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business school research

Call centre employees get back at abusive customers by taking measures such as keeping them on hold for longer than necessary, a study finds.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Globe's roundup of research from business schools.

What could be more annoying than an unsolicited phone call from a telemarketer, usually received during dinner or some other equally inconvenient time? It's tempting to fly off the handle.

And many people do. Kevin Kelloway, professor of management the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, and Jane Mullen, professor at Mount Allison University's Ron Joyce Centre for Business Studies in Sackville, N.B., surveyed more than 100 Canadian customer service representatives about their experiences with irate customers and how they deal with them. The participants reported incidents of customers being rude, cursing and swearing, yelling and generally being aggressive.

"The contact centre industry can be considered a 'violence prone' organization as customer incivility and aggression occur frequently," the authors write.

"There's a lot of abuse," says Dr. Kelloway, and it's particularly bad for those who work in outbound call centres where call service reps make unsolicited calls to potential customers. The situation is only a little better for inbound call centres because customers are almost always calling to complain about a service.

"In our work we focused on the notion that employees are not passive recipients of this," explains Dr. Kelloway. "They actively respond to it." When asked about how they deal with being mistreated, the respondents reported taking retaliatory measures, such as not helping customers even if they knew the answers to their questions, keeping customers on hold for longer than necessary and purposely hanging up and pretending it was an accident.

They study also found that employees were much more likely to retaliate when they were already under stress at work. The more that employers can help alleviate workplace stress, the less likely employees are to retaliate, he says. Employers should also provide workers with training on how to deal with abusive customers, such as giving employees the opportunity to pass irate customers on to a supervisor.

"A lot of companies have this mindset that the customer is always right," Dr. Kelloway says. That implies the employee is always wrong and has no recourse but to take the abuse. Companies should take a second look at those policies, he suggests. By paying more attention to the psychological health of their employees, businesses would have happier workers who provide better service to all customers, he says. And that's ultimately good for business.

The study was published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management in 2013.

Neat and frugal

Shows about hoarding have become popular entertainment fare for viewers of reality television. But a new study shows that coping with a disorganized environment can have serious consequences on a person's well being, such as increasing one's tendency for impulse buying.

Exposure to messy and chaotic surroundings taxes a person's mental resources leaving them with fewer resources to regulate their self control, explains Boyoun (Grace) Chae, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

In one study conducted by Ms. Chae and her co-author, 150 participants were divided into three groups. One group was assigned to a room with shelves strewn with paper, water bottles and cups. A second group was assigned to a room where the same items were arranged in an orderly fashion and a third group was assigned to a room with empty shelves. All participants were asked to indicate their willingness to pay for an assortment of consumer products including an HDTV, a microwave oven and a vacation package. Those in the disorganized setting were willing to pay more for the items than those in the other two groups.

Other studies indicated that participants who were exposed to disorderly environments fared worse in tests of concentration and persistence. This could have implications for their efficiency at work as well, she notes.

People have a finite amount of mental resources to regulate their behaviour, explains Ms. Chae. "When they are exposed to a disorganized environment, they consume their resources to cope with the threat from the environment," leaving fewer resources to regulate their subsequent behaviour, she says. Exposure to a chaotic environment can also have a lingering effect so that even participants who were moved to a clean and organized room still exhibited tendencies of "self-regulatory failure," she says.

All consumers should be wary of chaotic shopping environments such as Black Friday sales, according to Ms. Chae, when stores are likely to be crowded and messy, because this could increase their likelihood of impulse buying. At home, their online shopping behaviour could be affected by whether their desk is cluttered or tidy. The study was published online in the Journal of Consumer Research in December of 2013. It will appear in the print edition in April.

However, there is a flip side, adds Ms. Chae, who is set to take a position as assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia in July. Some early research shows that working in messy surroundings can foster creativity, something she would like to explore in her future work. A disorganized environment isn't always bad, she adds. "Sometimes you feel a kind of freedom."

Drugs with personality

In recent years consumers have become increasingly familiar with brand names of prescription drugs, such as Viagra and Lipitor, and that's no accident, says Lea Katsanis, marketing professor at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business.

The pharmaceutical industry, facing stiff competition from generic counterparts and rising R&D costs, has adopted marketing strategies in the United States more commonly used by consumer-oriented companies such as Apple and Coca-Cola. Drug manufacturers have increasingly embraced brand personality, a marketing concept that assigns human personality traits to consumer products. Brand personality allows marketers to create a distinct image in the minds of consumers. This allows people to develop an emotional attachment to a product and increases the chances of their buying it.

Dr. Katsanis and her co-author, Erica Leonard, a former Concordia graduate student, surveyed more than 400 U.S. respondents. The participants were asked which of 15 well-known prescription medications they were most familiar with and, using a list of human personality traits, they were asked to indicate which of the traits best described the drugs. The results showed that consumers do attribute human personality traits to prescription drugs, with the most common ones being "competence" and "innovativeness."

"A prescription drug with a personality may seem more approachable and less daunting," the authors write. This might give consumers the confidence to seek treatment for previously undiagnosed conditions and to ask their doctors for drugs by name.

"But there's a dark side," warns Dr. Katsanis. Consumers could develop an attachment to a particular brand of drug that may not be appropriate for them and go looking for a doctor to prescribe it if their family physician refuses. It could also push up drug costs if consumers refuse cheaper generic alternatives in favour of brand-name drugs.

Canadian laws restrict how pharmaceutical companies may advertise in this country. They may advertise the drug or the disease but not the two together. However, Canadian consumers are not immune from the effects of the more liberal direct-to-consumer advertising that occurs in the United States, and particularly brand personality marketing, Dr. Katsanis says. "Canadians are so exposed to American media that they are really seeing it all anyway," she says. The article was published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing in late 2013.

Rosanna Tamburri can reached at