Survey: Nearly 50% of Respondents Harassed by Customers; Some Companies Formulating Countermeasures For Growing Social Problem

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
UA Zensen building in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

Nearly 50% of respondents were harassed by customers in the past two years, according to a survey by UA Zensen, a major labor union that covers industries such as retail and food service.

With unreasonable complaints by customers becoming a social problem, companies are accelerating efforts to formulate measures to protect their employees.

In the survey, respondents cited such cases as “When I asked a customer who was drinking and making noise to lower their voice, the customer demanded an apology, took a video and slandered me on the internet,” and “I was forced to stay outside apologizing for more than two hours in the winter.”

The UA Zensen survey, which received responses from about 30,000 members, found that 46.8% of those polled suffered so-called customer harassment. The figure was 10 percentage points lower than in the previous survey conducted four years ago, partly due to growing awareness of such harassment and increased corporate efforts to deal with the situation. However, it remains high.

Most of the customers who harassed employees were elderly, with the largest group being those apparently in their 60s, at 29%, followed by those believed to be in their 50s, at 27%, and those in their 70s or older, at 19%. By gender, men accounted for 70% of such customers. Specific harassing acts included verbal abuse, at 40%, threats and intimidation, at 15%, and repeated identical complaints, at 14%. Some respondents also cited cases of sexual harassment and being forced to get down on their knees.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Revising name badge policies

Among companies stepping up countermeasures, Lawson, Inc. on Tuesday revised its principle of requiring employees to wear badges displaying their family names. Now they will be allowed to instead use a job title and an initial or letter of their choosing. In late May, FamilyMart Co. also began allowing employees to use false last names on their badges, at the discretion of each franchise.

Telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp., along with partners including the University of Tokyo, are currently jointly developing technology to make voices on phone calls sound less frightening with the use of artificial intelligence. The AI tool can change a caller’s voice to be calm and pleasant like that of an announcer, for example.

It is expected that employees working at call centers will be better able to respond calmly if the potential psychological burden on them is eased. SoftBank and its partners are also considering a system in which an automated voice will warn callers who complain for long periods of time or are verbally abusive. They aim to commercialize such a system as early as fiscal 2025.

Excessive complaints

For many years, companies in general have regarded customer complaints as sources of information that can lead to improvements in products and services. In recent years, however, some costumer complaints have gone too far, amounting to almost criminal acts. In one case, a man used a chainsaw to threaten an employee at a parcel delivery office in Mie Prefecture in 2016.

Retail and food service businesses, whose employees are often in contact with customers, are chronically short of staff.

“Many employees are afraid of customer harassment,” an executive of a major retail company said. “Unless a safe working environment is created, it will be difficult to secure a supply of workers.”

UA Zensen is calling on the government to take specific measures with an eye to the establishment of legal regulations.