes abuse and make unreasonable demands from the CSEs. Research in marketing emphasizes customer rage as an issue that is becoming increasingly prevalent in marketing environments and especially in service settings (Grove et al. 2004; McColl-Kennedy et al. 2009; Patterson et al. 2009). According to Patterson et al. (2009) around 25 percent of American workers reported psychological or physical aggression from customers. It is estimated that about 20 percent of all call center interactions are hostile (Grandey et al. 2004). Also, many times customers are not only wrong in their behaviors but are indeed unjust, taking advantage of the “customer is always right” notion by making unreasonable demands in their interactions with service employees (Berry and Seiders, 2008). Such customers make the CSE's work more stressful. In view of this, it is surprising to note that not many researchers have considered problematic customer behaviors as an important source of CSE's emotional exhaustion. This is the primary objective of the present research. This research extends the literature by considering problematic customer behaviors, namely abusive and unreasonably demanding behaviors, as determinants of CSE's emotional exhaustion and subsequently higher intentions to switch organizations/jobs.

The second objective of this study is to extend our current understanding about employee turnover. Although the higher turnover rates among call center CSEs are well documented in the literature, the answer to the following question is not answered. Do these CSEs switch from organization to organization or do they leave the entire occupation? Occupational turnover is relatively less researched by marketing authors. Most research focusing on turnover looks from the organizational perspective, but the occupational turnover is rather scarcely studied. When employees are so disgruntled by the job, it is possible that they might even think of leaving the entire occupation. Our interviews suggest that not only are CSRs switching the organizations, but also are constantly thinking about leaving the occupation too. This kind of turnover is obviously bad for firms as they have to constantly find and train new employees who may not be up to par with existing experienced employees. This constant churn can harm the service levels offered by firms and thereby lower overall customer satisfaction. It could even prevent new employees from being attracted to the industry in the first place, thereby increasing the cost of hiring. Hence as a second objective, this study investigates the determinants of occupational turnover of CSE, mainly the role of problematic customer behaviors on occupational turnover intentions.

This paper is an attempt to understand this aspect of turnover in a service environment context. We try and understand what is driving CSE turnover intentions and the role that problematic customer behaviors are playing in this. To our knowledge it is the first paper to look at problematic customer behaviors and CSEs turnover intentions. Figure 1 presents the proposed theoretical model. The next section presents the theoretical foundation of the constructs and the hypotheses. Later methods used to test the model and results are detailed. Finally the results are discussed in detail with implications to researchers and practitioners.

Theoretical background

Problematic customer behaviors

Problematic behaviors of customers are considered as the primary source of dissatisfaction of fellow customers (Lovelock, 1994). Harris and Reynolds (2003), in their qualitative investigation on problematic behaviors, used the term “dysfunctional customer behavior”, and stated that problematic behaviors can be classified as all the actions of customers that disrupt a functional service encounter. Problematic behaviors of customers are suggested to be context specific, varying from context to context (Bitner et al. 1994). Hence it is safe to infer that problematic behaviors are different for different industry or interaction contexts. Research in marketing, although scarcely, has investigated problematic customer behaviors under different labels in different industry contexts (Harris and Reynolds, 2003): “deviant customer behavior” (Mills and Bonoma, 1979), “aberrant consumer behavior” (Fullerton and Punj, 1993; Babin and Babin, 1996), “problem customers” (Bitner et al. 1994), “inappropriate customers” (Strutton et al. 1994), “consumer misbehavior” (Fullerton, and Punj, 1997, 2004), “cynical consumers” (Helm, 2006) and “jay customers” (Lovelock, 1994, 2001).

The reasons for customers being angry or unhappy could be their dissatisfaction with products or services, or could be that they are just ‘problematic’ people using different types of rage expressions. Patterson et al. (2009) reported that customer rage has evolved over time due to inadequate handling of customer complaints and customers' assessment of threats to their basic needs, such as self-esteem and fairness. These rage expressions could be any or all of the following: physical, verbal, non-verbal, displaced or at best constructive expressions (McColl-Kennedy et al. 2009). In this paper, we primarily consider verbal rage expressions as they are most relevant to customer service episodes in the call center industry. So, in this paper we consider two types of behaviors under the broad title of “problematic customer behaviors” – abusive behavior and unreasonably demanding behavior. Abusive behavior includes aspects such as using abusive language, accusing employees for wrong doing and blaming. Whereas, unreasonably demanding behavior includes indulging in demands of transferring to supervisor for no reason, asking for special discounts multiple times and asking the CSE to do things against the company policies. In order to accurately define and measure these behaviors, we used qualitative interviews with CSEs and subsequently developed formative measurement scales for empirical testing.

