Dealing with Difficult Customers: address the problem, not the emotion

Topic(s): conflict
Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: More than happy to help? Customer-focused emotion management strategies
Authors: Laura M. Little, Don Kluemper, Debra L. Nelson, & Andrew Ward
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

For customer service agents job performance is affected by which emotion management strategies they use when dealing with difficult customers. According to research by Little, Kluemper, Nelson, and Ward, problem-focused strategies like addressing a problem’s source, decrease caller’s negative feeling and result in positive customer feelings. On the other hand, emotion-focused strategies like distracting the caller from a problem increases in the intensity of a customer’s negative emotions and a decreases their positive emotions.

In other words, if the customer service representative addresses a problem the customer calls about, the customer has a better experience than if the CSR simply focuses on how the caller is feeling. Further, it was also found that the behavior of the caller affected the behavior of the customer service agent, which in turn influenced the caller’s experience. Customers who expressed negative emotions towards a customer service agent tended to trigger a less effective, more emotion-focused strategy by the customer service agent. In contrast, customers who were more pleasant elicited a problem-focused strategy and tended to have a better experience overall.

This result was found by evaluators who examined 228 recorded-customer-service calls. The evaluators had extensive experience as customer service managers. One evaluator assessed the behavior by the customer; the other analyzed the behavior of the employee. In sum, this result is not only helpful for people who work in the customer service industry, but also for customers seeking help. Calling angry or upset doesn’t often get the best outcome for either party in the exchange.