Dissatisfied customers dangerous
The customer is king in the consumption society. But when the customer is dissatisfied the power can be expressed in a dangerous manner. Nicklas Salomonson, Associate Professor and Reader in Business Administration, has interviewed employees within public transport in Western Sweden, Skåne and the Stockholm region and encountered experiences of threats, harassment and violence.
“Well, a common example now is being spat at in the face. It is probably the passengers who feel that they are mistreated so they need to retaliate. So they retort by spitting at someone in the face (…) and being pushed is pretty common, being pushed in the entrance where you are standing before they get off.” (Male, 29 years, train host)
In his research Nicklas Salomonson has studied types of negative customer behaviour within public transport and which strategies employees use to meet difficult and potentially dangerous customers. The result shows how pronounced the work environment problem is.
“This is difficult in the long-term and entails greater stress for the staff. There are those who say that they remove their name plates due to a fear of being stalked on the way home after work. It is also particularly notable that so many of the events which the interviewees talked about entail ‘regular’ passengers, that is, where the behaviour is not the result of alcohol, drugs or obvious personality disorders,” he says.
In the interaction with a customer which goes badly there are different ways to proceed. Some choose to completely ignore a customer who behaves in a threatening manner. Others choose a more authoritarian approach.
“It may work sometimes, but it may also trigger and heat up the atmosphere and have the opposite effect than that which was intended.”
"The customer is always right"
Nicklas Salomonson is Associate Professor and Reader in Business Administration at the University of Borås. His research relates to areas such as interaction in service meetings, negative customer behaviour and sustainable consumption. He focuses on ongoing research at different aspects of negative customer behaviour in industries such as public transport, retail trade and care and nursing.
The problem has been known for a long time. Reports of threat, violence and harassment within public transport have increased and media reporting bears witness to a widespread problem (see facsimile). Why do threats and violence occur specifically within public transport? According to Nicklas Salomonson, a part of the explanation is that large-scale solutions such as mass transport of people makes it difficult to meet individual requirements. There will inevitably be a clash with the notion that the “customer is always right.” Customers who are used to being able to come up with solutions within, for example, retail trade do not find the same opportunity to impact their own situation within public transport.
“Industries with large-scale technical systems and complex arrangements such as public transport are examples where the customer, to not an equally large extent, can count on adaptations on an individual level. As a result, as a customer you may feel powerless and therefore start protesting. Some then cross the line.”
Handling strategies and feedback to companies
Nicklas Salomonson will demonstrate the results to organisations with employees within public transport. The experiences of employees and the strategies which they use can be utilised in internal training, something which the employees demand. Successful strategies, such as interaction techniques, can strengthen their opportunities to handle and prevent difficult situations.
During the autumn Nicklas Salomonson will also work on analysing survey responses from approximately 2,000 employees within Swedish public transport.
“It will be interesting to see whether the results we obtained in the interviews can be generalised at a national level,” he says.