Customer Incivility: A Call for Constructive Resistance

Omid Kamran-Disfani reflects on his article, “Constructive Resistance in the Frontlines: How Frontline Employees’ Resistance to Customer Incivility Affects Customer Observers,” which was written with Ramin Bagherzadeh, Ashok Bhattarai, Maryam Farhang, and Lisa K. Scheer and recently published in the Journal of Service Research.

Customer incivility is on the rise. Rude or demeaning remarks, verbal aggression, and hostile gestures are unfair and unfortunate, and they hurt companies, their employees, and other customers. 

Conventional wisdom suggests that frontline employees should appease uncivil customers to resolve the unpleasant situation as quickly as possible and minimize the distraction and associated damage. However, this approach has not been effective in reducing or stopping customer incivility. 

In contrast, we propose that frontline employees utilize the strategy of constructive resistance when facing customer incivility. Constructive resistance involves several important components: 

  • Communicating to the uncivil customer the inappropriateness of the behavior. This includes clarifying that such behavior also impedes the achievement of the customer’s desired outcomes. 
  • Explaining that those outcomes are unfair to other customers and/or against the company’s rules. 
  • Encouraging frontline employees to actively gather more information and seek clarification about the cause of the behavior. 
  • Exploring potential remedies without bending the rules. 
  • Providing options and alternative solutions by which the uncivil customer can achieve desired outcomes fairly. 

We believe that constructive resistance is a more effective way to deal with customer incivility than appeasement. It allows frontline employees to stand up for themselves and their colleagues without escalating the situation. It also sends a clear message to the customer that their behavior is unacceptable. 

In a series of studies, we examined how observer customers, customers who observe the interaction between a frontline employee and an uncivil customer, react to the implementation of constructive resistance. We found that customer observers care about incivility even though they are not personally affected. They view incivility as a violation of social norms and as a sign of disrespect for the frontline employee. Moreover, constructive resistance by frontline employees was viewed as a fair response to incivility. As a result of this perception of fairness, customer observers were more likely to: 

  • Engage in future business with the company 
  • Spread positive word-of-mouth about the company 
  • Avoid misbehavior toward the company in the future 

Our findings provide initial evidence of the potential benefits of politely addressing, rather than ignoring or surrendering to, customer incivility. We encourage managers to consider constructive resistance and empower their frontline employees to implement this strategy. 

We hope that our research will help businesses and their employees develop strategies for dealing with customer incivility in a constructive and effective way. 

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Omid Kamran Disfani

Omid Kamran Disfani is an assistant professor of marketing at Southern Illinois University's College of Business Analytics. Dr. Kamran’s research and teaching interests revolve around managerial marketing, marketing strategy, services marketing, and retailing. His research has been published or accepted for publication in Journal of Service Research, European Journal of Marketing, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Product and Brand Management, and Academy of Marketing Science Review. Dr. Kamran teaches courses in marketing strategy, branding, and data science at the undergraduate, MBA, and PhD levels at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

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