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Want your employees to voice suggestions when customers treat them poorly? The double-edged effects of felt trust

 "The customer is not always right, but your job is never to show them how they're wrong. Your job is to be professional, courteous, accommodating … even (and especially) under stress." 

— Steve Dorfman, Driven to Excel

When consumers know they are always right, they may breed a sense of superiority or entitlement, expecting the frontline employees to comply with any customer behaviors. A report shows that 98% of service employees had experienced unpleasant customer behaviors; over 50% of employees encountered rude customers at least once a week. In a more recent case, a female customer pulled out a gun and fired shots at Burger King because she felt it took too long to receive the order.

In organizational research, consumers' unpleasant behaviors toward the service staff are often referred to as either consumer incivility or consumer mistreatment. Current literature has identified customer mistreatment's negative effects on employees' psychological states and work-related intentions/behaviors. Still, the link between customer mistreatment and employees' customer-focused voice behavior is under-researched. In the business setting, companies want to promote employees' customer-focused voice behavior, through which they can gain first-hand knowledge about their customers and identify potential issues for service improvement.

The empirical study about customer mistreatment and employee customer-focused voice

I worked with Dr. Yung-Kuei Huang at National Ilan University in Taiwan on a project entitled “Customer mistreatment and employee customer-focused voice: The bright and dark sides of felt trust.” We published this study in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.

The hypotheses being tested

H1: Customer mistreatment is negatively related to customer-focused voice

H2: Customer mistreatment is negatively related to organizational-based self-esteem (OBSE).

H3: OBSE is positively related to customer-focused voice.

H4: OBSE mediates the negative effect of customer mistreatment on customer-focused voice.

H5: The negative effect of customer mistreatment on OBSE is weaker for employees who feel more trusted by their supervisors.

H6: The negative relationship between customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice through OBSE is weaker for employees who feel more trusted by their supervisors.

In this research, OBSE is referred to as the self-perceived value that individuals have of themselves as important, competent, and capable within their employing organizations. Felt trust is about employees’ perception of their supervisors’ positive expectations and willingness to be vulnerable to their actions.

The data and the analysis

We collected 319 valid paired responses from 319 frontline employees and 118 supervisors from 33 four-star or five-star hotels in Taiwan. We asked frontline employees to rate customer mistreatment they experienced, their OBSE, felt trust by their supervisors (two dimensions of felt reliance and felt disclosure), and customer-focused voice behavior. Furthermore, employees’ customer-focused voice behavior was also assessed by their immediate supervisors. We tested the hypothesis with regression analyses.

The key research findings

Customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice

We did not confirm the direct negative relationship between customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice (not supporting H1). On the contrary, we observed a significant, positive relationship between customer mistreatment and supervisor-rated customer-focused voice after controlling for the effect of OBSE. Then, our sample rated “hotel facilities and amenities” as the most frequent cause of mistreatment incidents. Such findings suggest that customer mistreatment can inform frontline employees of the areas that need improvement. It is also plausible that frontline employees might want to speak out about facilities and amenities (instead of themselves).

OBSE's mediating effect

OBSE indeed mediates the negative effect of customer mistreatment on customer-focused voice (supporting H2, H3, and H4). Frontline employees may perceive customer mistreatment as negative feedback or embarrassment that poses a threat to their OBSE. Lower OBSE may, in turn, discourage them from voicing the service issues or making suggestions for improvement.

Felt reliance vs. felt disclosure

Contrary to our predictions in H5 and H6, felt reliance intensifies customer mistreatment's negative effect on OBSE and its indirect, negative effect on both self-rated and supervisor-rated customer-focused voice through OBSE. Felt disclosure marginally significantly buffers the effect of customer mistreatment on OBSE, but it does not affect the mediating relationship between mistreatment and either self-rated or supervisor-rated customer-focused voice through OBSE. In order words, H5 was partially marginally supported, but H6 was not supported. It can also be concluded that felt reliance and felt disclosure have different moderating effects on (a) customer mistreatment and OBSE and (b) customer mistreatment and customer-focused voice through OBSE.

