How Customer Aggression Affects Service Representatives

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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  • benjamin

    June 19th, 2012 at 3:26 PM

    Ok so I have to admit that I have been one of those rude customers before who automatically directs my anger at a company toward the first CSR who has the unfortunate job of handling my call. I really don’t know why I react that way when I get to talk to a real live person, but I do and that’s the way it is. I rationally know that this is not the person to take my anger and aggravation out on, but it’s what happens when I have been pushed to the limit. And then of course it really bugs me when that CSR gets aggravated with me and I can tell it by their voice then that just infuriates me even more. I guess in some ways I am sorry that I act like that but then in others I would love it just one time I would get to actually talk with someone who could help me out.

  • Cooper

    June 19th, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    I try to be pretty mindful of people who have to do this line of work, because I know that they have to deal with some real jerks on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

  • virginia

    June 20th, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    The problem that I have with most customer service reps is that most of them are probably not as educated and trained as they should be in terms of their own relation skills. These are people who are representing a company or a product, but it is hard to be excited about it when you haven’t fully bought into the product that you are trying to sell or defend. The CSR is often your only point of contact and when they can’t handle questions and complaints in a manner which helps to resolve an issue for a buyer, then there is going to be some anger and hostility directed toward them. Too many times I have found that the people on the phone take all of that personally and that is when the confrontations typically begin. Maybe if they had better training before being thrwon to the wolves then there would be far fewer arguments and the amount of cognitive functioning that they lose would not be so diminished.

  • GabbiMae

    June 20th, 2012 at 11:49 AM

    i am far too much of a smart aleck to ever even think of getting a job in this venue
    even if i did i wouldn’t last long because i’m not going to let someone that i don’t even know call me and bless me out
    i don’t even do that for people i do know!

  • Dean

    June 21st, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    Why are we so quick to jump on these people who we don’t even KNOW?
    They are just trying to do their job, just like the rest of us. Think how bad your day would be if you constantly had someone jumping down your throat nad taking out things on you that you played no role in.
    I simply want to take a minute here to stress that these people are only trying to do their job.
    They have their off days just like the rest of us.
    Show a little compassion for what they have to deal with for a moment and I think you will be surprised how much more of a positive response that you will get than you will if you go into the situation automatically belligerent.

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