New York Times blog, “The Haggler,” normally critiques corporations, but this week the Haggler dissects customer behavior. It seems humans are at their worst while on the phone with customer service reps (CSR’s). They curse, demean (one call center owner tells the Haggler, “It gets personal. . . . There’s a lot of ‘you’re an idiot.’”), and generally act impolitely. Why?
It’s not that telephones–or even those godforsaken automated machines–turn us into monsters. It’s more nuanced than that. Three aspects of the CSR call conspire to result in bad behavior: priming, anonymity, and confrontation.
Priming. A caller faces a whole line-up of aggravations prior to ever speaking to a call rep. Presumably you’re calling in the first place because you have an issue that can’t be resolved any other way (you’ve tried–and failed–at alternatives).
Then, you encounter the most infuriating and ineffective technology of our times–the voice-activated computer system. This program is the prototype for “premature product release,” because if a product requires you to humiliate yourself, then it’s not ready for release. (The iPhone 4′s signal problems have nothing on this machine’s failure to perform its most basic task.) Yet, there you are, enunciating in a completely unnatural way, “REEEE-SKEDDD-UUULE PICK UP.” And, let’s face it, many times you end up yelling at the machine in the hopes that its robot brain will overload and pass you off to a real person. Lucky person.
Usually, this step leads to lots of waiting, which further prepares you to be at your absolute worst once a human takes your call. Bottom line: the entire lead-up to a human experience primes you to be in a nasty mood.
Anonymity. Sure, the CSR can see you’re from Omaha–and you know her name is “Allison.” Other than that, you’re strangers and you always will be. Anonymity means unaccountability, disinhibition, and low reputation risks–all of which can bring out the worst in people. Anonymous behavior is discussed widely in regard to Internet discussion boards, often a breeding ground for hatred and defamation.
People also use anonymity to get what they want through dishonest means. Studies like this one from UCLA have shown that people are willing to cheat to win even small awards if they think no one will know. That might explain the rampant dishonesty a CSR friend reports: people regularly contradict even the most provable facts, such as that they never ordered a service or already paid for one. For the CSR, this is awkward; for the caller, it’s embarrassing (at best).
Confrontation. Confrontation strikes a primitive, and often hibernating cord in us. We spend most of our lives avoiding confrontation and then, suddenly, we’re in the ring with a CSR.
By the time you confront a rep, you’re all worked up about so many things that you’re inevitably short-fused with the CSR. This is called “misattribution of emotion,” aka misdirected/misplaced emotion. In the case of the customer service call, you get upset before you really know why, and then you let it all out on the nearest available human (the call rep). The same thing happens with road rage (a behavior also encouraged by anonymity).
One linguistic study of call center conversations revealed high indicators of fear in callers’ tone and word choice. Not anger. Fear. (And relief, interestingly.) Perhaps we are more like dogs–which typically show aggression out of fear–than we think?
So . . . during our anxious confrontation with an anonymous person, we unload a torrent of built-up, misdirected frustration, knowing we’ll never be held to task for it. It’d almost be therapeutic if it weren’t so stressful.