Calming the dragon – dealing with customer rage in the East

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Published: 
August 2016

Eastern customers can be slower to anger than those in the West – but once pushed beyond the brink, the consequences can be more severe.

With thousands of passengers stranded at Jakarta’s main airport in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, tensions started to build. After three days of flight delays, with no refunds and little explanation from the airline concerned, their frustration turned to rage. Passengers went on the rampage, smashing glass walls, confronting staff and preventing other customers from boarding until the military were called to intervene.

Incidents of customer rage like this one are on the rise . Unlike customers who are merely angry, and who may vent their feelings by telling family and friends about the poor service or posting bad reviews, enraged customers are likely to become threatening, even physically violent and some may set out to seek revenge.

While frontline staff often bear the brunt of their fury, enraged customers can pose a danger to others and even to themselves. Such episodes can also result in damage to property and to the brand’s reputation.

In the US, some Fortune 500 firms are so concerned they are installing software in call centres to detect rising levels of anger in customers’ voices, so a supervisor may intervene to prevent an incident escalating.

However while customer rage is an established phenomenon in Western societies, the degree of rage witnessed in Eastern cultures is at odds with the stereotypical view of Eastern customers as being less likely to make a fuss.

Now researchers have cast light on the differences between East and West. In a study involving almost 1,000 customers from China, Thailand, Australia and the US, they found that while Eastern consumers could be slower to display anger initially, once pushed beyond the brink they could be more aggressive and vengeful, presenting a more serious risk for the companies concerned.

Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy, a UQ Business School marketing expert who led the research, says there are indications that the differences in behaviour are rooted in cultural norms.

For example the concepts of ‘‘Jai Yen’’ or cool heart in Thailand and ‘‘mianzi’’ or saving face in China and South-East Asia mean that Eastern consumers try to mask their anger even in the most stressful situations.

“Our study shows that Westerners are more likely to express rage, perhaps not surprisingly as they are known to have higher expectations and have less tolerance for poor service,” says Professor McColl-Kennedy.

“By contrast Eastern customers hide their emotions in line with their cultural values, but when pushed beyond a certain threshold, they will eventually ‘explode’ and express their anger more forcefully and aggressively. They are more likely to try to physically harm employees or threaten to do so than Westerners and are also more likely to engage in revenge.”

“The notion of ’getting even’ pervades Eastern cultures, thereby encouraging revenge. For example, Chinese are known to perceive higher levels of unfairness in complaint situations since it inflicts an economic loss. In short, taking revenge when wronged has high moral approval in Eastern societies while revenge is typically frowned upon in Western cultures.”

The research also indicates that American and Australian complainants tend to ‘wear their heart on their sleeves’ and express their anger verbally, initially by swearing and screaming and later on by word of mouth condemnations. By contrast, Eastern cultures tend to use non-verbal communication which makes it difficult for frontline staff to detect escalating emotions.

Professor McColl-Kennedy recommends that companies provide employees with intercultural training. “In Western cultures, a build-up of rage can be more easily detected,” she explains. “In Eastern cultures, facial expressions are more subtle and so customer dissatisfaction is often difficult to assess. Hence employees need to be trained to be vigilant and observe expressions and postures associated with escalating rage.

“When an incident has progressed to a situation where the customer is rolling their eyes or raising of their voice, employees should involve their supervisor. These are signs of impending rage. They should be trained to remain calm as Eastern cultural norms dictate the avoidance of strong displays of emotions in public and conflict avoidance at all costs. Further, they should try to isolate the enraged customer from others.

“Face is also of fundamental importance in Eastern cultures, and understanding ways to cope with a loss of face and restore face is central to avoiding rage episodes.”

“In Eastern cultures, being shamed can have negative personal consequences and in fact, this is a dominant force in shaping interpersonal behaviour. A sincere apology from a senior manager or supervisor is an important part of any communication in these cultures and expected.”

Professor McColl-Kennedy believes managers now need to reconsider cultural stereotypes of how consumers from Eastern and Western countries express anger. This is especially the case for organisations that have an international customer base or work across international boundaries.

“Given the rising incidence and cost of customer rage, organisations need to be able to recognise the warning signs, provide an outlet for customer emotions and develop interventions which are tailored to suit the needs of different cultures.”

The research was carried out in conjunction with Professor Paul Patterson of UNSW Australia and Professor Michael Brady of Florida State University. It forms part of a program of studies undertaken as part of a prestigious Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery grant led by lead Chief Investigator Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy.