Ruminate on This (and not your angry customer)

WANG, Mo | LIU, Songqi | LIAO, Hui | GONG, Yaping | KAMMEYER-MUELLER, John | SHI, Junqi

For customer service employees, it is an unfortunate fact of life that some days they will encounter verbal abuse, unfair demands, disrespectful behaviour and other mistreatment by customers. What’s more, the impacts can linger.

Previous research has shown that the short- and long-term well-being of some service employees may be affected by mistreatment. However, the mechanism for this has been unclear. Now, work by a team including Yaping Gong of HKUST has provided some answers by looking at what happens when employees ruminate at night about mistreatment the previous day, and how that affects their mood the following morning.

Rumination is the act of thinking consciously about goal failure. In this case, the authors argued that customer mistreatment could be seen as a failure of two goals – one related to the task of successfully serving customers, the other to the personal goal of being valued and treated with respect.

“Employees who engage in rumination may perceive that they are gaining insight about their service performance by attending to the details of the negative interactions, but there is considerable evidence that rumination actually serves to maintain or even exacerbate the negative emotional reaction induced by goal failure. Longitudinal studies have also shown that rumination predicts the onset of subsequent sadness or depressive episodes among non-clinical populations,” the authors said.

“We examined the role of employee rumination at night in bridging the gap between the daily customer mistreatment and its lagged manifestation on employee emotional well-being, in particular their negative mood the next morning.”

They tracked 149 employees at a call centre in Shenzhen, China, over two weeks, by having them complete questionnaires at the end of every working day about customer mistreatment and another each morning about rumination the previous evening and their mood that morning.

The results confirmed a link between customer mistreatment during the day and employee rumination at night, and between rumination at night and negative mood the next morning. More importantly, they showed when these effects were reduced or worsened. Employees who felt their company was on their side in terms of “perceived organisational support” were less likely to ruminate at night about customer mistreatment, possibly because they did not believe that their goal of providing customer service for the company had been blocked. But employees who had a high service role commitment and thus attached higher psychological importance to the service goal were more likely to ruminate.

The results also showed that the effect on negative mood could linger up to two days after a customer mistreatment event.

“The current study represents one of the first attempts to use a cognitive mechanism, rumination, to explain the fluctuations in negative emotional experiences triggered by customer mistreatment. We shed light on rumination’s in prolonging the initial negative effect of stressful situations even though individuals may perceive rumination to be functional in terms of reflecting on how things went wrong and how they might improve in the future to attain the goal,” the authors said.

They outlined practical ways to reduce ruminative thoughts among employees in the wake of customer mistreatment. Employees could be encouraged to engage in “self-goal” pursuits after work such as participating in sports or volunteering. Organisations could improve their support to employees and make them feel that the organisation cares about their well-being in the way that it presents service rules to employees, the wording of the rules, and training.

“It may also be important for organisations to train their employees to deal effectively with customer mistreatment, such as improving their service recovery skills when dealing with mistreatment related to service failure. The organisation could channel the service employees’ rumination toward focusing on improving their ability and skills to accomplish service goals, for instance by holding brief feedback and mentoring sessions after a day’s work to review negative customer encounters and by allowing employees to ruminate productively with guidance regarding how to deal with such situations in future. In the long run, these actions may help organisations to keep valuable service employees and secure their welfare,” the authors said.

GONG, Yaping

Fung Term Professor of Management, Head, Chair Professor