Complaint Handling and the New Economy of Emotions

An explosion of pricey restaurants has rocked London in recent years. It’s not hard to find a high-end eatery where dinner for two, dessert, and a glass of wine can cost £200 or more per person.

The ingredients don’t account for the price. Except for a few exotic luxuries that are used sparingly, these meals are prepared with the same ingredients used by cooks in the local pub. And although Michelin-calibre chefs earn more than fry-cooks, their skills and pay are not sufficient to justify the high prices. It’s just food - a bit tastier, a bit fancier, but food nonetheless.


Luxury restaurateurs understand that they’re not selling the food, not really. Their product is the customer’s experience, an emotional journey that begins when the concierge takes the keys and the doorman welcomes you to your dining adventure. The decor of the dining room, the distance between the tables, the noise level, the interval between waiters’ visits... these and countless other factors are carefully calibrated to define and support a dining experience that makes £200 per plate seem like a bargain. You can get scallops anywhere, but this once-in-a-lifetime dining experience is available only here.

Restaurateurs talk about ingredients and preparation, but what they’re really selling is the customer’s emotional journey. It’s not about the food. It’s about the emotions.

Experts say the decline of manufacturing and the corresponding rise of the service economy have given birth to new careers and new ways of understanding existing careers. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling, has coined the term “emotional labour” to refer to professions in which the real goal is not to create a product or perform a service, but to create an emotional state for customers and clients. Emotions, she says, have become commodities.

Hochschild cites airline flight attendants as an example. Yes, they distribute peanuts, give safety briefings, and help people find their seats. But their real responsibility is to help passengers feel cared for and safe. Almost all of the tasks they perform on the job are crafted to support this goal.

This insight from the world of sociology has special relevance for workers who are charged with handling customer complaints. Remuneration, gifts, retention rates, and upselling are all part of the business. But the agent’s real product is the customer’s emotional state. Customers start their journey aggrieved, disappointed, and often angry. The goal of the customer service agent is to transform those negative emotions into positive ones that leave customers feeling heard, understood, respected, and valued.

Studies show that customers who have positive emotions about their interactions have higher intention to become repeat customers, intention to recommend the business to others, and perception of overall quality. Emotions are the cause; good business is the result.


Hochschild’s book focuses on the personal cost of working in an emotional labour profession.

First, of course, is the fact that the importance of this work is not widely understood and valued. Despite their central importance in creating value for their companies, the workers who do service-based jobs based on customers’ emotions tend to work in low-paid positions with little training, support, or appreciation. These jobs are typically performed by women and often by members of minority groups. The work is not prestigious despite its centrality to the company’s success.

Let’s return to that £200-a-plate dinner. Your main point of contact with the restaurant, the person who contributes most in making your experience seem worth the high price, gets less pay and less respect than almost anyone else. Only the dishwashers make less. (And if you think their work doesn’t contribute to your emotional experience, think again.) The restaurant’s real product is the customer’s emotions, and although luxury restaurants do train servers, you’re still talking about putting all of that responsibility into the hands of unskilled teenagers.

If the low pay and lack of prestige weren’t burdens enough, workers in emotional labour fields are also vulnerable to particular maladies.

Focusing on the customer’s emotional state often means that workers must suppress their own feelings. Flight attendants suppress their normal, understandable fear when the plane encounters turbulence. Call centre agents hide their normal, understandable anger when customers are belligerent or insulting. In the long term, psychologists say, suppressing emotions this way can be damaging. In addition to contributing to high burnout rates in emotional-labour professions, it can have lasting psychological effects.

Emotion workers don’t just suppress their feelings, they don masks to mimic the emotions that help customers achieve the desired emotional state. Hochschild notes that bill collectors are more successful when they come across as aggressive and angry. Flight attendants must seem cheerful and deferential. Waiters are respectful and attentive. As critical as this mimicry is to corporate success, few companies provide emotional training beyond the occasional reminder to smile.

This research is a good reminder for managers whose teams handle complaints. Customer retention is vital. Referrals to the sales department are great. But these are metrics, measures of success. They help you understand the extent to which your staff members are successfully transforming customers’ negative emotions into positive ones. That is their real job.

Does your company support its front-line staff who deal with complaints head on? Celebrate your complaint handling heroes at the UK Complaint handling Awards 2019. View the categories here and enter before 16th November 2018.