Toxic customer services: a prize-winning idea

Dr Mark Stein

Dr Mark Stein, Senior Lecturer and Director of the MSc Management at Tanaka Business School, has received the prestigious Richard Normann prize.

Held in trust by Templeton College, University of Oxford, the prize is intended to reward ‘outstanding insights into the service economy, value co-production, and business innovation and change’.  While the Richard Normann fund has been in existence since 2005, this is the first time an award has actually been made.  Dr Stein was awarded the prize at a ceremony at Templeton College on Thursday 29 November, 2007.

Mark Stein received the prize for a paper that focuses on the relationship between employees and customers in the service economy.  It articulates the notion of ‘toxicity’ as a way of understanding some of the more subtle, complex and problematic aspects of the employee-customer relationship. Toxicity is the idea that - especially when under severe pressure from customers - front-line service employees may have the experience that they have been poisoned or polluted by toxic substances. This theme also helps us make sense of certain of the underlying processes and systemic issues involved in problematic employee-customer encounters and has important implications for both theory and practice. For example, it helps us understand why difficult interchanges with customers may lead front-line service employees unwittingly to transfer the tensions to their relationships with their colleagues and other customers.

The international panel of judges independently and unanimously agreed that Dr Stein’s paper merited the award.  They commented:  ‘Stein's work offers grounds to deeply re-think how realistic the empowerment of the front-line worker can be …[and] … has profound implications for the customer-service employee boundary and its design and management. We are thus delighted to award the first Richard Normann Prize to him’.

Richard Normann was a profound and sophisticated management thinker.  His ideas had a far-reaching influence on the theory and practice of management. He often challenged conventional thinking and was prepared to ask bold questions.  As well as publishing many books and papers on management theory, he was president of the Scandinavian Institutes for Administrative Research, before founding the Service Management Group.  He later started an applied research company called NormannPartners.  He died in 2003.

Dr Stein’s research interests are in the fields of leadership; service; the employee-customer relationship; teams; organisational learning; human and organisational aspects of risk and disaster; and the psychoanalytic study of organisations.

Dr Stein has previously received an Emerald Citation of Excellence for an article he published in 2004 in Human Relations, the journal of the Tavistock Institute.  He has also published two books and numerous other articles in journals such as Journal of Management Studies, Organization Studies and Human Relations.

Further details about the award can be found on the Richard Normann prize website at:

A longer version of this paper has also been published by Dr Stein in Organization Studies (August 2007, volume 28, number 8) and this will be made freely available via a link on the Richard Normann Prize website

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