ServiceFriday: Tell Me About It – Getting the Front Line to Share Customer Complaints

Customer complaints are alarm bells: the voice of an unhappy customer can help a company understand where it needs to refine its service procedures. But managers never learn about 71 percent of customer complaints because front line employees are not reporting them. Research published in the Journal of Service Research identifies three factors that affect employees’ willingness to report and recommends training their managers to address those issues. The research was conducted in Germany and China, providing competitive insights into service employee behavior across cultural lines.

“Willingness to report complaints” (WRC), defined as “service employees’ proneness to report or share information about clients’ complaints with management,” is a new construct in service literature. Frontline employees work from service scripts, which include reporting complaints to supervisors. However, employees often try to resolve complaints themselves and then do not report them because complaints might reflect poorly on performance.

What breeds this unwillingness to report? To uncover the drivers, researchers focused on the most important elements for service providers: supervisor support end employee empowerment (job resources), and customer unfriendliness and workload (job demands).

The researchers hypothesized that supervisors play a role in promoting WRC. “Supportive supervisors help service employees deal with the stress inherently created by customer complaints and reduce workplace stress by providing insights into how to handle complaint situations,” they write.

Researchers expected empowered employees to be less likely to report complaints, however. “Service employees who have responsibility and control for deciding how to carry out tasks may report to their supervisors less,” the report reads. They make decisions independently, follow through and are flexible.  This suggests they are less likely to tell someone else about the incident.

The demands on a front line customer service employee when dealing directly with the public was also seen as corrosive to WRC. Researchers wrote that over time, the stress from dealing with unpleasant customers can erode job performance as workers find it difficult to behave consistent with rules which prohibit returning the uncivil behavior. “Depriving customers of redress by choosing not to report their complaints is a covert way to vent negative emotions,” the report says.

To test their hypotheses, researchers surveyed German and Chinese front line service employees who were in direct contact with customers. The findings showed that WRC is strengthened when supervisors help employees deal with the stress of the job.  But the results also noted that the negative behavior of customers was a corrosive counterbalance. Employee empowerment was also shown to reduce WRC. With the authorization to resolve customer complaints independently employees developed ownership of the process and the results and were less like to report.

Key role of supervisors

The researchers advise international service managers to be aware of the influence of job demands and resources on WRC, and take steps to address it:

  • Invest in supervisors, who are effective in creating commitment to the firm’s goals. “Firms should invest in expanding this interpersonal resource,” researchers write. “Training programs for the supervisors of frontline employees need to be developed, focusing on aspects of global servant leadership such as how to form relationships with subordinates and help them grow and succeed.”
  • Firms should also regard employee empowerment as “a double-edged sword.” They recommend finding ways to reward empowered employees when they report customer complaints after resolving the issues.
  • Consider launching programs that help employees deal with unhappy customers, and understand that heavy workloads contribute to a reduction in WRC.
  • Allocate resources to the font line team to help them understand customer orientation and why it is important to the company’s success.

For more analysis see the full report, available at the Journal of Service Research. (A fee may apply.)


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