Problematic customer behaviors and emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion is a “state caused by psychological and emotional demands made on people” (Bacharach et al., 1991, p. 44). It is a specific stress related reaction and refers to a state of reduced energy caused by extreme emotional demands made on employees in boundary spanner roles (Maslach and Jackson, 1982). Emotional exhaustion occurs when employees face higher levels of demand on time and energy (Boles et al., 1997). Burnout and mainly emotional exhaustion has been widely established as an outcome of customer service personnel's boundary spanning nature of the job (Singh et al., 1994). Research suggests that interactions with customers require CSEs to manage their emotions during service encounters (Leidner, 1999). This process of emotion management, when it happens at regular intervals gives rise to emotional exhaustion.

In marketing, the existence of emotional exhaustion in front line employees is attributed to having more customer contacts than other employees (Etzion, 1984; Singh et al., 1994; Boles et al., 1997). When CSEs experience aggressive and abusive customers, their emotional strength will be negatively affected and hence results in increased levels of emotional exhaustion (Dallimore et al., 2007). So, it is safe to assume that in service interactions, especially when customers are problematic, CSEs need more time and energy to perform efficiently and hence will be more emotionally exhausted. Hence, we hypothesize that:

H1. Encounters with abusive customers has a positive relationship with emotional exhaustion levels of customer service employees.

H2. Encounters with unreasonably demanding customers has a positive relationship with emotional exhaustion levels of customer service employees.

Emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction

The outcomes of higher exhaustion levels are often considered detrimental to the health of the employees and the organization. Emotional exhaustion is often attributed with decreased employee performance (Babakus et al., 1999; Wright and Bonett, 1997; Cropanzano et al., 2003; Ashill et al. 2009), lower levels of job satisfaction (Lee and Ashforth, 1996; Babakus et al. 1999; Maslach and Jackson, 1982; Singh et al. 1994; Rutherford et al., 2009), reduced organizational commitment (Rutherford et al. 2009; Babakus et al. 1999; Cropanzano et al. 2003) and higher turnover intentions (Maslach and Jackson, 1982; Singh et al. 1994; Boles et al. 1997; Rutherford et al. 2009).

Job satisfaction is an important measure of employee attitudes, which explains other organizational variables such as organizational commitment and turnover intentions. Thus, in this paper we consider job satisfaction as a full mediator between emotional exhaustion and turnover intentions (Babakus et al. 1999). Job satisfaction is an attitude reflecting how well people like or dislike their job (Spector, 1985). It is defined as “a pleasurable or positive emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one's job or job experiences” (Locke, 1976 p. 1300). When CSEs are emotionally exhausted, they might feel a sense of frustration or lack of interest in the job (Babakus et al. 1999, Mulki et al. 2006). This frustration will reflect on their attitude towards the job, hence dissatisfaction with their job. Hence:

H3. Emotional exhaustion is negatively related to job satisfaction.

Job satisfaction and turnover intentions

Turnover intentions or intention to leave, involves an individual's intention to leave an organization or occupation. It is commonly modeled as an ultimate outcome variable in marketing and organization behavior literature (Brashear et al., 2003). Turnover intentions are a negative outcome to an organization that may be affected by different job related variables (Babakus et al. 1999). In marketing literature, the negative effects of employee job satisfaction on organizational turnover intentions are unequivocally established, both theoretically and empirically (Netemeyer et al. 1990; Boles et al. 1997; Babakus et al. 1999). Although some researchers suggested a mediating relationship between job satisfaction and turnover intentions through organizational commitment, the direct relationship is also well supported in the existing literature (e.g. Johnston et al., 1990; Babakus et al., 1996; Boles et al., 1997; Budhwar et al. 2009). Hence we offer the following confirmatory hypothesis:

H4a. Job satisfaction is negatively related to organizational turnover intentions.

