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Everyone’s a Karen these days: Blame inflation and a shifting shopping experience, poll says

Keeping the customer satisfied is an increasingly difficult task. Service jobs were never a walk in the park, but they’ve since morphed into roles that even Simon and Garfunkel in 80s staches likely couldn’t crack. In part, it’s because the contract between companies and customers has broken, or at least frayed, in the last couple of years. And frontline workers are paying the price by nature of proximity to people searching for assistance: whether it’s getting a refund, or just a Diet Coke.  

These days, the consumer landscape looks a little different, especially after the hiring shortages fueled by the pandemic. Buyers in turn have transformed, becoming a more agitated and demanding version of themselves as they navigate a new and perhaps less high-quality experience. Most (56%) U.S. employees note that customers’ expectations have shifted since the start of the pandemic, per a Gallup poll of more than 18,600 workers across all major industries and jobs. 

“A silver lining of the pandemic is that it taught us a lot about things we did not know were possible, from having seemingly every consumer need delivered to your front door, to office employees being able to run businesses from their kitchen table,” Dr. Ben Wigert, Gallup’s director of research and strategy for workplace management, explains to Fortune. But with every silver lining there’s also a rain cloud, and this novelty has stoked some negative feelings as well.

Since COVID-19 first hit, stories of incidents of customers acting up more everywhere—from the Chipotle line to the hospital room—cropped up more. This anecdotal rise in rudeness was attributed to our awkward transition from isolation into society, the loneliness epidemic wherein more people reported a loss of close friends and romantic relationships, and a crumbling of the nation’s “moral education.” 

By nature of the sheer number surveyed, the poll is a “great snapshot of the workforce at large,” Wigert, explains to Fortune

What Wigert and his co-researchers found is that working a customer-facing job is a different beast these days. Most people are demanding more than they once did, as 43% of respondents say customers changed by expecting greater levels of service. 

This trend of customers expecting better service more often has hit online customer agents, too: People have higher demands for virtual service (28%) and want more “emotional interactions” (11%). Of course, many companies have recently implemented AI to try to improve customer service and heighten productivity, and it’s not stopping any time soon: Gartner predicts 80% of support companies will continue to use generative AI to heighten the customer experience.

Fast-tracking AI is also a way for companies to shirk paying their employees what they’re petitioning for, as robots enter restaurants or edge out workers. But these new innovations are still in early stages, and the customer isn’t taking too kindly to glitchy services or yelling “live representative” repeatedly into the phone.

Looking for a more personal interaction, the AI rollout means the customer is already rilled up by the time they reach the burnt-out employee on the other line.

Can I speak to the manager? No, there is none due to staffing shortages

During the Great Reshuffling, many left to find better pay, benefits, and less stressful jobs. In 2021, 48.8 million people left their jobs—ratcheting up to 50 million in 2022, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The trend ebbed as of late, but workforce participation still sits lower than it did before the pandemic struck. 

Underpaid and overworked employees especially took control of a tight labor market to bargain for a better deal. Its left companies in the food-service and hospitality sectors more impacted by the Great Reshuffling, and still finding it difficult to hold onto staff. There’s not much difficulty in hiring, though: Leisure and hospitality recouped its lost 837,000+ workers in September 2023 by hiring 1.1 million more people in the same time, per the Chamber of Commerce’s report. Retaining staff is a separate, and perhaps bigger, issue.

Part of what is happening is that despite relative wage gains, workers in customer-facing roles are still subjected to minimum wage or low pay. Without adequately investing in employees, the nation remains grappling with a labor shortage years later. Difficulty in hiring might mean lines are longer or service isn’t what it used to be. Workers recognize their service has likely morphed, too— only 23% of respondents to Gallup’s poll “strongly agree” their company delivers on what it promises consumers.

Of course, the decline in service quality is likely because workers aren’t getting the resources they need to run a store the way they used to. Pew asked staff and chief HR officers what they believed the top hurdle to satisfying customers was, and their shared answer was staffing (at 42% and 30%, respectively). 

A major reason why customer-service employees leave in the first place, though, is because of difficult customers, which worsen already stressful conditions. In other words, acting out might intensify the issue that Karens are so worried about. “Elevated customer expectations have fed a cycle in which employees burn out, deliver worse customer service, and quit their job—which consequently leads to staffing problems and more unhappy customers,” says Wigert.

The customer experience has gone through some growing pains, and change tends to make adults act out. Dealing with an influx of new technology, like self-checkout kiosks and tipping tablets, some customers have become confused about the new norms, which might lead to them acting out more. And a long period of inflation has not likely helped sweeten America’s grumpy customers. While high prices have recently ebbed, many have reported within the last year that they’re living paycheck to paycheck. Of course, inflation isn’t dictated by front-facing customer service employees, but it gets the customer acting a little differently, and perhaps more demanding.

“Let’s say you go into a grocery store, and you’re not able to find the items you typically get, or the costs have suddenly skyrocketed,” Melanie Morrison, professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, told BBC. “That increases frustration, worries and anxiety.”

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