Why do people lose it with customer service reps?

by Katy on July 14, 2010 · 20 comments

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.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick U. July 14, 2010 at 9:43 am

I have found myself frustrated beyond explanation with CSR’s. One day, though, I had an epiphany. Instead of being confrontational and brash, I decided to have a small-talk conversation with the CSR before we got to my problem. I realized that if you’re polite, patient, and conversational, your problems tend to not only get fixed faster, but to a better degree than you expect (not always, mind you, but my experience shows the odds are in your favor).

The thing that REALLY gets my goat are people who complain about foreign call centers (namely in India). I, personally, find these call centers fascinating. Most of them are located in Bangalore, and having been to Bangalore myself, Indian CSR’s are usually very surprised to hear me ask about it. It breaks the ice almost immediately, and things get done a lot faster.

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Katy July 14, 2010 at 9:50 am

Hey Rick, Really interesting comment. Sounds like small talk a) makes both of you less anonymous and b) reduces the anxiety of confrontation. The most surprising study I looked at was the one about people expressing fear (perhaps unknowingly) during CSR calls. Your approach probably goes a long way to making the whole exchange less scary on both sides. Re: India, I’m sure it goes a long way to ask about Bangalore. I’ll try that next time (though I’ve only been to the airport!). Thanks for reading! Katy

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Alex K. July 14, 2010 at 9:48 am

This is interesting, but I’m not sure that the phone part adds that much. People at airports are terrible (and in restaurants, actually). The telephone might actually lessen the fear response, though it does increase the anonymity. If you have time, you should listen to this presentation: http://www.law.uchicago.edu/audio/batson100309 The speaker is an experimental psychologist and some of his findings about cheating are really incredible. Miss you!

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Katy July 14, 2010 at 9:56 am

People lied to my face when I worked at Blockbuster Video as a teenager, but I figured that was because there’s potential gain and no (economic) drawback for lying to a teenaged video store employee. Airport behavior . . . wow. That’s a whole different post. I can say this: in my experience American airports seem to bring out the worst behavior in people. But I think you’re right: the same explanation for CSRs can be applied to airport behavior. Mounting frustrations from the get-go, largely anonymous, and sometimes uncomfortably confrontational. The latter is probably the major difference between US airport employees and those in Asia. In the US there’s a fair chance you’ll be yelled at for a minor infraction (e.g., crossing the yellow line). Yelling at customers!! I’ll definitely check out the link. Thanks! Katy

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Nate J. July 14, 2010 at 10:35 am

Working off of Rick U’s comment; CSR call representative’s from Bangalore are a part of the rising middle-class in India. Most are highly educated and considered pillars of thier familial clans. Indian CSR companies are heralded for giving would-be stay-at-home mothers a chance to earn a healthy income in a mostly male-dominated workplace. These CSR positions are exrememly competitive and highly touted. Customer satisfation and feedback is essential to thier success. So the next time you need a help calibrating a wireless router, remember that the representative on the other line has gone to great lengths to help you catch up on your TMZ.

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Katy July 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Empathy for the person on the other end of the line is probably the best way to arm yourself when making a customer service call. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nate.

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Kathy July 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Katy, your blog cleared up the mystery of CSR rage. I like Rick’s method of making small talk to make a personal connection thereby alleviating some of the stress. I have always made it a point to ask where the CSR is located or to ask about the weather there. No particular reason for doing so other than curiosity but find it does make the rest of the conversation flow more easily. I also try a little empathy, knowing it isn’t their fault the system is messed up and they are just trying to make a buck!

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Jennifer February 17, 2012 at 11:30 pm

I agree with Rick. I have been a CSR for years, and if you’re nice to me I am more likely to go out of my way to help you. Maybe even breaking some procedural rules. But honestly, I am not your freagin dammit doll so when I say I am sorry there is nothing I can do. There REALLY is nothing I can do. I used to enjoy this field so much, but w/ after being screamed at repeatedly I really want to hang myself. Once you are in the CS field its EXTREMELY hard to get out of due to its demand. I used to be a nice, caring, sweet person. Now I cringe when my phone rings,

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Mike Alesna March 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Nearly all men talk to failure due to their lack of persistence in creating new intends to replace people that fail.
My son is now an ‘entrepreneur.’ It is precisely what you’re called if you lack a job.

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Julia May 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

I wouldn’t be so quick to point the finger at the customer. On more than one occasion my call has been “accidently” disconnected when I ask to speak to a supervisor, even when I’m calm and polite. I’ve also been lied to more times than I’d like to admit. They say the payment correction is pending and that it’ll take a couple days and they’ll call me with an update. I never get a call, so I call back, and they claim they have no record of my previous conversation and the supposed correction on their end. Records of their conversations and their errors mysteriously disappear and there isn’t any way to hold them accountable. Recently I made a $5000 payment to pay off one of my higher interest student loans, and of course they misapplied the money. I called as soon I as I noticed their mistake and was told they could fix it, no problem. I called again 20 days later when I realized their correction was still only about 1/2 correct. They said, it’s pending, but in their system it looks good, but I have to give it 90 days to show up (online) and after 90 days I would get confirmation in the mail, but I couldn’t get any sort of a written confirmation before the 90 days. Surprise surprise, with 20 days of the last conversation, my loan was sold to another collector, error and all still intact. The first loan washed their hands of their mistakes saying they no longer could do anything…oh and all the while denying they had any records that anything still needed correcting. Don’t know why my $40000 loan (and credit rating) is in the hands of incompetent a-holes that probably make $10-$12/hour. I hope their job does get out-sourced to India. People in other countries have a better work ethic and much more integrity!

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