This week I took another flight to San Francisco to teach our MBA students there. During the flight, a young passenger in his 20s was wearing his mask well below his nose, visibly against the rules. Another passenger asked them to pull it up but was disregarded. I looked at the flight attendant who sort of nodded but didn't do anything. I don't really blame her. The pilot himself was not a model of compliance, and I assume this is a regular occurrence.
And indeed, airlines have realized that flight attendants are at the forefront of keeping their passengers safe while, at the same time, serving them. They provide passengers with wipes and ask them to wear masks, then serve them lunch and ask whether they want coffee or drinks. As COVID and masking become more polarizing, the job of enforcing mandates becomes harder.
The solution airlines came up with was to teach their flight attendants self-defense. It’s not a bad idea. But is this the right approach? And is this what it will come down to?
This is not only an issue for air travel. Earlier this summer, an incident in Cape Cod prompted a restaurant to shut down for an entire day after a group of diners took out their frustration on an employee because they had to wait for more than 40 minutes to be seated due to a computer problem. The customers allegedly dumped the contents of their entire to-go order in front of the restaurant to express their frustration. The New York Times article documented several other cases where restaurant owners had recently complained about customers mistreating their employees.
The following Tweet is just one example:
Earlier this week, Axios published an article on the fact that many workers say that "increasingly combative customers — angry about everything from long wait times to mask mandates — have prompted them to quit."
There is a fair amount of research regarding the impact of verbal abuse, which can help us understand why hospitality workers would choose to quit.
Anat Refaeli and her co-authors wrote about the impact of aggression in their research paper When Customers Exhibit Verbal Aggression, Employees Pay Cognitive Costs. By studying the communication between customers and workers of a mobile telecommunication service provider, they show that customer verbal aggression impaired the cognitive performance of the targets of this aggression. One study showed that customers’ verbal aggression reduced recall of customers’ requests. Another showed that customer verbal aggression reduced the quality of task performance, indicating a particularly negative influence of aggressive requests delivered by high-status customers.
So as a customer in need to vent or express frustration, the implication of being verbally aggressive is that you are probably going to end up with even worse service.
Post-COVID Service Operations
All this exposes multiple aspects of service operations in the post-COVID world.
First, finding workers is very hard. These are complex jobs, and most people either choose not to work or find something less risky and more financially rewarding. The implication is that the hospitality industry finds itself competing against other industries for employees.
Second, these industries suffered significant demand shocks during COVID. As customers are slowly resuming travel and eating out, these businesses are competing on the customer side of the equation.
Finally, customer service has deteriorated over the last few years, partially due to cost-cutting, as I have addressed before, and partially due to a shortage of workers. But the reality is that most of it is not related to the workers themselves. Workers have been put in this situation by their employers (who are subject to economic shocks), and they are required to be equally effective in both fending off angry customers and providing good customer service in their actual service activities.
So what are the implications for the service providers?
One of the main rules of service operations is that "it's not your employee's fault." The fault lies with the hiring process, the training process, and the service process; the tools the employees are provided with. Who has created these tools? In the case of the airlines, their management, and in the case of restaurants, the owner.
But before we get to the tools, let’s try to understand the core of the conflict between customers and hospitality workers, which stimulates aggressiveness.
As I mentioned before, the quality of service has deteriorated, compared to pre-COVID days, but I think our expectations have also changed. During the stay-at-home orders, we used e-commerce and online food services more than ever. In these service models, the actual waiting time is barely noticeable since there are many ways to stay occupied in the comfort of your home. When we returned to in-person service, the inefficiency that already plagued these services, even before COVID, became more evident. Waiting for 40 minutes on the street to be seated at a restaurant is much more salient than waiting for an hour on a comfortable couch for your DoorDash order to arrive. Another factor is that the service has a face now. When I order online, I can only scream into my phone. When I wait at the restaurant, I can pester the wait staff. We just got spoiled. Add the tension around masks and COVID-related regulations to all this and you have the perfect storm.
So what can owners or managers do?
The Service Provider Side
Service providers can help their employees by providing them with better tools.
