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This is Broken Customer Service

Do you have a nagging feeling your car really should have passed inspection last time around? Or wonder why your customer service reps treat your most lucrative customers so poorly? Maybe it comes down to an income gap.

Using an in-depth analysis of the pass/fail records of motor vehicle inspectors, Francesca Gino, of the Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Lamar Pierce, of Olin Business School, found that employees are more likely to assist customers that are the most like them, and less likely to help out those who they see as privileged.

Previous research has supported a similar effect when it comes to race, but these new findings instead apply to wealth. In this particular study, the employees-mechanics who made an average of about $15 an hour--actually broke the law to help customers who didn't seem to be wealthy. It was much rarer for customers driving luxury cars to get that same treatment. As the authors write,

"Employee emotional reactions to customer wealth may lead them to take actions that are costly to the organization, unfair, and explicitly illegal."
The researchers examined every motor vehicle inspection in "a large Northern state" (the authors don't identify which one) in 2004. They then followed up with a related questionnaire distributed to 334 individuals, most of whom were students.

Cheating is Easy--and Lucrative
Inspections in the study were done by independent testing facilities, which have an incentive to pass cars that should fail inspection. Cars that pass inspection are likely to stay on the road, and the owners are likely to bring them in for repairs. Cars that fail inspection are more likely to be replaced with new cars, which should need only minimal maintenance.

For inspectors, cheating isn't hard. A skilled technician can easily manipulate the device used to measure emissions, and some technicians will even measure a different car entirely. If that sounds far-fetched, consider that a 2001 covert audit in Salt Lake City found that nearly 10% of testing facilities would overtly test one car in place of another.

Using inspector identification numbers, the researchers were able to come up with a 'pass rate' for each inspector after controlling for time, vehicle, geography, and characteristics of the inspection station itself. Each make and model of car was assigned either a 'standard' or 'luxury' status, with all cars over 10 years old automatically assigned to the 'standard' category.

Inspectors that had systematically high pass rates were considered to be committing at least some fraud, because the researchers believe they were able to control for nearly all factors that might legitimately affect an inspector's pass rate.

Of the 20 inspectors who had notably high pass rates, the researchers believe 18 illegally passed standard cars and nine illegally passed luxury cars. A very few appeared to have been overly strict when examining luxury cars--in other words, they failed cars that should have passed, most likely because the cars were much more expensive than what the inspectors themselves could have afforded.

The researchers then presented their survey respondents with this scenario: While crossing the street in front of a parking lot, you see your classmate, Andy, who can't find a parking spot. Andy asks to borrow your parking pass for the day, which is against university policy. You know you'll get the pass back later tonight. The students were also shown a picture of Andy and the car.

The students were then asked how likely they'd be to help out Andy, and whether or not Andy was acting unethically in asking to borrow the pass. They were also asked the minimum amount (in dollars) they would accept to help Andy.

The result? Andy was a whole lot more likely to get a parking pass if he was driving a standard car.

Do you think you treat people differently according to how much money they make? Do you think customer service people are more willing to go out of their way (legally, we hope) for someone who appears to be middle-class?


Image courtesy flickr user jiazi
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer and editor. You can follow her at
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