When angry customers turn violent

By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin,  2/11/2001

ECENT WORKPLACE massacres - four employees murdered at a truck plant in suburban Chicago and seven employees gunned down at a high-tech firm in suburban Boston - have again raised fears among workers and their supervisors in companies large and small.

Could a co-worker from hell be seated at the next desk? While many corporate officers have responded aggressively in an attempt to reduce the risk of a violent incident at the hands of their own employees, little attention seems to be paid to another risk lurking just outside the company reception area.

It isn't only workers who blame their problems on the company. Disgruntled customers, clients, and even patients sometimes seek through sabotage, violence, or even murder to avenge perceived mistreatment by banks, loan offices, manufacturers, law firms, hospitals and clinics, schools and colleges, unemployment offices, and courthouses - in short, by ''the system.''

Every year several dozen workers are killed at the hands of customers or clients who feel like victims of injustice and decide to take matters (and guns) into their own hands. Over the past decade, at least a dozen such cases have involved mass murder. In 1999, for example, 44-year-old Mark Barton killed nine people at two Atlanta day-trading companies where he had lost a half-million dollars buying and selling Internet stocks. Barton was on a suicidal rampage, but first he exacted revenge against the trading firms he held responsible for his financial woes.

Vengeance was similarly the motivation behind many other customer/client rampages in recent years: Eight people were slaughtered at a San Francisco law firm by a distraught former client; three physicians at the Los Angeles County Medical Center were shot by a chronically ill patient; four public employees were gunned down at a courthouse in New York's Schuyler County by a deadbeat dad; and eight others were shot to death at a Jacksonville GMAC office by an embittered customer whose car had been repossessed.

Twenty years ago it was virtually unheard of for a dissatisfied customer to seek murderous revenge against a firm or company. However, fighting city hall has taken on a new and ominous meaning. Economic resentment is now felt not only by vengeful employees but also by disgruntled clients and customers who seek to get even with the system - to win one for the little guy.

In a complex, bureaucratic society, more and more citizens are feeling powerless against the red tape and unresponsiveness of big business and government. Most, of course, will do little more than complain loudly about injustice. But increasing numbers refuse to sit back and take it.

Part of the problem lies in the impersonal or ineffective response of customer relations. Increasingly, consumers are frustrated by automated phone systems with endless and confusing button-pushes and lengthy holding queues, notwithstanding the claim by a recorded receptionist that your call is important.

Once in a while, the frustrated caller is transferred to someone's voice mail announcing that the right person to talk to is away for a month of Sundays.

On the rare occasion when a live human being picks up, it is likely to be some overburdened, uninspired, and poorly trained customer relations representative who would never have been hired at all during less prosperous times. All too frequently, the customer relations associate attempts to justify incompetence by suggesting that the computers are down or that a computer error is to blame for his or her inability to resolve your predicament. In many companies, customer relations personnel are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Customer service has too often become customer disservice.

And now, with virtually every company having an Internet site, getting help and satisfaction is almost impossible. The corporate Web pages (absent address and phone numbers) instead offer a section on FAQs - frequently asked questions - but they are seldom the questions that you seem to have. For that, you have to log on to www.customerservice.com/dont-hold-your-breath.

Unlike prescriptions for reducing employee violence, a company can rarely profile or screen its clientele or refer angry customers to an employee assistance program. Yet a solution to the problem of the vengeful customer is clear. In the face of growing alienation and cynicism, large companies and agencies must upgrade and humanize their customer relations efforts. They must make easily accessible an adequate number of competent and concerned human beings rather than impersonal machines. And, above all, companies must remember the adage: The customer is always right, especially when he is holding an AK-47.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University. They are co-authors of ''The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder.''

This story ran on page E07 of the Boston Globe on 2/11/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.