No More Mr. Nice Guy: Is the Unpleasant Customer the New Norm?

"Why yes, I am a nice customer. Why do you ask?"

By Paul Riegler on 10 September 2018
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Several recent experiences I had with customer service representatives gave me pause. Each thanked me at the end of the call for being “nice.” While I didn’t question it the first time, I did ask the second and third representatives why they were thanking me for merely being civil.

I had a broken part or product in each instance, in one case not under warranty, and I was calling to request assistance from the manufacturer. My experience in placing calls to airline customer service lines hasn’t been dissimilar but I’ll focus on the most recent calls here.

It wasn’t the customer service rep’s fault that it broke: indeed, in one case, a piece of a 20-year-old shower system, it had simply given up the ghost.

The second representative I asked was a bit circumspect, limiting her reply to explaining that it was uncommon for customers to call and be not only polite but grateful for the assistance she was providing. The third rep, Niki, was much more forthcoming, however.

She told me that it was the norm for customers to be gruff and demanding. Words such as “please” and “thank you” were infrequent. More often requests were formulated as demands and accompanied by some degree of profanity.

Niki added that she frequently asked the customer base, which was overwhelmingly male (she works for a manufacturer of high-quality, high-end faucets and fixtures for kitchens and bathrooms) and she often asked if they would speak to their spouse, mother, or daughter in the manner that she was being addressed.

Around the same time I read a post on FlyerTalk.com that mentioned how the writer and her family were “banned” from Air Canada after arriving too late to check in for a flight because her husband used offensive language towards one of the agents. A separate poster on FlyerTalk complained that a telephone agent at Southwest disconnected the call after the caller used profanity.

While the individual in the Air Canada incident didn’t actually hear what her husband said, she seemed unable to take responsibility both for the late arrival and the fact that her husband crossed a line.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to paint myself as an innocent but I still cannot wrap my head around why people requesting assistance from a company would want to sabotage their efforts. Niki told me that speaking down to her was the rule, not the exception, and that profanity wasn’t uncommon.

It’s important to understand that losing control of one’s demeanor also means losing control of the situation and will likely have an adverse impact on the outcome. Even if your patience is wearing thin, the person on the other end of the phone (unless it’s a tiny company) is unlikely to be personally responsible for the situation and is in fact employed by the company to help address such situations.

Even if you are not feeling kindly, saying “please” and “thank you” a few times will probably help restore you to a more balanced position and also make the customer service rep feel as if he or she is appreciated.

Whenever I call customer service, it seems that the rep ends up thanking me for being patient, understanding, or simply for holding the line while she went off to research my issue – and I always make it a point to thank the representative early on in the call for what I perceive she is about to help me with. Apparently this isn’t the norm – although it really should be.

Finally, the aforementioned notwithstanding, there are clearly some customer service representatives who should not be in a position where they speak on the phone with customers. However, that is a topic that goes beyond the intent of this story and may be covered in a future article.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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