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Academy of Management

Customers Shrug off Phone Rudeness

December 1, 2004

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

A bank customer calls its service center for information or help, and is treated rudely by the representative answering the call. How much effect is this likely to have on the caller?

Surprisingly little, as long as the customer gets the info or help requested, according to a study in the October/November 2004 issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This is true, the research finds, even for callers sensitive about service.

A blow to the cause of good manners? It would seem so.

Yet, if customers, for whatever reason, fail to get the information or help they seek, they are likely to return rudeness in kind, the study finds -- particularly those callers who consider good service to be important.

"I was hoping to find customers less tolerant of rudeness," says the study's author, Lorna Doucet of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "But they turn out to be quite pragmatic. If customers achieve their object in calling, they tend to shrug off hostile behavior; when surveyed afterward, they tend to rate the service roughly the same whether the phone person was hostile or not.

"But if customers fail to get the information they want or to achieve their object in calling, watch out! -- particularly if they're people who care about service."

Although her study showed good manners to be secondary to the business at hand, customers did demonstrate their appreciation of efforts to please, Prof. Doucet says, noting that some of the highest ratings for service went to phone reps who couldn't provide information or help but made up for it by being profusely apologetic or earnestly solicitous. "My findings and my personal observations suggest that in these instances the phone workers' extra-nice behavior earned them the high ratings they received.

"In other words," she adds, "if you're going to be rude to people, you'd better be able to help them. And, if you can't assist them, it seems to help to be extra nice."

The study's findings are based on analyses of 142 actual calls to a service center of a large U.S. retail bank. It is an "environment well suited to the study of service-provider hostility," Prof. Doucet writes, "because high-volume, short-duration service interactions have been associated with high levels of burnout and because interacting relatively anonymously via telephone has been associated with decreased compliance with politeness norms."

Calls typically lasted about two minutes, although they ranged up to 20 minutes, and they were most commonly about account balances or transactions or address changes. Service providers were accustomed to having their work monitored, although they did not know which calls were being listened to. In addition to monitoring calls, Prof. Doucet and her research assistants surveyed customer callers within 48 hours, asking them to rate the service they had received.

All 712 service providers who worked at the call center were invited to participate in the study, of whom about one third accepted. For about one third of those participants, the researchers were not able to survey the caller, so that the final sample consisted of 142 calls, with each phone-staffer represented once. About two thirds of the service providers and callers in the final sample were female.

The study's principal objective was to probe the effect of staffer hostility on the way customers responded to service and how that relationship was affected by two factors -- whether a phone person provided the customer with the help or information sought and whether the caller was a person who considered service quality to be important. Hostility was gauged by two researchers who listened to tapes of the calls with a transcript in hand. Call representatives generally expressed hostility via subtle but tangible signs of rudeness, like being brusque or short with the customer, adopting an impatient tone, or sighing disrespectfully.

The researchers also assessed customers' hostility during the last half of the phone call in response to any rudeness from the service representative. In the post-call survey, customers were asked to rate the service they'd received and to respond to items that assessed the importance of quality service to them.

Prof Doucet found that rudeness by phone reps did not by itself arouse caller hostility. It did provoke hostility, however, if the customer's problem was not solved and if he or she was someone who considered quality service to be important. And aroused hostility in turn led angry customers to give the service a low rating.

In another interesting finding, service providers with longer tenure tended to be more hostile to callers than those newer to the job, a result that Prof. Doucet ascribes to the high rate of burnout in call centers.

The Academy of Management Journal, a peer-reviewed publication now in its 47th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with about 15,000 members in 90 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, the Academy of Management Executive, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
National Post. Politeness on phone not prized quality. (Wednesday, November 10, 2004).
Reuters. Call service with a sneer. (Wednesday, November 24, 2004).
The Washington Post. A Rude Finding. (Sunday, December 05, 2004).

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