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Editorial: Companies urged to systematically deal with 'customer harassment'

The issue of so-called "customer harassment," in which workers including sales staff suffer enormous stress and psychological damage from abusive clients, has become a social concern in Japan.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 78 people were recognized as eligible for workers' compensation over the past decade for suffering mental disorders as a result of responding to complaints from customers and business clients. Of them, 24 took their own lives. The situation is one that cannot be overlooked.

During the ministry's hearing survey, companies cited customers' violent behavior, extortion of money and goods, relentless scolding and refusal to leave after business hours as examples of customer harassment. There was even an incident in the past in which a customer forced the manager of a convenience store to kneel down on the floor. The customer was later convicted of extortion.

In general, companies should carefully listen to customers' complaints and then improve flaws, if any, in their services and products. Such responses can eventually lead to an improvement in corporate performance.

Customer harassment, meanwhile, is an act of significant nuisance that oversteps the bounds of customer complaints. Such actions deviate from a desirable customer-company relationship.

According to a survey carried out by retailing and other industrial unions, about 70% of union members said they were subjected to harassment. A separate survey by a private company shows that over half of employees, mostly those in charge of dealing with customer complaints, feel that the number of customer harassment cases has increased over the past three years.

Behind the trend lies the fact that online posts critical of service staff's attitudes toward customers can easily go viral via social media nowadays, inflicting greater stress on staff than before.

Some experts in psychology attribute the phenomenon to an increasingly intolerant society where bashing of others and other abuse are rampant. Or perhaps companies' "customer first" policies have been miscommunicated, leading some customers to assume that they are allowed to do whatever they want.

Companies are obliged to consider the safety of their employees. Firms therefore should make their stance toward customer harassment clear and respond to issues systematically, instead of leaving matters entirely to individual workers dealing with customers.

This past June, the International Labor Organization adopted a new convention to combat violence and harassment at the workplace. Customer aggravation is covered by this new approach.

While Japan's labor ministry has been working out guidelines for companies to prevent power harassment, the draft of the guidelines does not go further than stating that it is desirable to develop counseling systems and other measures to cope with customer harassment. The ministry is urged to provide in the guidelines specific criteria for judging how to respond to such grievances, instead of leaving the task entirely to companies.

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