Clarification

It was a McDonald’s restaurant in Ohio, just like the hundred of others in the United States. At six-thirty in the morning on the first of January, a woman in a car at the drive-through came to order some chicken nuggets. But it was too early. The employee at the drive-through window explained to her that the restaurant wasn’t serving them yet. The woman refused to understand and began verbally abusing the employee. “Don’t tell me that sh–! Unless you are talking about giving me McNuggets, I don’t want to hear it!” The conversation escalated. “I want my f–king nuggets!” and the customer then ended up physically assaulting the poor employee.

Editor’s note: the video-surveillance camera did not record the sound. The dialogue was recreated even if everyone believed that it was real when the video, which went viral in the U.S., was put online.

Deviant customer behaviour, an unavoidable reality

This type of behaviour belongs to the category of “deviant” forms of behaviour that organisations have to face. By definition, an individual’s behaviour is considered deviant when it violates company standards and threatens the well being of the company or its members. The literature emphasises that this customer “deviance”, meaning the manifestation of behaviour that deviates from normally expected types of behaviour (fraud, aggressive manners or actions, etc.) is a widespread and endemic phenomenon.

Such deviant forms of behaviour have harmful consequences for organisations. American retailers estimate that the annual cost for fraudulent product returns ranges between eleven to sixteen billion dollars. But aside from their cost, they are problematic for the staff since these types of behaviour negatively affect the personnel’s work conditions as the McNuggets example demonstrates. These types of behaviour also have repercussions on the way in which companies and their employees manage these types of customers.

How to handle this form of deviance?

In this context, the Association for the Management of Customer complaints (AMARC), which brings together customer complaint professionals from more than 260 companies, commissioned research to be done on the subject. The goal of this research, the results of which were published in the French scientific review Finance Contrôle Stratégie, was to determine the standard responses from organisations facing these types of deviant behaviours. The research led us to identifying four main response categories: instruction, sanction, tolerance and evaluation.

Instructing customers

The response that consists of instructing customers occurs when the deviant behaviour, while not very serious, is frequently encountered. When they continuously reoccur, certain types of deviance such as incivilities affect employees and company performance.

A tense social environment can turn this seemingly harmless problem into a real challenge. It becomes necessary to regain the confidence not of the just customers but the employees. This becomes a more sensitive issue for a large company network since, statistically speaking, episodes will multiply and create a sounding board to a work conditions problem that could become critical.

The most affected departments are those where customer relations takes precedence over technical expertise. In this type of situation, instruction consists of trying to educate the customer who is likely to behave in a deviant manner or other customers who may witness this behaviour (example: RATP’s “Respect” campaign made up of different posters in the metro and on the bus). To do this in an effort to prevent deviant behaviour, general behavioural guidelines should be shared with customers. If a specific person or persons is responsible for prevention, they can provide expertise to the company network in order to shape the social practices of personnel in contact with customers.

The RATP’s “respect” campaign aims to raise awareness among customers likely to be deviant or other customers likely to witness these displays of deviant behaviour.

Sanction the customers

The response that consists of applying sanctions occurs when the organisation and its complaints department consider the types of deviance encountered to be too serious. The company will then put a stop to the customer relationship (example: physical assault of an employee or organised fraud).

The question is not to know if these forms of behaviour reoccur frequently or not, but to know if just one of them justifies a definitive response because the consequences are too great. “It is unacceptable and we will not accept it.”  Ending the customer relationship generally goes through clear procedures dealing with specific facts. Unlike minor incivilities, these types of deviance are properly identified through police reports or an investigation.

This response functions perfectly when it sets limits on acceptable behaviour in the relationship, intended for the pivotal customer, but also for other customers and staff in contact with this customer. The players concerned are not so much the staff in contact with the deviant behaviour (who are rather the “victims”) as the complaints department and the nearby managers who decide to break off relations with the customer. These managers follow through on the decision by applying suitable procedures and coordinating with the relevant players, particularly when legal issues are at hand. Certain specialists either internal (security services, legal department) or external (courts, police) then become essential.

