Service workers and “difficult customers”: quality challenges at the front line

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the literature on service quality and value co-creation and co-destruction by unpacking the phenomenon described as “difficult customers”, which has many associated costs for service organizations. The paper examines how frontline service employees make sense of and react to client behaviors that disrupt service processes. Design/methodology/approach: This is a qualitative study with 128 frontline workers, who were interviewed about their perceptions, explanations and reactions to problem-related customers, using a sensemaking perspective. Findings: Content analysis revealed 17 themes related to workers' perceptions, explanations and reactions to problem-related customers. Workers classify behaviors of problem-related customers in terms exceeding the single notion of intentionality that dominates the literature, instead referring to the degree of both controllability and malevolence of customers. Service workers choose a wide range of behavioral reactions that have not been studied before. Research limitations/implications: A convenience sample, although large, limits generalizability. Suggestions for future quantitative research are proposed. Practical implications: Based on the findings, the authors suggest specific directions related to managerial policy and organizational practices related to training and employee empowerment and service recovery routines. Originality/value: The study introduces a new theoretical notion of “problem-related customers”, set within a value co-creation context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)321-337
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of Quality and Service Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited.


  • Quality of service
  • Service recovery
  • Training
  • Value co-creation
  • Workforce management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business, Management and Accounting (miscellaneous)


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