I was flying in Europe this week on one of the newer discount airlines. I was stuck by the age of the cabin crew. They were much younger than the teams I have met on British Airways. It is logical that the crews will age with the airline. The days of firing cabin crew because they age have long gone. It set me to wondering about the future age profile of front line service employees. Will they be older? If they are what will that do to customer service?
Throughout these Newsletters we have seen the ageing of the working age population. The under 26 age group in Europe has been declining for the last forty years. The days of a ready supply of the 18-26 year servers are over. The US department of labour says that nearly half of front line service personnel are now over 40, 33% are over 50. Those cohorts are ageing. The working age populations in many countries is already declining. In many more, the decline will come soon. Older contact personnel are likely to become the norm. There will be nobody else available.
Some authors argue that this ageing will be a problem for managers. Will managing a restaurant with an average crew age of over 50 be a problem? A recent study suggests that this may not be the case. It seems that older employees in front line roles may give better service.
The researchers studied all the past literature on customer mistreatment. They found nearly 100 empirical studies. These involved surveys of some 48,000 front line employees all over the world. Through a statistical process called meta- analysis they were able to pool the data. They asked a simple question: Does Customer mistreatment go down with the age of the employee? The answer is that it does. Older employees are less likely to be “abused”. They controlled for tenure. It was not just that older people had been in the job longer.
The authors argue that older employees are better able to cope. They can manage contentious situations. Newsletter #071 looked at a parallel topic. What determines a customers propensity to engage in positive problem solving after a service failure. Exactly the same logic can be applied to the impact of age on the employee. Older people have different motivations. They are keen to maintain a positive emotional environment. This is the socio-emotional selectivity theory. It argues that when life is seen as “too short” emotional stability becomes more important. Older employees are more motivated to solve difficult situations.
Wisdom comes with age. With wisdom comes the ability to see the “big picture”. Wisdom also brings emotional maturity. This should enable an older front line employee to display more empathy. They are better able to diffuse any situation. Wisdom also brings compassion for other peoples feelings. Changed motivation and wisdom together can generate higher levels of emotional intelligence.
Front Line Roles are not All the Same.
The authors argue that front-line roles are not the same. Some are less suited to an older employee. Some roles by their design carry higher emotional demands. It is more difficult to regulate your emotional environment if you work in a complaint handling call centre or as a security guard. In those situations customer mistreatment is less about the skills and competences of the front line employees. There is less space for an older employee to use their wisdom. The level of “emotional labour” (Newsletter #062) is much higher for the employee. They will have to work harder to maintain that warm smile and helpful attitude. Most of the problem is that the consumers themselves are not managing their emotions.
The stress in other roles comes from the behaviour of the organization itself. Front line roles span the boundary between the organization and its market. Those roles are full of ambiguity. Is the employee on the “side” of the customer or the firm? Can they do their job if they are too close to the customer? Should they obey the rules and ignore the customer?
The roles are also full of potential conflict. For example, it can be a real issue if the organization promotes the “customer is always right”. To do so the firm must provide any front line employee with the tools and the discretion to deliver on that promise. Instead there is often a direct conflict with the internal rules on (say) refunds. The person who has to arbitrate is one of the lowest level employees in the organization. For an older employee the conflict may be too much. They are seeking predictable and enjoyable experiences in their job.
The ageing of the front line employee is inevitable. This is not necessarily a problem. Older employees have things to offer that younger team members do not have. With careful selection of roles customer service will not suffer and may indeed increase.