Tolerate the deviant behaviour of the customers

Tolerance is a possible response when the deviant behaviour is not too frequent or too serious. The company can then choose to “let the behaviour go” in order to put more emphasis on the trust in the commercial relationship. The people in contact with the deviant behaviour may apply only major guidelines, possibly put in a charter, or major common values.

Given how this relies on weakly established rules, the challenge is to make sure that employees confronted with a diversity of situations react in a consistent, uniform way. It is therefore essential to maintain the sense of customer relations among employees and explain this choice to them. It will help staff in contact with customers handle any possible frustrations in their positions better if they are provided with information on the reasoning and economics of this approach. The complaints department can also contribute to this, but it must be relayed to the management most closely involved.

This response is applicable to a largely informal company and may not be possible in all contexts. Low employee retention is not particularly suited to maintaining a robust customer culture. High prices make the stakes involving deviant behaviour potentially much greater and push the organisations to be more prudent. Furthermore, not handling deviant behaviour that employees are exposed to seems to be a socially tenable choice as long as the employees are satisfied with their work conditions and feel that they are sufficiently appreciated.

Evaluate the complaint

Evaluation is the response of an organisation that focuses on complaints that are particularly serious (product defects that pose a health risk to the customer and/or potential harm to the image and reputation of the company) and/or are likely to occur on a regular basis.

The customers of luxury product companies can in general expect the product to be quite well made and durable even if it has not been properly cared for.

This frequency/seriousness relationship, connected to the complexity and high price of the offer, justify setting up a group of experts to make judgements on complicated complaints that may end up being deviant. Expensive, complicated products will in fact lead to increased demands from the customers.

These high-level product investments and expectations can even push customers to lodge abusive complaints if their product requires repair. These abuses can come from incorrect information (from social networks for example) or from elevated expectations for product quality and durability even when it hasn’t been properly cared for.

In these cases, experts play the most important role. The representatives in contact with the customers call upon them when the staff no longer feels able to justify the company’s decisions or when it is contested. The task of the experts is to present an argument for the legitimacy or not of the request through a technical review.

Internally, their mission is to use the deviant complaint cases to improve the offer by identifying any currently unknown malfunctions or defects. They are professionals who possess expertise outside the complaints department. The challenge is then to set up a human resources process that can maintain, develop and even internally distribute the existing expertise by ensuring the operational quality of this group of experts: information sharing, collective case problem-solving, etc.

For organisations, establishing a strategy to combat deviance

Naturally, each response should be more adapted depending to the customers’ reoccurring behaviour and the context of the business. The key issue is thus to know how to structure these responses with each other to combat deviant forms of behaviour.

Here are some good practices with this issue in mind: a strategy combating deviance must first establish the role of the staff in contact with the customers. It can be based on specific, identified levers or also on a dashboard that is used to monitor the change in the indicators, such as the number of abuses against employees, the amount of fraudulent complaints, the associated costs, etc.

Specific attention must be paid to weak factors such as social climate indicators. Lastly, the challenge of this policy will be to ensure that the strategy combating deviance is consistent with the forms of support given to the customers when they wish to express their dissatisfaction or contest a certain situation.

By Aurélien Rouquet, Jean-Baptiste Suquet, Dilip Subramanian, NEOMA Business School professors, and Fanny Reniou, lecturer at UPEC. They took part in a study carried out by AMARC, the Association for the Management of Customer Complaints, the results of which have made it possible to identify a series of potential responses.

>Translated from the article published in French in The Conversation France on October 9, 2018: « I want my fucking nuggets! : l’entreprise à l’épreuve des clients ingérables »

15 December 2020
ROUQUET, SUQUET, SUBRAMANIAN, RENIOU

THE AUTHOR

ROUQUET, SUQUET, SUBRAMANIAN, RENIOU

Professors

Aurélien Rouquet, professor at NEOMA - Jean-Baptiste Suquet, professor at NEOMA - Dilip Subramanian, professor at NEOMA - Fanny Reniou, lecturer at UPEC