The turnover intentions research in marketing focuses mainly on organizational turnover intentions. But when CSEs are dissatisfied with their job and are associated with excessive levels of emotional exhaustion, they might not just leave the organization, but they might even leave the entire occupation. In this case, the call center based service occupation. Occupational turnover intentions unlike organizational turnover intentions are generally less frequent due to obstacles such as higher accumulated costs within an occupation, and loss of income (Blau et al., 2003). Although both types of turnover intentions are highly correlated to each other, they are two distinct constructs (Blau, 2000; Blau et al. 2003).

Rhodes and Doering's (1983) work is one of the first to model occupational turnover intentions as ultimate outcome of job satisfaction and other job related variables. The relationship between job satisfaction and occupational turnover intentions is established in organizational behavior literature. In medical professionals (Blau, 2000), intercollegiate coaches (Sagas and Ashley, 2001), criminal justice staff (Wright and Bonett, 1991) and school teachers (Ladebo, 2005), job satisfaction is found to negatively affect occupational turnover intentions (Blau, 2000). Similarly, in customer service occupation, where job satisfaction is a significant outcome of emotional exhaustion, might lead to turnover intentions from the occupation. Hence:

H4b. Job satisfaction in negatively related to occupational turnover intentions.

Evidence from organizational behavior literature, suggests that organizational and occupational turnover intentions are highly correlated to each other. But there is no consensus on the direction of the relationship. While some researchers hypothesized a bi-directional relationship between organizational and occupational turnover intentions (e.g. Randall and Cote, 1991; Morrow, 1993), others modeled them as two unrelated dependent variables (Blau et al. 2003; Carmeli, 2005; Blau, 2007). The inconsistencies are largely because of the complexity of the relationship between the two types of turnover intentions.

It is noted in the literature that occupational turnover intention is much more difficult decision than organizational turnover intention (Blau, 2000). It is easier to look for a job in a different organization than to develop a completely new career (Carmeli, 2005). In the context of CSEs, the occupation is extremely stressful due to its boundary spanning nature and the need for constant contact with customers (Singh et al., 1994). When a job is associated with significant emotional exhaustion, changing organizations may be viewed as moving from one bad environment to another. In such cases, CSEs may consider moving the occupations altogether as the ultimate cure to emotional exhaustion and job dissatisfaction (Doering and Rhodes, 1989; Blau, 2007). Hence:

H5. Organizational turnover intention is positively related to occupational turnover intention.

Methodology and findings

The data for this study comes from surveying 215 CSEs working in different call centers in India mainly serving American customers. The data set was collected as part of a larger study to understand the issue of service imports and its impact on CSE's. The services of a survey panel company were utilized to collect the data. The company's reputation and panel formation standards were checked before finalizing the panel company. The panel company was provided with a defined sample frame, call center based CSEs, by the researchers. The panel company then randomly selected the 1,000 call center professionals to receive the survey. These 1,000 recipients of the survey are part of a large pool of discontinuous panel members. Three follow up e-mails were sent at one week intervals. After one month a total of 265 completed surveys were obtained. Care was taken to delete all surveys which were completed in less than 6 minutes or more than 20 minutes. Also the IP addresses were checked to eliminate any responses coming from the same home IP address. The final acceptance rate is 21.5 percent.

Survey items for four of the six constructs present in the model were adapted from well-established and psychometrically valid scales. The scale for emotional exhaustion (five items) was adapted from Singh et al. (1994). The scale for job satisfaction (four items) was an adapted version from Churchill et al. (1974). The scales for measuring both organizational and occupational turnover intentions were adapted from an established scale on turnover intentions by Ganesan and Weitz (1996). Formative indicators were used to measure the other two constructs namely customer abuse and unreasonable customer demands. We interviewed five CSEs (each of whom had a minimum of five years' work experience at in the customer service industry) to understand the issues faced by CSEs. Their responses were used to generate formative scales for abusive and unreasonably demanding customer behaviors. All the constructs, both reflective and formative are measured using seven-point likert scales ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7).

