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Customer Service Ethics: Beware the Dark Side

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Years ago, an NEA team member worked for a large auto insurance company as a claims service representative. He was part of the front line team responsible for taking accident reports from the company’s customers. It was a low-paying, high-stress job, held by a motley staff of college students, teachers, and working moms.

The team occupied a small corner of a cavernous office, held captive by a dinging bell that indicated an insured on the line waiting to file an accident report. On a busy day, the bell would sound incessantly, and team members would hit *7 in Pavlovian fashion to pick up their next call.

Working under stress brought out the best—and worst—in the team members. Most worked hard to complete the accident reports fully and accurately, while expressing empathy for the customers who suffered losses. Other team members behaved poorly . . . deliberately disconnecting consumers in the phone queue, pounding desks with their fists when dealing with difficult customers, and even deliberately sabotaging files.

In one case, a member took a voluminous accident file—one in which there had been a fatality—into the men’s room, ripped its hundred pages into tiny pieces, and then flushed them down the toilet. We offer this story to suggest that customer service isn’t just a matter of having service standards and then hiring, training, motivating, and supervising customer-service personnel. It’s also about dealing with the dark side of human behavior—the tendency of certain people to behave badly—unethically—while serving customers. You must anticipate this dark side in order to deliver exceptional service. And if you succeed at this, you will also great reduce your errors-and-omissions risk exposure.

Ethics is a crucial dimension of customer service, suggests Christopher MacDonald, Ph.D., a business ethics consultant and professor at the University of Toronto. He believes there are at least three ways customer service can become unethical:

  • Front-line service representatives can do unethical things like lie to customers or even sabotage their own work, as the insurance rep mentioned earlier did.
  • Company management may commit to providing post-sale service, but then provide fewer resources than needed for the customer service team to function properly. Naturally, if resources are constrained, service quality will suffer.
  • Management can make policy decisions that result in the unethical customer treatment. For example, they may institute policies that make it difficult for customers to request service or that limit the amount of time devoted to each customer interaction.

Whether unethical customer service happens at the front line or in the executive office, the result is the same: victimized customers, a gap between expected and received customer service, and a negative business reputation waiting to go viral on the Internet.

So how do you make sure the highest standards of professionalism and ethics hold sway in your firm’s customer-service function? By including customer service in your overall ethics and compliance program, promoting your desired values (ethics), and making sure frontline workers follow the rules (compliance). Here are some steps to take:

  • Identify customer-service behaviors that you believe are unethical and include prohibitions in your company code of ethics. These might include things like not lying to customers, safeguarding work files, and displaying empathy and concern to customers with problems, etc.
  • Make sure customers know that their satisfaction is guaranteed and that if a service rep fails to perform adequately, they should ask to speak to a supervisor.
  • Develop a mechanism whereby you can monitor customer service interactions to identify ethical lapses, especially when service volume—and stress levels—are high.
  • Train employees on appropriate ways of dealing with—and speaking to—valued customers. Make sure your training promotes desired behaviors and then gives employees ample opportunities to acquire and practice those skills.
  • Lead by example. A company’s owners/leaders should walk the talk of ethical customer service by dealing forthrightly and competently with customer complaints and other problems.
  • In high-stress customer-service work, structure shifts to give workers adequate time off the phone or computer and instruction on how to reduce their stress levels both on the job and off.

Finally, recognize that managing the dark side of customer service will have a huge upside bonus: fewer complaints and errors-and-omissions claims from unhappy clients. What’s not to like about that?

For more information on affordable errors and omissions insurance for low-risk financial advisors, please visit E& For more information on ethical business practices, visit the National Ethics Association’s Ethics Center.


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