Philip Davies is MP for Shipley & Co-Chairman of the APPG on Customer Service
Ten months on from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, we continue to face daily challenges as we navigate its far reaching impacts on our economy and society.
Since the start of the crisis, we’ve seen inspiring examples of the nation come together, with moving tributes to the NHS and those who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe. Yet, amongst these shows of support, a concerning trend has emerged across the country – with instances of hostility toward frontline staff on the rise.
Research from the Institute of Customer Service indicates that over half of customer-facing staff have experienced abuse from customers since the pandemic began. The worrying figures span every sector – from retail to public transport networks and even financial services. As we deal with the impact of new restrictions and the onset of the busy festive season, it’s more important than ever that we step up and protect our frontline workers.
The new localised tier system will, in itself, present new challenges, as increasingly frustrated customers kick back against restrictions. As customers looking to enjoy traditional Christmas festivities are told they can only enjoy their drinks with a “substantial meal”, and those looking for last-minute Christmas presents are presented with long queues as stores try to ensure social distancing guidelines are met, I fear that the dwindling patience of the public could put our customer-facing staff at even greater risk of abuse.
I am working with the Institute of Customer Service on a campaign, “Service with Respect”, which encourages businesses and the government to do more to protect these workers.
Alongside my colleague, the Labour MP Chris Evans, and over 100 big-name brands, including O2, Boots and Nationwide, we are calling for the introduction of a specific offence for anyone who abuses customer facing staff.
We’re also encouraging organisations across the county to invest in additional training for their employees, to ensure they are adequately prepared for the ever changing requirements of their roles as we continue to navigate these challenging times.
Through a series of All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings, we have heard concerning and wide-ranging reports from across the nation – with instances ranging from verbal abuse, being shouted and sworn at, to more extreme cases of physical violence.
With 80 per cent of the UK’s employees working in the service sector, the scale of the issue is extremely concerning: and research shows it is not limited simply to face to face interactions. Those working in contact centres have reported occurrences of hostility through phone and online chat services. Combined with increased workloads as the number of vulnerable customers rises, the potential psychological impacts of such behaviour should not be ignored.
In Parliament, I recently asked the Home Secretary what steps her Department is taking to ensure that customer service staff are protected from abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown.
In response, she outlined that any such abuse is unacceptable, and that the Government is working closely with the National Retail Crime Steering Group to deliver a programme of work aiming to provide better support to victims, improve reporting, increase data sharing and raise awareness of this crime.
Whilst this initial response is welcomed, and it’s encouraging to see the issue being taken seriously, I fear this narrow view on the retail sector alone does not go far enough. Our research has clearly shown that instances of hostility span multiple sectors, and the plight of those outside of retail risks being overlooked.
Any form of abuse, in all aspects of life, is completely unacceptable, but we should remind ourselves that these workers have been operating on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic. They have kept our nation running in the most difficult of times – keeping our building lights on, shelves stocked and basic power and water supplies running. We all have a duty to ensure they have the training and respect they deserve to safely carry out their crucial roles.
With different tiered restrictions remaining in place across the country, the role of customer facing staff continues to expand, with many taking on additional responsibilities for ensuring social distancing measures are adhered to and hygiene requirements met. In the face of a progressively frustrated and restless customer base as we approach the busy Christmas season, there is reason that these concerning instances of abuse could continue to rise.
The pandemic continues to bring daily challenges across all aspects of our lives. Yet as we try to rebuild, customer-facing staff will be vital to our recovery, and we must show them they are a valued part of our nation. And this starts by enabling them to do their work safely, effectively and free from the fear of abuse.