Just months ago, many people were longing to go out to dinner and travel once again or worrying whether a favorite café or local shopkeeper would be able to survive an entire year of COVID business restrictions.
Now, news stories about angry customers behaving badly over minor inconveniences — diners berating wait staff over slow service or menu shortages, shoppers upset over hard-to-find items, and airline passengers refusing to comply with flight attendant directives about safety protocols — have become a near-daily occurrence. The Federal Aviation Administration has more than 3,400 unruly passenger reports on file so far for 2021, sparking 555 investigations; by comparison, just 146 investigations were initiated in all of 2019. And a recent poll of food service workers found 39 percent were quitting over concerns about hostility or harassment from customers, and 80 percent had either witnessed or experienced such behavior over COVID safety protocols.
Besides the extra hardship for workers, these incidents further add to the challenge facing many service industry businesses struggling to return quickly to pre-pandemic capacity and finding it difficult to recruit and retain staff.
Harvard Business School Professor Ryan W. Buell, who studies the dynamics of business-customer relationships, spoke with the Gazette about why more and more customers suddenly seem to be lashing out and what businesses can do to support their workers.
GAZETTE: Upset customers are not new to those working in the service industry. But the rash of customers shouting at staff, flouting safety policies or local ordinances, even threatening or becoming violent over trivial matters is decidedly new. What do you think is going on?
BUELL: I think there are a few things that are going on. One is we have been pent up in our houses, and we’ve been building expectations about what it will be like when we’re finally out. But the reality is that, from an operational perspective and a public health perspective, we’re not totally out. Things have become safer in some ways, but we still have [COVID] variants. And the problem is also unevenly felt around the world, which is leading to different kinds of constraints.
One is, there are labor constraints that a lot of these service businesses are facing. It’s difficult to motivate talent to apply and bring them in. And then to retain them is harder, too. Lots of service organizations are facing turnover rates that are higher now than they were pre-pandemic.
Another is just supply-chain challenges. It’s hard to make sandwiches if you don’t have all the ingredients. And they may not have all the ingredients because supply chains aren’t up and running at their peak capacity. It takes a while to spin these things up. So you’ve got customers who have been looking forward to being back out in the world and so their expectations are high, but [the] capacity to deliver on those expectations isn’t quite where it needs to be.
Another challenge is different organizations have different policies. Do you need to wear a mask? Do you not need to wear a mask? Customers don’t always know what the terms are when they engage with a company. And what that does, it means that when you walk into the door and you thought one thing and the reality is something different, it creates a lot of awkwardness and can lead to a blow-up. Beyond that, masks and the way we engage with the pandemic has become political, and so people are sometimes using their service encounters as a political platform to show what they think should be the state of the world. Even if you’re well-intending, but now you’re in a room where you’re clearly not engaging the way that everybody else is, that can make people feel deeply uncomfortable. I think we see blow-ups coming from that as well.
GAZETTE: While businesses are understandably eager to finally get more customers in the door, some have had major hiccups since reopening. Are some expecting customers to be more flexible or understanding than they ought to be? And what can they do proactively to minimize the likelihood that pandemic-related problems, the delays and shortages, will be felt by their customers?
BUELL: Some of my research is on something called operational transparency — what happens when people can see the hidden work that’s going on behind the scenes to serve them. And what we know is that even in the best of times, people tend to underestimate the effort and expertise and work and care and thoroughness and coordination that goes into serving them. Now, in more challenging times, the gap can be even bigger. And so, anything they can do to provide customers a window into what’s going on behind the scenes to serve them can help realign their expectations with the gravity of the situation they’re encountering. We also know that it can help them appreciate and value service more. So a huge prescription here — half of it is transparency. If they’ve got rules and policies, customers need to know that before they walk into the store. They need to know that that’s not the discretion of an individual employee, that it’s the rules of the road for the whole organization. Everyone has to follow it; our employees do and every single customer. Companies, in the name of hospitality, don’t want to jam that message down customers’ throats, but it’s critical if they want to set people up to really thrive in the interaction.
Beyond policies, if there are constraints that they’re dealing with on the labor side or on the supply side, they need people to understand that they’re not holding back on customers. They’re not making them wait intentionally, they’re doing the best they can. And the earlier they can convey and communicate that information, the better off they are.
There’s real trepidation to actually share those kinds of warts and blemishes with customers. But failure to do so means that people are coming in with a set of expectations that businesses can’t meet.
The other side of this is what businesses do for their employees. These days, these are, in many cases, new employees. At best, they’ve been retained through the pandemic and they understand, but their training needs to be updated. At worst, they’re brand-new and don’t know and are still coming up to speed. Whatever transparency they need to provide the customers about policies and constraints, they need to doubly communicate that to employees so that everybody understands and everyone’s on the same page.