Operational tools: if capacity is scarce, services should provide better information on expectations. This is true in terms of waiting time, the type of service you will receive, and the reasons for the wait. Providing customers with information increases their level of patience. I have written about this as well as the positive impact on allowing customers to manage their own time extensively.
Providing transparency on the actual job can also have an unexpected impact. Here, I always quote Ryan Buell's great work on operational transparency.
The authors investigate whether organizations can create value by introducing visual transparency between consumers and producers. They conducted both field and laboratory experiments in foodservice settings. In their study, they allowed customers to see the kitchen’s inner workings and vice versa. Their field studies showed that the introduction of transparency contributed to a 22.2% increase in customer-reported quality and reduced throughput times by 19.2%. Their laboratory experiments revealed that customers who observed process transparency perceived greater employee effort and thus were more appreciative of the employees and valued the service more.
For example, flying during COVID is uncomfortable for everyone. But allowing a peek into how hard it is for flight attendants to run from one flight to another with little ability to remove their face masks will only make us, the passengers, more appreciative.
Anger Diffusing Tools: You can also help your workers by empowering them to diffuse the outrage that customers express. Anat Refaeli has written on the role of employees in diffusing anger. In particular, Anat wrote one of my favorite papers on this topic, after working as a cashier for several months herself. In her paper When Cashiers Meet Customers: An Analysis of the Role of Supermarket Cashiers, she documented creative strategies to diffuse anger. One cashier was noted saying to a customer, "Now if you smile, everything will be ok." Another was engaging the customer in the task itself: "You can take the bread, now pack the oranges, I typed the coffee."
Admittedly, the study was done in Israel (my home country), where people have less tolerance with standing in line, and cashiers have more freedom to do things than in the US (or at least, had, when the study was conducted).
Protective Tools: Employees are scarce, so if you don’t want to lose them after such experiences, make sure you offer them protection. In your roles as service managers, identify the points of friction and make sure you rotate the employees that suffer more abuse than others. Try to be there when friction occurs.
The Customer Side
What about the customer? Shouldn’t customers lower their expectations and try to be more understanding? I think so, but that is a difficult aspect to control. It falls on the firms to do a better job in showing customers the hardships of service through operational transparency, as we discussed above.
The Axios article ends with the statement, "The bottom line: The customer is no longer always right."
I am not sure if this is my final take-away from these incidents. Ultimately, the customer is an essential part of the service encounter. Customers are the "reason to exist." But the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. The goal is not to shift the blame or create a new stereotype.
We absolutely should not dismiss these examples. They are great opportunities to learn and find ways to improve the overall experience for everyone involved.
Thinking of this through my own experience, I usually get good teaching evaluations. But once in a while, I will get some very negative comments. My first reaction is, of course, to immediately dismiss them. No one wants to deal with “unhappy customers,” so I usually tell myself that these are probably from students that did not put in the required effort. It’s their fault, not mine.
The reality though is that once my initial reaction blows over, I realize that while the student may not be right, their level of discomfort indicates that there may be something I can improve. I now read them once, let them sit for a few days, and when I get back to them, I try to distill my main learnings. The "Five Whys" method is an excellent way to get to the bottom of these issues.
I am not trying to equate my job to that of a flight attendant or wait staff. I cannot imagine the physical and mental difficulties of the constant interaction with customers.
But I can see that COVID and its aftermath have created an opportunity for us to question many assumptions on what’s needed to run a good service. The root cause of customer anger and the way to prevent and diffuse it is just one aspect of this learning.
The biggest take-away is the need for self-reflection, whether it is on a personal level done by an individual, or on a company level conducted by top management. The ability to look at ourselves in the mirror, ask the right questions, learn and grow from these while leaving out the blame, criticism, and shame should be our ultimate goal.
Customers can vent and express their frustration. A customer can yell, leave a bad or no tip, leave a poor review, and get on with their day. But what if the tables were turned? What if workers could do that too?
What if at the end of your meal, your server was allowed to rate you? The same way an Uber driver can rate the passenger, but for everything. How many stars do you think you would get? And how would you feel if you were banned from returning to your favorite restaurant due to bad reviews?
P.S. I would like to offer special thanks to my editor, Anna Pistof, for helping form and improve some of the original ideas in this article.