Aniline Blog

CX v. EX: Are your customers chasing away your best employees?

5 Minute Read

AdobeStock_61350829 1

The short answer in several industries may be yes. “The customer is always right” is a bromide that was originated by the early retail pioneers at the turn of the 20th century. In this COVID-fueled era of the Great Resignation, a less literal interpretation of this axiom is long overdue. We’ve all seen the random TikTok videos of irate customers from airlines to cheese shops. Now there is empirical evidence supporting these observations that can objectively measure their impact on employees’ perceptions of the workplace and their motivations to resign en masse. According to the National Retail Federation, the turnover rate is just over 60% in the retail industry against historical norms of around 43%. In order to try to solve for this issue, employers need a better understanding of ‘the why’ underlying the problem.

Aniline has aggregated and scored 400 million expressions of employee perception for 70,000 companies from 2015 forward from the public domain. As we break down the past 24 months of data on employee perception, there is a disturbing trend emerging. Among the largest and most well-known consumer brands in retail, food service and yes even professional services, the single most significant driver of negative employee perceptions of the Workplace is customers. Keep in mind, this is not based on a survey with a finite set of choices. This is based on the unfettered expressions of employees in the public domain using AI-based employee sentiment analysis. The trend is measurable and accelerating at a significant rate. But it wasn’t always this way. Based on Aniline data for the pre-COVID era, employees’ perceptions of the customer were a net positive contributor to the Workplace environment. This has swung the other way in the past 24 months across all employers but is most significant in consumer facing industries.

Chart 1 shows the ratio of the number of negative to positive employee perceptions of the Workplace due to customers, broken down over the past 24-month period. The trend shows accelerating negativity driven by customers in the Workplace up through the last 3 months ending Dec 31, 2021 reaching its highest level.

Does this mean that Walmart employees either don’t understand or don’t follow the old axiom the customer is always right? No, not at all. Maybe something else is in play. Perhaps this century-old customer mindset is enabling rude, uncivil and generally unacceptable behavior by customers toward employees who are earnestly trying to serve the public.

Chart 2 shows the relationship of the prevalence or number of expressions combined with their signal strength as scored by our Natural Language Processing Algorithms based on the context of their expressions in employee narratives. This shows an increase in signal strength that is accelerating, reaching its highest level through Dec. 31, 2021.

What can we take away from the data? As seen in chart 2, it’s not just the increasing prevalence, or how frequently customer-driven negativity is expressed by employees. It’s also the signal strength. Aniline measures and scores signal-strength, based on the context and how strongly opinions are expressed. Think of it as decibel level, the difference between saying something or screaming it through a bullhorn. Negative customer-driven perception is not only increasing in frequency, but it’s also getting “louder.”

This empirical evidence supports an intuitive sense we’ve been experiencing for some time, but rapidly accelerated in the COVID era. Patience is exhausted, the socio-political environment is highly polarized, social media often demeans and de-humanizes “others.” People just become fodder for the next meme or TikTok video. Couple this with the fact that customer-facing employees have become heatshields of sorts. Beyond doing their “normal” jobs, front-line workers are also tasked with being the first line of defense in policing a dizzying array of ever-changing COVID rules. Rules that have also become hyper-politicized. So, it should come as no surprise that many people in these front-line industries are leaving in droves and in turn, millions of jobs left unfilled. This high level of turnover equates to 230 million days of lost productivity and $19 billion in costs for recruiting, hiring and training according to Human Resources Today. 

So, what are employers to do? This is a very difficult question. As with many things over the past 2 years, we find ourselves in uncharted waters. Fundamentally, there are three paths that an employer can take:

  • Accept the current levels of attrition as a cost of doing business in this new era.Choosing this path means not only weighing the financial costs; it’s weighing the cost in continued erosion in customer service. Or the cost of diluting or losing your culture as people quickly cycle through your organization, perhaps doing so in a brand-damaging way.
  • Improve the employee value proposition to retain your best people. One way this could be achieved is through higher or differentiated compensation, but this may not be a viable or a sustainable solution. Or using other more creative means, like additional paid time off (PTO), or access to services via benefit programs that provide coping mechanisms, new skills, or ways to improve their overall wellness and wellbeing considering the environment they now face.

  • Work to change customer behavior. This is a challenging ask. But perhaps there is room in marketing or through PSAs that may help to create customer empathy and in turn perhaps a return to civility in how we engage with others.

Whichever path you choose, or others you choose to create, employers should pay attention to the data. It’s an empirical representation of the toll being taken on employees who are customer-facing and represent your brand every day. The toll is real and measurable and represents a business risk as material as financial and competitive risks.


Kevin Gregson

Kevin Gregson

A consulting industry veteran, technology entrepreneur, and insurance industry innovator, Kevin formed Aniline while working on the insurance vertical of Plug and Play, a technology incubator in the Silicon Valley. His vision for Aniline is based on applying the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to help organizations improve the lives of their people. Also a senior advisor to Plug and Play and a board member of Nassau Insurance Group, his past roles include senior executive positions at Willis Towers Watson, Alvarez & Marsal, and Ernst & Young.