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A new study proposes why people are impolite when interacting with customer services.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump does not have a reputation for subtlety. His behavior has been called self-absorbed, even narcissistic, or rude and generally very impolite. A remarkable observation by many of his critics is that he treated interaction partners in politics and diplomacy in the same way as he has treated interactions as a businessman, exploiting his power in the relationship and always looking for short-term gain. The world looked with some disbelief and disdain at Trump’s unusual interpretation of the presidential role, but one may wonder whether there might be a tiny Trump in all of us, just waiting for some cue to trigger it. 

One such trigger, our research finds, might be the self-identification as a ‘customer’. As soon as we enter a situation in which we put on our proverbial ‘customer hat’, our interpersonal behavior seems to change. We become less polite, less emphatic, and we tend to look at our interaction partners as mere ‘means to an end’ rather than as individuals with their own rights and sensitivities. In these relationships, we are more focused on ourselves and our desires, colouring our perceptions and behaviors. It should therefore not surprise anyone that the stress levels experienced by shop floor employees and frontline service employees can run up very high, resulting in a lot of absenteeism and turnover.

Commercial norms

Anthropologists have long recognized that interaction styles are different in commercial interactions, compared to interactions in which we act as community members, or when we interact with family members. In each of these situations, social norms and moral prescriptions are somewhat different. In the commercial interaction, it is normal and acceptable to pursue one’s self-interest. It is something we are not always supposed to do as a community member, and definitely not as a family member. 

Add to this the most typical buyer-seller relationship, in which the buyer is more powerful than the seller. The buyer trades the more fungible resource – money –, and does not need to be as concerned as the seller about developing a long-term relationship. They are often treated by the seller with courtesy, ‘like a king or queen’. This, we hypothesize, are the conditions that unleash our inner Trump. 

Findings

Our initial investigations into this phenomenon, using experimental studies, uncover how explicitly identifying as a customer facilitates dysfunctional behaviors such as impoliteness in service encounters. The research documents five phenomena:

  • People with a customer mindset are less inclined to attend to those around them, which reduces other-focus orientation.
  • People with an activated customer mindset tend to objectify the people they meet in the store, and they see them as ‘means’ to satisfy customers’ needs, rather than as human beings with feelings.
  • People with an activated customer mindset may become rude against the service employees because they have high expectations for what they think they are entitled to.
  • People with a customer mindset tend to be less forgiving of others’ mistakes.
  • The orientation to be less polite manifested itself in written communication as well.

It is fascinating to discover why, despite the fact that most of us are not aware of it, we act less courteously toward service employees when we identify as a customer in a service setting.

The study discovered that identifying as a customer increased our sentiments of entitlement and caused us to act less politely than when we identify ourselves with other identities (such as guests, volunteers, or students). The study also illustrates how our actions alter even when we are not conscious of them.

In one study, for example, we discovered that when participants’ customer identities were activated, they used less courteous written language than those who did not hold customer identity in their mind.

Restoring the power balance

Is there anything at all, sellers can do about this? As mentioned before, a lot of this behavior is caused by customers getting the impression that they are the powerful party in the buyer-seller relationship. This means, paradoxically, that it might help sellers to present themselves as less substitutable and more unique than other sellers, and the customers as less unique and more substitutable. This is the tactic that is fruitfully employed by luxury brands and retailers, who try to restore the power balance by presenting their products and services as something the customer needs to ‘deserve’. 

Less exclusive brands might try to trigger other individual identities than the customer identity. When the customer of a sporting goods store is reinforced in their ‘athlete identity’ they may be less likely to think like a customer. Other common and well-known strategies are labelling customers with terminology that really belongs to the realm of the communal like ‘members’ or partners, or even labelling the group of customers as a ‘family’, in order to activate the corresponding social norms and prescriptions in the customer’s mind. Our findings definitely illustrate the dangers emanating from labelling patients, students or citizens as ‘customers’, and we would advise hospitals, schools, and government institutions to avoid using ‘customer’ terminology. 

We are all customers, some of the time. Luckily, this does not mean that we literally revert to Trump-like behavior in all our commercial contacts.  Consider the Trump comparison as a metaphor for the mindset a customer role tends to activate. It helps us to understand a little better how customer identity may be associated with problematic customer behaviors, but a lot more needs to be studied.

References:

  • Fiske, A. P., & Tetlock, P. E. (1997). Taboo trade‐offs: reactions to transactions that transgress the spheres of justice. Political psychology, 18(2), 255-297.
  • Tran, H. Q. (2021). Customer identity and dysfunctional behaviors: The case of impoliteness. Publication no. 114. Doctoral Dissertation, University of South-Eastern Norway

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