The implications

Besides this study's theoretical contributions to organizational literature, businesses can draw a few managerial implications from the research findings. For example, we recommend managers take the following actions (exclusive content that is not available even in the original research article).

  • Encourage employees to share their experience of customer mistreatment during daily briefing sessions or meetings to prevent them from building up their negative feelings (or OBSE) at work (drawing from the result of H1).
  • Acknowledge the negative impacts of customer mistreatment on employees to lower its negative effect on OBSE (from H2).
  • Educate employees that customer mistreatment might also help improve customer service (from H2).
  • Let employees know they should not take customer mistreatment personally (from H2).
  • Establish a support system within the organization that makes employees feel valued and appreciated, allowing them to feel more open to sharing their suggestions and feedback (from H3).
  • Solicit feedback and suggestions from the employees who demonstrate high OBSE (from H4).
  • Reassure that employees’ reputation is not judged based on isolated incidents (from H5).
  • Encourage supervisors and employees to share one or two critical life events during orientation or networking events to foster trust among them (from H6).
  • Organize socialization events among supervisors and employees to build personal bonding (from H6).

The conclusion

This research suggests that it is critical to distinguish the two dimensions of felt trust, including felt reliance and felt disclosure. Felt reliance refers to employee's perceptions of supervisors' willingness to depend on their work-related decisions and actions. Felt disclosure embodies employees' perceptions of supervisors' willingness to share sensitive information and personal views and work.

On the one hand, it can be beneficial for managers and supervisors to rely on frontline employees to make work-related decisions or actions. On the other hand, they shall probably not share too much personal information or feelings at work. Would you agree?

Meanwhile, what strategies does your organization employ to minimize the negative effects of customer mistreatment? What are the effective ways to promote employees' customer-focused voice behavior?

Note: This viewpoint was first published on; The picture was downloaded from


  1. "Meanwhile, what strategies does your organization employ to minimize the negative effects of customer mistreatment?"

    While not something that the organization has done purposely, I have noticed that customer service employees will have conversations with non customer service employees about the experience they just had. In these exchanges, the employee who had the negative experience will look for comfort and validation from the others to process the rude comment or exchange they received. This usually serves as a way for the employee to decompress and vent out the anger that can grow from having to be polite to a rude customer.

    "What are the effective ways to promote employees' customer-focused voice behavior?"

    Some effective ways to do this is to preemptively have employees understand the desired reaction and conduct they are to have with customers. Promoting this to employees is a challenge for employers. Positive reinforcement is one way to do this. Training proper conduct is in my opinion the best way to ensure that employees are ready to respond in the way that the employer desires.

    Robert Haleblian
    HRT 3500.02-1

  2. In the current organization I am working in, it mainly relies on supporting the employee who has experienced a customer mistreatment. Our superiors/managers want the front-line employees to try and handle the situation as much as possible to empower the employee. But if the situation steps out of hand that's when they will step in and try to ease the situation. Once the customer interaction ends, if it was a bad experience our managers will inform their superiors. After that, the manger checks in on the employee to see how they are doing. I think a good way to promote employee's customer-focused voice behavior is to talk about how the organization would like employees to interact with customers when they are hired and then train them. Over time employees could build up their customer-focused voice behavior and achieve the desired result.