The scales were considered valid as they met the criteria suggested by Nunnally (1978). All the reflective scales were adaptations from established and psychometrically valid scales and therefore met the content validity criteria. The remaining two formative scales were considered valid as they were generated by interviewing customer service employees who had multiple years of experience between them and sharing the scale items back with them.

Once the data was collected we checked further for reliability and discriminant validity of the constructs before final usage in the structural model as suggested by Nunnally (1978) and Fornell and Larcker (1981). The reliability of the constructs that used reflective measures was checked using both Cronbach's alpha and composite reliability (CR). All the constructs passed the reliability test (Cronbach's alpha greater than 0.70 and CR values greater than 0.80). The complete scale constructs along with the reliability statistics and loadings are provided in Table I.

After the data was collected, discriminant analysis was conducted on the data to ensure that all the constructs were distinct from each other and items of each construct loaded exclusively on the underlying construct (Fornell and Larcker, 1981). We did not find any items which were cross loading, therefore all items were included while conducting the test suggested for discriminant validity. According to Fornell and Larcker (1981) discriminant validity exists if the square root of the average variance extracted (AVE) of a particular construct is greater than the correlation between that construct and all other constructs. All the constructs passed the test (Table II). We were able to use all the original items in the structural model.

Model tests and results

We tested the structural model by using partial least square based structural equation modeling (SEM). Covariance based SEM (LISREL) was not used as LISREL cannot easily estimate models which have both reflective constructs and formative constructs in the same model. PLS-SEM on the other hand can estimate such models very easily. Since our model contained two formative constructs and four reflective constructs we felt that PLS was the appropriate technique for our purpose. We used Smartpls (Ringle et al., 2005) to estimate our model.

The complete results are summarized in Table III. We find strong support for all our hypotheses. In H1 and H2 we had hypothesized that higher levels of problematic customer behaviors, abusive and unreasonably demanding behaviors, would likely lead to higher emotional exhaustion in CSEs. We find strong support for both hypothesis (H1: b=0.273, t=3.664, sig<0.05; H2: b=0.183, t=2.100, sig<0.05). The strong results suggest that CSEs' emotional exhaustion is a function of the unreasonable demands put by customer and also the abuse that they absorb from customers. In H3 we had hypothesized about the impact emotional exhaustion would be having on CSE's job satisfaction. We had hypothesized a negative relationship between the constructs and we find strong support for such a relationship (H3: b=−0.228. t=3.3045, sig<0.05). Therefore when CSEs are emotionally exhausted, the overall job satisfaction will be decreased.

The next two hypothesis (H4a and H4b) were about the impact of such reduced job satisfaction would have on turnover intentions from the organization and the occupation. We had again hypothesized negative relationships for both the hypothesis. We find strong support for both hypotheses (H4a: b=−0.200, t=2.472, sig<0.05 and H4b: b=−0.493, t=9.051, sig<0.05). A very interesting finding is the high t value for H4b. It seems when customer service employees are dissatisfied with their jobs due to abuse, they are apt to show stronger feelings of turnover intentions from the occupation as compared to just the organization. It seems that when CSEs face abusive customers they are likely to want to quit working in customer service altogether. In the last hypothesis we had hypothesized that higher turnover intentions with the firm would be positively related to higher turnover intentions with the occupation. We find strong support for the findings (H5: b=0.209, t=2.721, sig<0.05)

Discussion and implications

The research was aimed at understanding turnover intentions of CSEs who deal with customers all the time. Specifically we wanted to understand the antecedents of such intentions. In our model we had hypothesized that when CSEs experience abusive and unreasonably demanding behaviors from customers, they get emotionally drained and thus leading to reduced levels of job satisfaction and can cause CSEs to contemplate leaving the organization or even leaving the occupation forever. We found that all our hypothesized relationships found strong support. The results from this study provide significant managerial and theoretical contributions to existing body of knowledge.

