The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the literature on service quality and value co-creation and co-destruction by unpacking the phenomenon described as “difficult customers”, which has many associated costs for service organizations. The paper examines how frontline service employees make sense of and react to client behaviors that disrupt service processes.
This is a qualitative study with 128 frontline workers, who were interviewed about their perceptions, explanations and reactions to problem-related customers, using a sensemaking perspective.
Content analysis revealed 17 themes related to workers' perceptions, explanations and reactions to problem-related customers. Workers classify behaviors of problem-related customers in terms exceeding the single notion of intentionality that dominates the literature, instead referring to the degree of both controllability and malevolence of customers. Service workers choose a wide range of behavioral reactions that have not been studied before.
A convenience sample, although large, limits generalizability. Suggestions for future quantitative research are proposed.
Based on the findings, the authors suggest specific directions related to managerial policy and organizational practices related to training and employee empowerment and service recovery routines.
The study introduces a new theoretical notion of “problem-related customers”, set within a value co-creation context. It presents findings that enable deeper understanding of the emotional and behavioral reactions of frontline workers to service disruptions and offers multiple scholarly contributions, new research directions and managerial insights that can help to improve service recovery and service quality
Gal, I., Yagil, D. and Luria, G. (2021), "Service workers and “difficult customers”: quality challenges at the front line", International Journal of Quality and Service Sciences, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 321-337. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJQSS-05-2020-0078
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