CSD: The Customer Service Saboteur

Jul 24, 2012

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from Convenience Store Decisions magazine.

A senior in Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University set out simply to study customers who misbehave, but soon realized that no research had been done on how those customers affect the experience of others.

"Customers don’t just go to a restaurant to enjoy a burger," said Joel Anaya, also a McNair scholar. "They go to have a good time, to enjoy the ambiance of the establishment. If that’s ever affected, if they ever leave liking your hamburger but saying they had a bad time, that’s not a win for the restaurant."

For data, he culled more than 200 accounts of customers annoying fellow customers from four websites: notalwaysright.com, dinnersfromhell.com, flightsfromhell.com and servernightmares.com. Said Mr. Anaya, "There are a lot of weirdos out there."

In analyzing the different accounts, Mr. Anaya came up with seven categories of customer sabotage:

  1. Badmouthers. The most common saboteurs, they use profanity and raise their voices.
  2. Paranoid shouters. A close second in the tabulations, they represent really irate customers who don’t know how to handle themselves. Said Mr. Anaya, "They are like badmouthers, but start yelling at the first sign of inadequate service or a perceived injustice."
  3. Poor hygiene. Said Mr. Anaya, "Quite frankly, they smelled. Or they sweated on other people, wiped their noses, sneezed openly or all of the above."
  4. Customers making outlandish requests. One insisted on paying at a grocery store in pennies while others had to wait.
  5. Service rule breakers. Retail tends to flow, but some customers break from social norms like cutting in line instead of waiting their turn.
  6. Unruly kids. Parents that refused to control unruly children whose behavior is bothering others was another major turnoff to retail customers.
  7. Unaware customers. New customers that belabor service workers with endless questions or minor quibbles often force others to have to wait longer in line.

Mr. Anaya hopes that managers and workers can use these categories to reevaluate customer complaints.

"It just begins with the acknowledgment as managers to say to your employees, your front desks, your servers, ‘Keep an eye out for them,’" he said. "These are the types of people that exist. These are the types of people that may affect our service quality perception from other customers."

Discussion Questions: What do you think of the overall value of identifying annoying customer types? What can companies/staffs do to better deal with unpleasant customers?

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23 Comments on "CSD: The Customer Service Saboteur"

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Max Goldberg

A college study in search of relevance. I don’t see how this study will provide value to retailers, other than putting a new set of names with behaviors. This is all part of customer service. Employees should be trained to deal with customers who disrupt the general ambiance of a retail establishment. Unfortunately, in the era of “It’s all about me” too many customers exhibit bad or boorish behavior.

Bob Phibbs

Really? Be on the lookout for smelly customers? Sorry, I don’t see training value in these profiles. I’d rather teach them the four personalities so they were familiar with those most likely to buy so they could alter their approach rather than an unmemorable list of these “types.”

Frank Riso

All of Retail and Hospitality deals with customers and guests. It is a service industry and we need to train our staff about customer service. We say that the customer is always right, but we know that is not always true. So knowing how to deal with them when they are upset is very important not only to that customer, but all the other customers as well. It is also very important that managers are trained to handle these situations and how to resolve any issue so that the rest of their customers are either not affected or given proper service.

I wonder if it would help if a restaurant posted rules or funny stories about former customers who did annoy other customers. Just reading about bad behavior may get the point across to those who may think twice about crossing the line. Who knows it may be fun to read about them while looking at the menu or history of the restaurant.

Nikki Baird

I find this kind of refreshing, albeit in a sad way. The industry is so focused on providing the best customer experience, and so worried about “smarter customers” and how to make employees smarter in response, that I think we sometimes forget that customer service is a tough job, and it sometimes involves dealing with some really unpleasant people. I think something like this acknowledges that customers really AREN’T always right, and that sometimes the focus is on preserving the experience for other people in the line or in the store/restaurant, rather than trying to salvage something that clearly is unsalvageable.

However, all of this requires trusting front-line employees’ discretion, and rightly or wrongly, I find that a lot of retailers don’t have that trust. That’s a risk too — that employees won’t get enough training or have enough experience to know how to handle unpleasant people appropriately.

Ken Lonyai

I never thought about this in this way and think it’s an area worth deeper exploration. Savvy SM oriented brands know that negativity comes with the territory and usually have methodologies to deal with it from ignoring troublemakers, to lighthearted responses. Learning more about the true affect the “haters” have on other customers may provide guidance as to how to deal with it better, or if to deal with it at all.

Steve Montgomery

Classifying annoying customer types may be an interesting exercise, but for the 7 Habits of Badly Behaving Customers, I don’t foresee specific customer service training.

Robert DiPietro

I think the value from identifying these segments come in providing training to the staff on how to handle these type of situations.

It’s a fair assumption that anyone will be taken aback by a customer who starts yelling with profanity and without adequate training will be ill equipped to handle the situation. A simple “what to do with these customers” lesson will help both management/staff and other customers.

I can envision a special ‘VIP’ section for these customers.

J. Peter Deeb

Companies with high level customer service training should already be utilizing this type of information in their training. There is no doubt that annoying customers can cause a customer who is happy with all other aspects of your business to get a negative view. By training people to recognize these types and then train in effective ways to handle them, these negative opportunities can be diminished. The keys are to recognize the types, handle accordingly and do it with minimal or positive impact on your good, loyal customers. Not easy to do and has financial costs, but retaining good customers is the backbone of most businesses.

