Public Release: 

A new category of heel: The customer service saboteur

WSU student analyzes ways customers get on each other's nerves

Washington State University


IMAGE: Washington State University student Joel Anaya found ways to categorize customers who ruin the service experience for others. view more

Credit: WSU photo

PULLMAN, Wash.--There are jerks, and then there are jerks.

Joel Anaya has given them a fair amount of study, focusing on that very special jerk who can take a routine service experience--dining out, paying at a cash register, air travel--and make it a nightmare.

Anaya has even coined a term for it--"customer service sabotage"--and discerned seven different categories of rude customers who can be a serious liability for the service industry.

"Customers don't just go to a restaurant to enjoy a burger," he says. "They go to have a good time, to enjoy the ambience of the establishment. If that's ever affected, if they ever leave liking your hamburger but saying they had a bad time, that's not a win for the restaurant."

Anaya, a McNair scholar and senior in Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University, recently presented his findings at the school's Academic Showcase.

Anaya, 21, of Pasco, Wash., had set out simply to study customers who misbehave. Then he realized no one had looked at how those customers affect the experience of others.

For data, he culled more than 200 accounts of customers annoying fellow customers from four websites:,, and

"I never even heard of these websites before," says Anaya.

It was an odyssey in retail-level strangeness.

"There are these weirdoes," Anaya says, "but these weirdoes are now going to be coming into contact with your good, normal paying customers."

In analyzing the different accounts, Anaya came up with the following categories of customer sabotage.

  • "Badmouthers," the most common saboteurs, used profanity and raised their voices.

    "It's crazy what a few bad words can do, how uncomfortable they can really make other customers nearby," says Anaya.

  • "Paranoid shouters," a close second in Anaya's tabulations, are "really irate customers who don't know how to handle themselves." They are like badmouthers but start yelling at the first sign of inadequate service or a perceived injustice.

  • Customers with poor hygiene were a close third.

    "Quite frankly, they smelled," says Anaya. Or they sweat on to other people, picked their noses, sneezed openly, or all of the above. They are most often found on airplanes.

  • Some customers make outlandish requests, like the one who insisted on paying at a grocery store in pennies while others had to wait.

  • "Service rule breakers" don't follow social norms, like waiting their turn instead of cutting in line.

  • "Bad parents with bad kids" refuse to discipline unruly children whose behavior is bothering others.

    This category made Anaya nervous, as if he might be blaming the parent on a flight whose child is crying uncontrollably. But he let the data speak for itself.

    "I just made it objective," he says. "'This kind of customer affected this kind of service experience.'"

  • Unknowledgeable customers will belabor service workers with endless questions or minor quibbles while others have to wait.

Anaya hopes that managers and workers can use the categories to reevaluate customer complaints and in some cases realize their service wasn't to blame, or that the service experience might be changed to head off such behavior in the future.

"It just begins with the acknowledgment as managers to say to your employees, your front desks, your servers: 'Keep an eye out for them,'" says Anaya. "These are the type of people that exist. These are the types of people that may affect our service quality perception from other customers."


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