    Michelle Heredia HRT 3500.01-1

  3. I found this article to be both interesting and justifying because I do not think front of house workers get the recognition they deserve when having to work with unruly guests. I believe the Implications section was especially important. Encouraging employees to share their negative customer experiences instead of holding them in is healthy and will improve their organizational-based self esteem (OBSE). Acknowledging them is key, and I also agree that forming a support system is not only beneficial for the individual employees, but for the organization as a whole. Customer mistreatment is bound to cause negative impacts to employees’ OBSE, but there are things that can be done to help both them and the company.
    Harry Law HRT 3500.03

    1. Hi Harry, I will have to say that I agree with you about not letting your employees keep in any frustrations they may encounter when dealing with these kind of customers. They should avoid confronting the actual customer when they are having any angry or frustrating thoughts and instead do their best to accommodate their needs or find a way to refuse service to them if they feel the customer is being over the top rude and is just looking to start trouble. I think that when a customer deals with these types of customers, they can either handle it the best they can, refuse service to the customer, or pass it on to another employee who might be able to handle it better. Once the situation has been resolved or taken care of, I think that is when the employee can talk to another employee or manager about what they are feeling in order to release that frustration or anger that they were feeling during that situation. It is best to stay calm and professional during these incidents and then, if needed, talk to your manager about how the situation made you feel.

      Amber Sepulveda HRT 3500-01

    2. Hello Harry,
      I also agree with you that those who work at the front of the house deserve a lot more recognition. I myself have worked previously at a boba shop for a few months and I did have some difficult customers coming in. Though, thankfully I haven't dealt with a very rude customer yet. But, yea...when the time comes in the future I do believe that it would be better to talk to your co-workers and supervisor about it cause I'm sure that they would past on some helpful advice to you in how to deal with them.
      Alyssa Petilla HRT 3500.01

    3. Hi Harry,
      I agree that front of house employees deserve more recognition due to them having to deal with unruly guests. When employees have to hold in their negative experiences and not let them out end up having issues later. I do think that it is best for the employee does not confront the guest while they are being mistreated to help avoid a more heated situation, but instead asking a manager to help remedy the situation. When employees are able to share their experiences of customer mistreatment to help prevent the build up of negative organizational-based self-esteem (OBSE).
      Makenzie Talin HRT 3500.03

  4. "Encourage employees to share their experience of customer mistreatment during daily briefing sessions or meetings to prevent them from building up their negative feelings (or OBSE) at work (drawing from the result of H1)"

    In my experience, being able to share our daily experiences with unruly customers in the workplace helps tremendously. As employees, when we know we aren't at risk of judgement from management when we recall situations with angry guests, it alleviates our anger. Some customers can be especially horrible when they insult you as an employee or your ability to do your job. Being able to voice your frustrations after these incidents seems to help us keep our composure when issues arise.

    An issue that seems common in hospitality is the "customer is always right" mentality. Not when the customer believes in the principle, but when managers abide by it. There will always be customers who believe that this reigns true but managers can help their employees (and in turn their OBSE) when they understand that the sentiment is false and support their employees instead of giving in to customer demands.

    Aleah Malik

    1. When I first started my work experience in the hospitality industry I started with the mentally of "Customer is always right". My first manager also led by that statement which made me think that is how it's supposed to be. With more knowledge I came into terms that it is not the correct way. I felt so overwhelmed and anxious whenever it came to a rude customer because I was taught to always respect their wishes from what my first manager trained me to do. The amount of relief I felt when my new managers would be towards rude customers blew me away. It showed associates that management does care about their workers, creating a safer environment to work in.
      Laura Soesanto HRT 3500.01

    2. Hello Laura,
      I agree with you 100% because I have the same mentality when I started working my first customer service job which also happens to be my first job ever. I had believed customers were always right and so I accommodated accordingly to their needs which is back when I barely started working. But as time passes by, I recalled all the unpleasant encounters with rude customers and came to a conclusion that they are not always correct. I also felt anxious and overwhelmed because I felt the need to believe what they were saying when in fact they straight up lied. It wasn't until when my manager reassured me I was not in the wrong and told the rude customer never come back to our restaurant that I realized this mentality was not correct.
      Myat Min HRT 3500.01

  5. As mentioned in the article, 98% of the employees surveyed have encountered customers with a strong sense of self-superiority. Usually, customers are self-centered and have a bad attitude towards employees. This phenomenon has brought a negative impact on the company. For example, in restaurants, employees experience "violence" from customers, which affects the quality of their work. At this time, the supervisor has a great role. The supervisor’s understanding and trust in the employees will give them more comfort, so that the employees will be able to complete the next work without being affected.
    HRT 3500.02-1 Siyi Li