Phil Rubin
5 years 27 days ago

For retailers and retail service businesses, customers do find some value in who the “other” customers are. After all, today more than ever we live and do business socially. The fact is that there can be annoying people of all types and the key is not in classifying them, but rather in managing them appropriately.

Cathy Hotka

Every barista at Starbucks has multiple stories about customers who request items not on the menu, who yell, who attempt to pay in yen, etc. I’m not sure how actionable these stories are, but they’ll raise a smile among front-line employees.

Ian Percy

While this study may not lead to world peace, it does remind us of John Stewart Bell’s theorem that every particle in the Universe is able to communicate with every other particle regardless of time and space. We are contaminated by attitude particles just like we are contaminated by someone sneezing behind us on the plane.

It’s all energy and it cannot be sequestered or destroyed. It can only be overcome and absorbed. In other words to have such positive, loving, joy-filled energy in everything from our signage to our display to our people that anything but would find it difficult to even get in the door.

There are only four things that cause customers (or ourselves) to get angry and I’ll look for an opportunity to share them in this forum.

Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson
5 years 27 days ago

Let’s be clear, merely identifying the various types of customer service saboteurs won’t do any retailer any good. Merchants will only gain value when these various customer types are married with guidance on the steps retailers can take to rectify a bad customer service situation before it takes a negative toll on other customers.

The researcher also makes a good point in that these saboteur types can additionally be used to help modify retail practices to ensure the retailer isn’t the root cause of bad customer behaviors. For instance, it’s likely that at one time or another we’ve all been the Unaware Customer, warily navigating our maiden experience with a new retailer and armed with plenty of questions. That seems a customer group that can be very much helped when retailers modify how new customers are introduced to the business.

This research is a good start, but there’s more work to be done. Identifying additional saboteur types would be beneficial, and culling info from sources beyond the four websites used for the current research would definitely help bolster any findings. And the ultimate goal should be to unite the customer service saboteur with the customer service remedy.

Larry Negrich

I know it is difficult for a retailer in the heat of the moment to deal with an annoying customer, but on behalf of the “good customer” who is witnessing the event, please don’t reward the behavior. Nothing annoys me as a consumer more than knowing that some PITA is going to be rewarded for annoying behavior.

Al McClain
Al McClain
5 years 27 days ago

I think it is useful to identify problem customer types, so associates will have some sort of idea how to handle an issue when it arises. There are some real difficult customers out there and front-line employees need to be trained to deal with some strange ones. And, perhaps we can all be a little nicer to these employees going forward.

Ed Rosenbaum

I agree with many of the previous comments; especially Max and Bob.

Yes, there is value in identifying annoying customers and ways to diffuse the problems. The staff needs to be able to work through the problems created by them in a professional manner. But as Bob said, identifying the four personalities is more important to being and remaining successful through outstanding Customer Service. I can’t see how this survey does more than placing titles on behaviors we all recognize.

Roger Saunders

When heated customer service issues spring up, it is useful to have a manager/owner available. In retail, it’s not practical to expect that every line associate can resolve issues. This isn’t the job of the barista.

Bring in the “manager,” which often helps to diffuse matters — someone in a position of authority does offer this advantage. The manager, who should have training in dealing with these outlying situations, then has to listen first for understanding, and take the necessary steps to put things in order.

Brian Numainville

There is value in identifying the different annoying customer types providing that there is specific training around how to deal with each type. Think about the last time that you were somewhere and one of these types of customers appeared…did the customer service person know how to handle it or did the customer run all over them?

James Tenser

For front line employees, learning to recognize these bad behavioral signs may prepare them for swifter and more effective response and greater self-control during stressful interactions. Shielding bystanders from unpleasantness may not always be possible, but sometimes an acknowledgement of their discomfort can go a long way to ease the tension.

Incidentally, in a customer service research project I conducted in 2004, one of the factors that irked respondents most was other customers. “I won’t shop there any more because the people are so gross,” was a typical comment.

Despite the well-worn slogan, not all customers are always right, and a few are better left to the competition across the street.

Ralph Jacobson

The study is a waste of time. Train employees to properly satisfy all customers, and happily get them out of the store! LOL!

Mark Price

I think there is real value in identifying problem customer types and training staff to address those customers proactively with minimal disruption of experience for the rest of the customer base. You clearly do not want customers leaving dissatisfied due to no fault of yours, and training is the best way to help associates identify the customer type and deliver the appropriate treatment to resolve the issue quickly and expeditiously.

Christopher P. Ramey

There is great value in identifying and training based on customer behaviors. We also have to be cognizant that our brand messaging may be encouraging these behaviors. I recently stayed at a Marriott Resort on the ocean. The property was fine and met my expectations. However, I won’t return because of the other guests.

A customer’s experience includes everything in the store (or resort), including other customers. We’ve all met these people; they annoy us and they sabotage the environment.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
5 years 26 days ago

Based on the number of responses, this is clearly a topic that resonates! Front line staff does deal with these people and though they are relatively rare in most locations, they are customers who the staff spend their time talking about and worrying about. Training on these situations, devising solutions in line with the retailer’s service proposition, and allowing role-playing are critical to enable the staff with the tools to take the anxiety away and to make the overall shopping experience for all customers as good as it can be.

Kate Blake
Kate Blake
5 years 25 days ago

This study would be useless, because troublesome customers are usually disturbed and acting out for attention. The customers who observe the behavior will usually comment when the person leaves at how rude they are and show sympathy for the bedeviled associate.

The best thing the company can do is have security nearby the customer service desk to be useful if things get out of hand.


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