Working with the general public can be tough at times. I don’t have to tell our HVAC contractor readers that. Contractors and their employees are dealing with what are sometimes irrational expectations from their customers in regard to the service they should be getting. They want it done perfect, cheap, and yesterday.

It is just the society we live in these days. There is a general lack of patience, and when anything goes wrong, people want their pound of flesh. It is your job as the leader of your business to prevent your employees from taking the bait.

We have all seen it in other businesses — a waiter talking back to a customer (or worse), a cashier rolling her eyes at a question, or a grocery store employee snubbing an angry shopper.

When customers are harsh or overly aggressive, reacting with retaliation and sabotage is an almost immediate response for employees. That was the conclusion coming out of new research from Julena Bonner, a professor at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.

The research shows that despite understanding potential negative outcomes from backlash toward customers, such as reprimands, damage to company reputation, or even termination, employees will still consciously react to perceived mistreatment in a way that can cause harm to a customer. It is almost as if they simply can’t help themselves.

“It’s human nature,” said Bonner. “When a person is treated poorly, they lash out with an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ mentality. There are negative ramifications for the employee and for the organization, but people often just can’t help themselves.”

Bonner and her research team wanted to study what causes people to behave this way, and whether that behavior can be moderated by environmental factors.

“When you have a negative interaction with someone who behaves in a hostile way toward you, it triggers an intuitive emotional response — a gut reaction — which causes us to morally disengage,” said Bonner. “When we morally disengage, we shut off our moral standards and see those standards as not applying to certain people or situations. For example, it’s your fault for yelling at me over the phone, so you deserve to be put on hold for an unnecessarily long period of time.”

What do you need to do to stop this from happening? Bonner has an answer. The takeaway is that despite the reaction happening so quickly, it is not involuntary. Thought goes into the action that your employee is taking. The culture you build as a contractor will go a long way into deciding how your employees react in these situations.

The research showed that employees are more apt to treat customers poorly if their company has an unethical culture, or even if they perceive the company to have an unethical culture.

All the more reason to make sure you establish a positive and ethical culture in your business. In addition to aiding word-of-mouth from your customers, it will help your employees react to difficult customers in a way that you want them to.

And make no doubt about it, this type of culture needs to come from leadership. Items like this are certainly top to bottom when it comes to business. It is also best to hire employees that are more reasoned in nature. If they are a hothead at the office, they are probably that way out in the field, too.

Bonner encourages companies to establish formal ethical standards through policies, practices, and procedures. In addition, employers can teach employees to properly respond to harsh or angry customers without sabotage by offering mindfulness training or by putting employees in role-playing scenarios where they must practice proper responses to antagonistic customers.

“If we can understand how this process works, we can learn how to break the cycle,” Bonner said. “It comes down to awareness.”

Publication date: 1/28/2019

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