Customer service representatives (CSRs) are charged with interacting with customers throughout their workdays. These encounters can be pleasurable but can also be highly stressful for CSRs. Existing research has suggested that aggressive events aimed at CSRs can cause emotional difficulties that affect their ability to perform their duties. Specifically, cognitive resources are taxed when individuals focus on coping with stressful situations. Therefore, CSRs in this type of situation may not have all of their resources available to operate at their maximum potential. Although aggressive and hostile situations have been shown to affect productivity, it is unclear whether one extremely detrimental encounter causes the same distress as many smaller aggressive encounters.
Anat Rafaeli of the Industrial Engineering and Management Department of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology recently led a study to determine if multiple moderately aggressive events impacted cognitive functioning in the same way that more infrequent severely aggressive events did in a sample of students acting as CSRs. In four separate studies, Rafaeli subjected participants to mildly aggressive interactions in a CSR setting and measured their productivity on a range of assigned tasks. The experiments were designed to assess cognitive performance, memory recall, affect, and overall functioning of the CSRs.
Rafaeli discovered that in all four experiments, the students acting as CSRs demonstrated significantly reduced cognition when they were subjected to multiple acts of hostility or aggression. Even when the verbal encounters were brief, the CSRs still experienced impairments to their memory and recall. This resulted in a lower level of performance and more errors. One goal of a CSR is to ensure customer satisfaction. When the CSR is a victim of aggression, errors are made and customer satisfaction can fall, leading to a cycle of customer aggression, more CSR impairment, and so on. Although these results are only exploratory in nature, Rafaeli believes they have significance to researchers and employers alike. Rafaeli said, “Our findings obviously should be replicated and extended, but they send a clear signal about the importance of systematic efforts to reduce the extent of hostility that employees routinely encounter.”
Rafaeli, A., Erez, A., Ravid, S., Derfler-Rozin, R., Treister, D. E., Scheyer, R. (2012). When customers exhibit verbal aggression, employees pay cognitive costs. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028559
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