Theoretical implications

This research extends the existing turnover research by investigating the effects of problematic customer behaviors. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the first studies to investigate this phenomenon, and results show that such problematic customer behaviors are prevalent in real life and are a significant contributor to variety of job related issues. Emotional exhaustion is an integral construct in different conceptual models involving customer service employees. Results from this paper indicate problematic customer behaviors have significant effects on emotional exhaustion. Although, the paper did not consider any moderating effects of other variables such as customer service training, demographic variables and emotional intelligence, such influences cannot be ignored. Extending this research using these variables as moderators would be a good research avenue for future researchers. Results and theoretical construction of this paper indicates that future researchers should also consider problematic customer interactions in more detail. For example researchers can investigate different antecedents of problematic customer interactions. This can help us understand the reasons behind such bad behaviors.

While some researchers had investigated problematic customer behaviors and emotional exhaustion (e.g. Grandey et al. 2004), none have looked at turnover intentions as part of their model. Turnover has been one of the most widely studied construct in employee behavior in business to business research. This research contributes to turnover research by incorporating the relationship between turnover intentions from organization and occupation. Employee turnover has been an important ultimate outcome variable of many research models involving marketing employees. To the best of our knowledge this is one of fewest papers in marketing to look at turnover intentions from both organization and occupation perspectives. Since most employee attitude models rely on occupation specific contexts, the limited emphasis on occupational variables such as occupational commitment and occupation turnover leaves a gap in our understanding of the phenomenon. This again is a very good future avenue of research.

Managerial implications

To practitioners, this research re-emphasizes the importance and prevalence of problematic customers. Existence of problematic customers is well known to both call center managers and academicians alike. The results from this research provide empirical evidence for the existence of these problematic customer behaviors and their effects on the emotional well-being of the customer service employees. Because of the boundary spanner role of customer service employees, the job by itself has been considered stressful (Singh et al. 1994). The results provide further evidence to practitioners of the extent of the stress and also examine one set of reasons behind the stress. It is well documented in literature that higher levels of emotional exhaustion are key antecedents to low employee performance and other outcome variables. Call center managers must use this information and find avenues to reduce the effects of problematic customer interactions. Some examples of these avenues could include customer service training, emotional intelligence tests during recruitment and more employee centric policies.

High turnover rates have become a norm in call center industry with as high as 50 percent turnover rates per year (Sawyerr et al. 2009). Training new employees demand significant resources from an organization. So, retaining good employees is very important to these organizations and the results from this study indicates that call center companies must invest in setting proper and just policies about dealing with problematic customers and hence reducing the emotional exhaustion in employees. It is possible that having policies which insist that customers are always right might be leading to CSEs feeling alienated in the organization and thus fueling their desire to leave the organization. So, organizations must find optimal middle ground between being customer centric and employee centric.

Also, the findings related to occupational turnover intentions are extremely useful to practitioners. Training new employees with some call center experience might be relatively cheaper than training people from completely different backgrounds. If occupational turnover increases, call center based service providers will fall short of experienced professionals and the whole industry might be affected in the future. If this trend of occupational turnover intentions continues for a long period of time it can end up eroding the whole value proposition of these offshore service providers i.e. high quality services at low cost.

Limitations

Although this research provides significant contributions to both practitioners and managers alike, it does have some inherent limitations. The first limitation is the nature of the data – cross-sectional. Because of cross-sectional nature of the data, research could not determine the real long-term effects of problematic customer interactions. Second limitation is the unavailability of some explanatory moderator variables such as training, and emotional intelligence. The moderator variables could have explained the model with more precision. As discussed in the implications section of the paper, the limitations of this paper provide important future avenues for researchers in furthering the knowledge on CSEs and their attitudes.

ImageFigure 1 Conceptual model
Figure 1 Conceptual model

ImageTable I Final scale items and measurement properties
Table I Final scale items and measurement properties

ImageTable II Discriminant validity: average variance extracted and construct correlations
Table II Discriminant validity: average variance extracted and construct correlations

ImageTable III Summary of results – final structural model
Table III Summary of results – final structural model

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About the authors

Dr Amit Poddar (PhD, Georgia State University) is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the J. Whitney College of Business, Georgia College and State University. His research has been published in number of journals, such as Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Journal of Promotion Management, and more.

