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Ways to resolve emotional labor dilemmas

| 2022-05-12 | Hits:

Deliverymen work late to distribute packages during the “Double 11” shopping festival in Shanghai on Nov. 6, 2021. Photo: CFP


Research on emotional labor in the service industry involves companies, employees, and customers, and this tripartite relationship can be unraveled using two approaches. One departs from the classical labor process theory, which discusses labor management and its value addition, and applies this to the service industry. Here the relationship between companies and employees is the focus of research, whereas customers are not fully considered. From the perspective of emotional labor, it focuses on exploring various types of relationships between employees and customers, with companies as the background. The two approaches are equally important, but they have different starting points and data acquisition methods also vary.
 
Su’an Express Company (alias), founded in the early 1990s, is a leading enterprise in China’s private express sector. Unlike franchised companies, all the employees, venues, operating vehicles, and information management systems of Su’an Express are funded by their parent company. The company’s target customers are wholesale delivery, and middle to high-end customers. Su’an Express has set up 17 posts in a prefectural-level city in the central province we surveyed, among which Qiaodong site has the largest business volume, on average receiving and dispatching more than 1,500 express deliveries every day. There are 21 staff members onsite, including 15 deliverymen, four storekeepers, one overall supervisor, and one operation supervisor. Through research, we can understand realistic dilemmas and path choices related to emotional labor in the service industry.
 
Double dilemmas
The express delivery industry has undergone tremendous development in China, and market competition is fierce. In addition to timeliness and safety, it is increasingly important to provide high-quality emotional labor so that customers gain a satisfactory service experience. In our field investigation, the idea that “service is king” was mentioned many times. Emotional labor provided by deliverymen has the following functions: First, it can effectively boost the company’s reputation in the market; Second, it helps to enhance the sense of solidarity in the workforce and inject enthusiasm; Third, it can effectively improve customer service experiences, and further stabilize consumption.
 
That said, in order to strengthen the management of emotional labor, express delivery companies need to work from these three aspects. First, staff selection and training must be valued. Second, they need to develop a strict management system. Third, customer complaints should be treated with care and responded to in a timely manner. In view of this, the company will not only need to provide safe and fast delivery service to customers, but also should instruct deliverymen in their communication with customers, so that the goal of earning customers’ satisfaction through service is achieved.
 
Each delivery driver faces nearly 100 customers every day, who have a wide range of needs. First, that high prices mean high-quality service has become an internalized standard in the minds of many customers. They choose Su’an not only for speed and security, but also for high-quality service. Second, customers have different needs, some complain when they don’t get the package in time, others are anxious when they send parcels for courier delivery, and certain customers are dissatisfied if there is trouble communicating on the phone. Deliverymen have to settle these issues on a case-by-case basis. Third, the biggest problem in delivery is customer uncertainty. Therefore, deliverymen must adjust their workload based on the schedules of different customers, and maintain enthusiasm even if they lose time.
 
In the face of high-intensity, fast-paced physical and emotional labor, deliverymen develop three types of coping mechanisms. Some complain and even form negative views toward the industry as a whole. The second group gradually adapts to the work environment, which sharpens their character and temper like a whetstone. The others learn to view personal improvements in comprehensive ability through a positive lens. Many say that this job improves their “interpersonal skills” and “ability to communicate with others.”
 
Types of emotional labor
On the basis of field investigation, and the definition of emotional labor, we can divide emotional labor into two types, according to the interaction (deliverymen and customers) and emotion (positive and negative).
 
The first type mobilizes positive emotions. It means that deliverymen should first love the industry and identify with the company’s culture, to devote full enthusiasm to their work and improve customer service experiences. The next skill is learning to calm negative emotions. Deliverymen will inevitably encounter a range of emergencies in the process of receiving and delivering packages. If not properly handled, their moods will be affected and customers will be dissatisfied.
 
However, both mobilizing positive emotions and calming negative ones fall under the purview of deliverymen’s self-motivation and self-adjustment. The real test is in engaging customers’ positive emotions. Through considerate delivery services, sound work enthusiasm, and putting customers first, deliverymen can make customers feel cared for and tended to. If there is a misunderstanding, reducing customer dissatisfaction as soon as possible is the emotional labor that deliverymen need to carry out. Nevertheless, in some cases, the customer’s needs cannot be met in time, so they might still file a complaint under the charge of “bad attitude” on the part of the deliverymen.
 
