They Have Feelings, Too

Being in Customer Service in a Recession

Alvera Davis, assistant manager at an office and print store in downtown Washington, reports to work everyday to a job she describes as not servicing or helping, but simply dealing with customers all day. From about 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. she attempts to assist time-sensitive customers who are often rude and commonly disregard her feelings. More often than not, she just has to deal with it.

Traci Taliaferro, a traveler’s aide at a Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, also encounters negative customer service interaction.

“I get yelled at by customers on a daily basis,” Taliaferro said. “I feel irritated, because I’m trying to help them and they don’t care.”

Both Taliaferro and Davis say they have observed that the economic downturn has increased the prevalence of disgruntled customers.

According the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1999 report on mental health, the most common psychological and social stressors in adult life include economic hardships. The report also notes that some stressors are so powerful that they evoked significant emotional distress.

The American Psychological Association Poll Released in October 2008 says that eight out of 10 say that the economy is a significant cause of stress, up from 66 percent in April. In addition, more people report an increase in fatigue, feelings of irritability or anger

“I find that people are in bad moods in general,” Taliaferro said. “People are less patient. They didn’t react as badly before but now that they have other things to worry about, like money, they are taking it out on everyone.”

Davis has also noticed an increase in customers who are stressed about possibly losing their jobs. According to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in March 2009, the number of unemployed persons increased by 694,000 to 13.2 million, and the unemployment rate rose from 8.1 to 8.5 percent

She experienced her worst encounter with a customer a few months ago. However, to Davis, the memory is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.

“She just came with an attitude,” Davis said. “I asked did she need any help, and she asked me ‘what do you think?'”

Davis recounts that the customer continued berating her by cursing, calling Davis names and yelling at Davis that she did not know how to do her job.

“I felt like she just disrespected me, and I just had to stand there,” she said.

Davis has been in the office and print industry for six years, and has been doing customer service for 10 years. She said that her job in industry is a step up from her previous customer service position in ad sales.

“It’s harder to deal with people over the phone, than it is face to face,” Davis said. “Over the phone, they can’t tell if you are sincere or not.

To stay positive Davis reminds herself that it’s just eight hours, just a job and just a stranger.

Nevertheless, Davis admits it’s a challenge to be a faceless customer service representative when she has problems and is forced to put her personal life on the backburner. She does her best not to bring her problems to work, since she might encounter fresh ones interacting with customers.

Taliaferro finds it more difficult not to take the verbal attack personally.

“Usually when it happens, I will take a break because if I don’t, I will most likely go off on the next passenger that comes along,” Taliaferro said.

No matter what customers are experiencing, Irwin Dubinsky, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in the greater Washington area said that adults should learn to manage their anger without displacing it.

“Anger is a natural emotion, but if you get too rageful, then that’s a problem,” Dubinsky said. “To deal with the symptoms, a person must learn to relax. “However, Davis believes that a customer service representative must also learn to be strong.

“At the end of the day, you still have to do your job,” Davis said. “We have feelings, and we come to work just like everybody else does. Customer service is one of the hardest jobs, and I think people forget that.”