‘The Customer is Always Right’ Policy Challenged by Customer Hostility, Worker Mental Health
A new study of customer incivility in the hospitality industry led by a researcher in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst challenges the long-standing mantra that “the customer is always right.”
Melissa Baker, associate professor and chair of the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, found that uncivil customers and company policies that embolden them damage employees’ mental health and undercut their capacity to serve other customers. In addition, Baker and co-author Kawon Kim of the University of South Carolina determined that employees were more susceptible to aggressive and rude customers when they had their own mental health challenges.
“For decades, a customer could be uncivil, angry, yelling or just plain wrong, and employees were expected to deal with it because it was just part of the business. Now, I’m not sure we can do that anymore,” Baker says.
The study reveals that when hospitality companies adopt policies that support employees and make clear to customers that uncivil behavior will not be tolerated, employees with weaker mental health benefit and perform better on the job. These policies had less of an effect on employees with better mental health.
We want to take care of the customer—that’s super important, but if a customer is being uncivil, rude and aggressive, you also really need to make sure that you have the employee’s back.
Melissa Baker, associate professor and chair of the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at UMass Amherst
“We cannot ignore that over 53 million adults in the U.S. suffer from mental health issues and over 80% of hospitality employees say they have mental health issues,” Baker notes. “The good news is, there are so many companies out there now that have changed the tide in terms of destigmatizing mental health issues and provide great support to employees.”
She points to firms that have enhanced support for employees with initiatives ranging from counseling and mental health training for supervisors to social media messages highlighting the contributions of workers to in-store signs telling customers to “be kind or leave.”
Baker says a rise in post-COVID customer incivility and higher turnover in the hospitality industry precipitated by low unemployment have combined to bring about a culture shift at many hospitality companies, with an increased focus on the psychological well-being of employees. She says firms that keep their focus solely on the customer risk losing their most talented workers.
“We want to take care of the customer—that’s super important, but if a customer is being uncivil, rude and aggressive, you also really need to make sure that you have the employee’s back,” Baker adds.
To reach their findings, Baker and Kim surveyed 183 front-line workers in hospitality businesses including restaurants, hotels, clubs, airlines and theme parks in the U.S. Respondents were presented with various scenarios where customers were either civil or uncivil and where their employers had policies that were focused on either the customer or the employee.
The full study appears in the April 2024 edition of the International Journal of Hospitality Management.
Recent research from Baker provides a roadmap for firms to court customers with ‘ethical idealism.’