We can divide customers into four groups based on the familiarity between deliverymen and customers (regular and new customers) and the expectation of customers (harsh and tolerant customers), namely harsh regular customers, tolerant regular customers, harsh new customers, and tolerant new customers.
 
Therefore, deliverymen need to provide differentiated emotional labor for the above four types of customers. For tolerant new customers, deliverymen simply need to operate in a standardized manner. These customers care more about the timeliness and security of delivery. With tolerant regular customers, deliverymen can make up for their occasional mistakes in time to earn forgiveness and understanding. In the face of demanding regular customers, deliverymen should provide more comprehensive and thoughtful service. Emotional labor is inevitable for this group, but due to the benefits of interpersonal familiarity, deliverymen do still have chances to mend relationships in case of occasional mistakes. For demanding strangers, deliverymen must pay special attention, because they not only have to provide high-quality delivery service but also be wary of complaints from customers.
 
Ways to solve dilemmas
In their interactions with all kinds of customers, deliverymen can resolve dilemmas in emotional labor by identifying customer types, establishing acquaintance relationships, resolving the emotional labor crisis, and receiving emotional labor incentives from their companies.
To start with, deliverymen should first identify customer types and offer differentiated emotional labor for each type. It is impossible for them to provide equal emotional labor to every customer. It is more logical to design differentiated emotional labor for different types of customers. This differentiated emotional labor not only relieves pressure on deliverymen but also reduces the risk of customer complaints. However, customer identification takes time and practice. During our field investigation, most of the harsh new customers were only discovered after deliverymen received complaints.
 
The next step is to build acquaintance relationships and prepare for emotional labor crises. In the process of identifying customers, some deliverymen could build personal relationships with regular customers due to their professionalism and work performance, which prepared them for unforeseen circumstances.
 
In terms of resolving crises in emotional labor, deliverymen could work to eliminate hidden dangers or soften tensions. It goes with saying they should avoid risks and hidden dangers as much as possible to prevent customer complaints. However, once an unpleasant situation emerges, deliverymen also need to learn to quickly resolve emotional labor risks. According to the severity of the situation, they can choose to leave immediately, avoid further conflicts, or take responsibility. Leaving directly is by all means a last resort. Letting things cool involves accepting the customer’s negative comments and remaining silent so that the customer can calm down. Taking the initiative to claim responsibility means blaming the problem on their own service, which requires greater courage from deliverymen.
 
In this light, a sound emotional labor incentive mechanism must be in place, operating from informal channels to institutional arrangements. Just imagine if a worker frequently is subject to negative emotions at work, he or she is very likely to feel depressed over time, which requires corresponding countermeasures. Besides self-adjustment, deliverymen need to rely on each other for encouragement and comfort. They would also benefit greatly from supervisors’ support and guidance. When a deliveryman receives complaints, supervisors should intervene immediately and provide necessary remedial management. Many people would classify this as part of the company’s management, but it is also the company’s institutionalized means of handling negative emotions.
 
In summary
From an academic perspective, this article expands the study of emotional labor from two aspects. First, different types of relationships between workers and customers have varied influences on emotional labor. For industries with distant interpersonal relationships, workers and customers are mere acquaintances. Some companies even have strict rules about making friends with customers, and workers need to protect themselves from transgressions. For industries with close interpersonal relationships, the familiarity between workers and customers will give workers leeway, which further confirms autonomy over emotional labor.
 
Second, grouping customers into different types applies the study of relationships in the field of emotional labor, and the division of regular and new customers also expands the boundaries of the study of relations by adding empirical facts. At the same time, processes for deliverymen to relieve emotional labor pressure and resolve emotional labor crises are realistic issues that need to be addressed urgently. If mental stress is not channelized and alleviated in a timely way, there will be many risks and hidden dangers for deliverymen, companies, and even customers.
 
Going forward, research on emotional labor can be further explored along two paths. One delves into management and emotional labor training from companies, such as studying how to internalize knowledge transmission, skill acquisition, and emotional management among the workforce. Second, borrowing from relevant theories in social psychology, we could further discuss social operation mechanisms of deliverymen and customers in establishing acquaintance relations.
 
Zhang Yangbo is an associate professor from the School of Sociology at Wuhan University.
 
 
 
Edited by YANG XUE