Dr Ramana Madupalli (PhD, Georgia State University) is an Assistant Professor of Marketing and the Director of Master of Marketing Research program at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. His research has been published in number of journals, such as Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, Social Science Quarterly, and more. Ramana Madupalli is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: rmadupa@siue.edu

Executive summary and implications for managers and executives

This summary has been provided to allow managers and executives a rapid appreciation of the content of this article. Those with a particular interest in the topic covered may then read the article in toto to take advantage of the more comprehensive description of the research undertaken and its results to get the full benefits of the material present.Quite who, and when, first came up with the slogan “The customer is always right” is subject to some disagreement but whoever used it first, and the many who have used it since, are simply trying to make the customer feel valued. And surely that is a good goal for any organization. Well, maybe not. There are some pretty awful customers out there and if an organization persists in requiring employees to “grin and bear it” so to speak, without adequate support, the employee is likely to leave.

Take call-centers, for example, where turnover rates are estimated to be in the range of 35 percent to 50 percent every year. These high rates among customer service employees (CSEs) in call centers are often attributed to the stressful nature of the work which involves engaging with different types of customers every day. Some of those customers are characterized as “problematic” and “customer rage” is an issue which is becoming increasingly prevalent. Unreasonable demands, hostility and abuse is often the lot of the employee as the customer considers the “customer is always right” decree gives him or her carte blanche for such unsocial behavior. In fact some estimates reckon about 20 percent of all call center interactions are hostile. Is it any wonder there is such a large number deciding to leave?

Having policies which insist that customers are always right might result in CSEs feeling alienated in the organization and fueling their desire to leave. Consequently organizations must find optimal middle ground between being customer centric and employee centric.

When competent and well-trained employees leave, it is difficult for firms to immediately fill those positions and maintain high organizational performance. Companies invest significant resources in replenishing the workforce for effective service delivery and high turnover rates can directly hurt their bottom line. Also, organizations cannot maintain good service quality without managing service employees' turnover.

In recent years, many firms have created global service delivery models in an attempt to improve service quality and reduce costs. Generally firms outsource the service component of the product to dedicated call centers in developing countries where high-quality manpower is available at cheaper costs. If call center organizations are unable to curb such high turnover rates, the delivery of high-quality service and subsequently the cost advantage could be in jeopardy.

The reasons for customers being angry or unhappy could be their dissatisfaction with products or services, or that they are just “problematic” people who do not consider the employees' feelings. Also, it has been reported that “customer rage” has evolved over time due to inadequate handling of customer complaints and customers' assessment of threats to their basic needs, such as self-esteem and fairness.

The primary objective of Amit Poddar and Ramana Madupallin in “Problematic customers and turnover intentions of customer service employees” is to consider problematic customer behaviors as an important source of CSEs' emotional exhaustion. They focus on abusive and unreasonably demanding behaviors as determinants of CSEs' emotional exhaustion and subsequent higher intentions to leave.

Their interviews suggest that not only are CSEs switching organizations, but also constantly thinking about quitting the occupation altogether. This kind of turnover is obviously bad for firms as they have to constantly find and train new employees who may not be up to par with existing experienced employees. This constant churn can harm the service levels offered and thereby lower overall customer satisfaction. It could even prevent new employees from being attracted to the industry in the first place, thereby increasing the cost of hiring.

Because of the boundary-spanner role of CSEs, the job itself is stressful. The study results provide further evidence of the extent of the stress. It is well documented in literature that higher levels of emotional exhaustion are key antecedents to low employee performance and other outcome variables. Call center managers must use this information and find avenues to reduce the effects of problematic customer interactions. Some examples of these avenues could include customer service training, emotional intelligence tests during recruitment and more employee centric policies.

Training new employees demands significant resources so retaining good employees is very important and call center companies must invest in setting proper and just policies for dealing with problematic customers.

Training new employees with some call center experience might be relatively cheaper than training people from completely different backgrounds. If occupational turnover increases, call center based service providers will fall short of experienced professionals and the whole industry might be affected. If this trend of occupational turnover intentions continues for a long period of time it can end up eroding the whole value proposition of these offshore service providers i.e. high quality services at low cost.

(A précis of the article “Problematic customers and turnover intentions of customer service employees”. Supplied by Marketing Consultants for Emerald.)