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  • Writer's pictureThe Beacon Today

Opinion: How customer relations echo a modern Stanford Prison Experiment

Updated: Oct 6, 2019

The dominance of consumers can bring distress onto employees.

With the holiday season approaching, businesses should be filled with kindness and compassion. But instead, the holidays only amplify the issues seen throughout the rest of the year. As employees clock-in and customers flood the storefronts, some of the scenes are more reminiscent of a 1970s psychological study than an everyday transaction. 

“The way I was treated by customers, and even staff at times, really made the experience tough for me,” former Cracker Barrel employee Karis Johnson said. “It’s a hard burden to carry while you’re a young adult trying to figure life out.”

Johnson, who worked at the restaurant and retail chain for less than a year, felt overwhelmed by the verbal abuse that she experienced on a regular basis and decided to leave due to the lack of respect. 

Many employees in customer relations experience similar scenarios because of the concept of perceived power. Perceived power is the idea that when an individual experiences a certain sense of power, they then feel more inclined to express their true desires, according to Simon Moss of SicoTests, a psychology analysis website. 

At times, the inclination is to maintain a sense of hierarchy over others. Further research shows that given power also impairs interpersonal sensitivity, meaning that a customer may have little to no remorse when verbally abusing an employee. Comparable findings can be found within the Stanford Prison Experiment. 

American Psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment from Aug. 14 to Aug. 20 in 1971. He intended to see the effects of human captivity in a fictional prison. In the study, college students were assigned to play the role of either a “guard” or a “prisoner.” The prisoners were arrested and put under the authority of the guards. 

Originally planned to last two weeks, the experiment ended after six days due to the guards’ hostile treatment toward the prisoners. Because of their perceived power and authority, the guards felt driven to mistreat the prisoners. 

Even though the verbal, emotional and physical abuse of employees cannot fully compare to that of the prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment, both scenarios can lead to understanding the power of dominance. When regular people, such as college students or consumers, are granted a certain amount of power, they use it to their full advantage. 

Because customers are deemed to “always” be right, their actions become dominant because they are never wrong. Once the customer becomes the “guard,” the employee may have no choice but to become a prisoner to customers’ remarks, even if they are emotionally and mentally damaging. 

“If you are in a customer service job, mental health is so important,” Johnson said. “You definitely have to learn how to cope because it doesn’t go away, no matter how kind you are or how on point your customer service is.” 

Customer Experience Expert Adam Toporek believes that even though each customer is unique, the root to a customer’s hostility is usually caused by a disconnect between how they are treated and how they expect to be treated. To avoid a hostile situation, the customer should always be treated with respect. 

“Taken literally, the idea of the customer always being right is ridiculous. Customers are often wrong — very wrong,” Toporek said. “However, the literal interpretation of the phrase has overshadowed the more important ethic behind the phrase: that the customer should be valued and respected.” 

A great number of individuals have played the role of a customer and employee in the service industry at some point in their life. Once such temporarily defining labels are removed, it is easy to see the ways people share similar experiences and, if anything, deserve to be treated with respect regardless of their current setting.

By Rachida Harper

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