University of Tennessee

Can Helping Customers Hurt Frontline Job Performance?

August 20, 2021

In frontline jobs, where employees deal directly with clients, workers who are customer-oriented feel a strong desire to provide the best possible service. That sounds like a boon to job performance — but what happens when workers challenge management or violate company policies to provide customer satisfaction?

A new study focused on two methods frontline employees use to satisfy customers: voice (challenging the status quo by expressing opinions and ideas to supervisors) and rule breaking (intentionally violating policies to meet customers’ immediate needs). Researchers found that voice positively affects frontline employees’ job ratings. The effects of rule breaking, however, are more complicated.

Alex Zablah, marketing department head and Gerber/Taylor Professor of Marketing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business and co-authors Gabriel Gazzoli (New Mexico State University), Haslam Ph.D. alumnus Nawar Chaker (Louisiana State University) and Tom Brown (Oklahoma State University) investigated how going above and beyond a job description to satisfy customers might have negative effects on employees’ overall job performance.

Identity’s Role in Voice and Rule Breaking

Employees’ values often differ from those of their organization and customers. Feeling more aligned with the company makes a customer-oriented worker more likely to use voice and less likely to break rules. For a worker who identifies more closely with the customer — for example, because they share a similar background, or because the company’s values conflict with the employee’s  — the opposite is true.

“A company may have a core value of ‘doing good’ or ‘helping others,’ which is a value that would also be central to a customer-oriented employee, and should contribute to identification with the firm,” Zablah said. “The same may not be true for a firm that is driven by the goal of maximum profits.”

How Voice and Rule Breaking Impact Job Performance

The study suggests that voice consistently has a positive effect on how employees, their managers and their customers rate their job performance. Rule breaking, on the other hand, has negative or no impact on performance ratings, based on who is doing the rating and how the rater feels about rule breaking. For some workers, violating rules for their customers can feel risky, making them feel guilty and giving them a negative view of themselves and how well they do their jobs.

“Rule breaking can take a toll on individuals, which then affects their performance,” Zablah explained. “Some managers would certainly rate them more poorly but others would excuse the behavior as necessary for role performance.”

Some nursing supervisors interviewed for the study felt that rule breaking is acceptable in extreme cases where a patient’s life is at stake, while others stated that rules exist for a reason, and that breaking them is never okay. Others said breaking so-called stupid or outdated rules may be necessary when doing so will help patients and not have a negative effect on the hospital.

To provide customer satisfaction while advancing company goals, the researchers said organizations need to focus on attracting and retaining employees who are likely to advocate for customers without breaking rules. Firms should invest in getting employees to identify with them and train workers to use voice to address customer service concerns.

“Employees often feel it is unsafe to speak up for a variety of reasons,” Zablah said. “Training employees on how to engage supervisors about areas for improvement would not only signal that managers are open to hearing from employees, but would also teach them how to engage managers effectively, making them confident that they can speak up without somehow ‘irritating’ supervisors.”

The study, “Customer-Focused Voice and Rule Breaking in the Frontlines,” was published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, and is available online.

Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,