  6. When dealing with clients' front-line, employees are required to be open-minded when dealing with customers. They expected to be nice even to unruly customers to meet their needs and ensure organizational success. In most cases, front-line staff are trained to have customer service knowledge, that is, to know how to handle various customers. The customer's unruly behavior will affect the employee’s organizational self-esteem. Therefore, the managers should put in place the system for the employees to vent and release their stress after dealing with unruly clients. Mangers must affirm their employees and avoid the belief that customers are always right. Organizations should develop a support system that will enable employees to share their experiences with customers without judgments from the managers.
    HRT 3500.01- Evelyn Liu

  7. I like this article very much because the facts are interesting and true to me in the service industry. I joined my current company as a cashier four years ago when I was a senior in high school. Since it was my second year in the United States, I started my career with the mindset of learning and the guest is always right. But all I remember now is being bullied by the members, and disgruntled clients. For the service industry, we must follow the concept of "guest first". As a result, AFTER being wronged and bullied at work, I felt depressed and had no vision for the future, and even my favorable impression of the industry fell sharply. From four-star General Stanley McChrystal's TED talk, "Listen, Learn, Then Lead," a good leader tells his employees that it's OKAY to fail or be frustrated, but never let setbacks bring him down as a loser. Therefore, I believe that at this time, the leader's influence on the mentality of the members is very important. Leaders' understanding and trust of employees can strengthen employees' loyalty to the enterprise and the team.
    Siqi Li HRT 3500.02

  8. I enjoyed this article, we usually focus on the solutions of the customer’s complaint, but less focus on the employee’s emotion. Customers are not always right, but we should minimize work errors and avoid customer complaints. When customer making a malicious complaint, as the person in charge, we should try his best to take care of the emotions of the employees, help the employees solve the complaint together, and sum up all aspects of experience. Help employees maintain a positive attitude and actively face difficulties. We do need to take care of our employees by helping them be positive on organizational-based self-esteem.
    HRT 3500.02- Yu Fu

  9. I have had rude customers in the past scream and yell at me, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when I worked on Halloween night, that my work had a customer assault one of my coworkers because she felt inconvenienced. We were all appalled and did not know what to do, partly because we work for an event company and our job is to make sure everyone has a great time and that we are as professional as possible. By the time my manager had found out, the customer had left and nothing could be done. My manager had a long talk with us at the end of the night explaining that for one she has to be alerted of these things immediately, and while we are trying to make sure everyone has a pleasant experience at our venue that doesnt mean their allowed to walk over us as workers. It was a very eye-opening shift because my previous job experiences at hotels and cafes were never like this, it was always our job to try and diffuse the tension and maintain “the customer is always right” mentality. I still love my work and seeing people have a great time and knowing that I helped create amazing events that they’ll remember, but I also think it’s important for people to know that respect goes both ways, regardless of what their job is.

    Leslie Trent HRT 3500.03

  10. At my old job at a resort, I was not working in the frontline but occasional I would have to. One of the things that my previous company encouraged us to was to be knowledgeable of the work that you obviously and to be knowledgeable about the property. Be ready to answer any of the guests' questions, and if you do not know the answer calmly redirect them to someone who knows. They always told us to remain calm and be firm if need to be in a polite way. it is very hard to do but I think it is very effective. I think training frontline workers to handle situations like this is an investment to the company. It also important to have managers be trained properly as well to deal with out of the line customers when frontline workers are not able to handle them anymore. It is important to know the right procedures to deal with these types of customers, because I think there will always be the types of customer that no matter how you treat them nicely, they always want to create a scene or inconvenience.

