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They may not be candidates for sainthood, but call-center workers deserve more credit for forbearance than they get, study suggests

April 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Recent surveys report that customer complaints about call centers number in the hundreds of millions yearly and are on the rise. But new research focusing on center employees suggests that they are subject to a lot more mistreatment than they dish out.
A study in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal, based on data collected daily at a call center, suggests that about 20 to 25% of the calls workers field subject them to some form of customer mistreatment. Yet, instances of worker retaliatory sabotage for mistreatment (for example by misleading or hanging up on a customer) occur a lot more rarely -- probably in under one percent of calls.
Sabotage appears to occur in response to cumulative mistreatment from customers, as suggested by the study's finding that workers with lesser emotional self-control retaliated no more than those with greater self control in response to moderate levels of customer provocation. Only when mistreatment reached high levels was a sharp divergence seen between the two groups.
"While our results do not enable to us to say definitively that it is the cumulative effect of mistreatment that  spurs retaliation, they strongly suggest so," comments Mo Wang of the University of Maryland, who carried out the research with Maryland colleagues Hui Liao and Yujie Zhan and Junqi Shi of Peking University. Strengthening that impression, he adds, is that the variations in retaliation were a lot greater within individual workers than between workers.
"It's not as if there is a group of hotheads or malcontents who account for most of the customer sabotage," the professor observes. "Retaliation was spread fairly evenly among workers, with individuals' day-to-day variance greater than variance between different workers over time. This suggests that workers retaliate when they have a particularly bad day. It also hints that the caller against whom they retaliate may not be the worst customer they encounter; that honor may belong to an even ruder customer who called just a little while ago."
In sum, "call-center workers may not all be candidates for sainthood, but our findings suggest that they deserve a lot of credit -- probably more than the public gives them -- for forbearance."
The study is based on data obtained from 131 employees who provide customer support for telephone and cell phone products. At the outset, workers participating in the research completed a questionnaire focusing on demographics and personality traits. Beginning about two weeks later, on 10 consecutive days they filled out forms at the conclusion of work on mistreatment they had encountered in the course of the day and customer sabotage they had dispensed in retaliation.
The forms listed 18 variations of mistreatment by callers -- for example, "thought they were more important than others" (the most frequently chosen item), "did not understand that you had to comply with certain rules" (second most frequently chosen), "made exorbitant demands," "refused to listen to you," and "doubted your ability." Five sabotage items were listed -- "hung up on a customer," "intentionally put a customer on hold for a long period of time," "purposely transferred a customer to the wrong department," "purposely disconnected a call," and "told a customer that you fixed something but didn't fix it." Sabotage behaviors were usually carried out without the customer's full awareness or to terminate interaction with the customer.
Workers fielded a mean of about 75 calls a day. On average, their daily experience of each of the 18 forms of customer mistreatment fell about halfway between "not at all" and "a few times." They acknowledged sabotaging customers an average of about four times over the course of 10 days, which, the researchers estimate, translates into a less than one percent likelihood of sabotage per call.
What if employees exaggerated the mistreatment they sustained and understated their instances of sabotage? Says Prof. Wang: "The daily-experience forms were filled out anonymously, so participants had no reason to be untruthful about sabotage. And we sought to avoid overestimating mistreatment by controlling for personality factors that would lead participants to self-justify at the expense of others."
A major aim of the study was to explore the effect of a variety of factors in constraining retaliatory sabotage. Most effective, the researchers found, was what they called "high self-efficacy for emotional regulation" on the part of employees. Also effective was workers' "high-service-rule commitment" (in other words, taking the call-center's service rules seriously).
Since the calling center for the study is located in China, the researchers ask whether their findings might be "culture specific," noting that "Chinese culture has the tradition to view one's politeness in social interactions as a virtue, even when mistreated." Prof. Wang surmises that the incidence of sabotage is probably somewhat greater in Western countries, but doubts that the difference is substantial given the similarity of operation and managerial practice in call centers across the world.
Asking what firms can do to reduce customer-directed sabotage, the study notes that "an organization can still help those employees who have shorter job tenure, lower-level self-efficacy for emotional regulation, and higher-level negative affectivity through training, mentoring, counseling...and improving employee understanding, acceptance, and internalization of service rules... Organizations [should] openly discuss, set, and communicate their customer service rules with employees, to try to incorporate terms and protocols that aim to protect employees from customer mistreatment in their policies, and to implement enforceable incentive policies to reward commitment to and punish deviation from service rules."
The new study, entitled "Daily Customer Mistreatment and Employee Sabotage against Customers: Examining Emotion and Resource Perspectives," is in the April/May issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 19,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Media Coverage: Daily Stat: Call Center Workers Retaliate Against Few Callers. (Friday, April 29, 2011).
Huffington Post. Call-Center Workers Far More Patient than Callers: Study. (Wednesday, April 27, 2011).

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