    Kathlyn Doriman
    HRT 3500.01

  11. I think that the implication part of this news update is very important, especially for managers. Managers should encourage their employees to share their experiences with rude customers because negative experiences and feelings like these can truly affect the workers. While some of these negative experiences with customers can help improve a business’s customer service, some of them are also completely uncalled for, as if the customer just wants to be rude to the employees. Some of these problems can be solve easily, and some are going to be harder to solve and the customer can be rude. This is when it's important for the manager to help their employee, and try to handle the situation.
    Mishelle Carmona HRT 3500.01-1

  12. This article was a nice change of pace and took on a different perspective than what we are usually used to reading. As we are always taught inside and outside the classroom as hospitality students is that the customer is always right or what professors like to say "customer is king." However, this article does shed light on how customers can often becoming overbearing and often times rude to the point that is greatly causes service workers on the frontline stress and in the worst case scenarios physical injuries (as mentioned in the article). As a server, I deal with rude customers all the time and I know it comes with the territory of working in this industry. As customers directly impact our income, it is best to always agree with the customer as they are the ones paying for our services. However, I do wish customers would take a second and remember even though we are serving you, we too are still humans. Many times customers react emotionally and irrationally, however I do hope customers in the future do treat us workers on the frontlines with respect as we do with them. With that being said, our jobs, as frontline workers is to make sure those problems never arise or are minimized so these types of situations are kept at a minimum.

    Jordan Nishida HRT 3500.02

    1. I found this article very useful and can easily be applied to almost any work environment even if it outside of the hospitality industries. While reading this article the only the main thing I kept thinking of was how trust does a lot for a company and helps a lot getting communication across if you feel like you trust your coworkers or supervisors and that when you go to them to share your experience of customer mistreatment. The worst thing an employer or supervisor can do and is believing that the costumer is always right and your employees should always find a way to satisfy or fulfill the customer’s needs regardless if they are wrong or mistreating you.

      Matthew De La Cruz
      HRT 3500.02

  13. "When consumers know they are always right, they may breed a sense of superiority or entitlement, expecting the frontline employees to comply with any customer behaviors."
    I have never agreed so much with anything as I have done so with this statement. Throughout the 2 years of working in front-of-house at an AYCE busy restaurant, I have encountered countless experiences with customers who believes they are always right and thinks they are superior. Situations like these only gives more stress to us, employees who are not only doing our assigned tasks but also dealing with rude customers. I have to say I agree with the implications from this research findings. I believe managers should encourage employees to share their experience of customer mistreatment during meetings and acknowledge them. Most importantly, employees should know not to take any mistreatment personally and let it get to their head.
    Myat Min HRT 3500.01

  14. I found this article very useful and can easily be applied to almost any work environment even if it outside of the hospitality industries. While reading this article the only the main thing I kept thinking of was how trust does a lot for a company and helps a lot getting communication across if you feel like you trust your coworkers or supervisors and that when you go to them to share your experience of customer mistreatment. The worst thing an employer or supervisor can do and is believing that the costumer is always right and your employees should always find a way to satisfy or fulfill the customer’s needs regardless if they are wrong or mistreating you.

    Matthew De La Cruz
    HRT 3500.02

  15. Manuel Solorzano HRT 3500-02November 15, 2021 at 11:44 PM

    I agree with the notion most workers are not likely to share too much personal information at work. However, in my experience the worker usually does not share its feelings about work to its managers or supervisors. This could be because they feel they won't be heard or that they will be perceived negatively for it. I find it more common to have workers vent to colleagues in similar positions about what they went through. This almost always is much less about creating change and more about letting out those emotions that workers hold in to be professional. Granted, this is only anecdotal evidence.

    The best way to minimize customer mistreatment is to offer support to those employees to keep an open line of dialogue to let out their frustrations. I think it is also crucial to have the backs of your employees in front of truly unruly guests. The possible lost of that one guest will not be as big of an issue in comparison to a boosted morale of the employee and other workers. Ultimately, creating an environment that doesn't shy away from having people voice concerns and having management that has your back is crucial to keep employees happy and communicative.


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