Enraged customers fuel a disturbing trend

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

June 24, 2010


Applebee's, according to its corporate website, is all about good service: "We take pride in having a friendly, welcoming, neighborhood environment for both our staff and guests that makes everyone enjoy their Applebee's experience."

Apparently, not everyone was enjoying their dining experience at the Forestville, Md., location two weeks ago when a customer who had been tossed out the door in a dispute over the meal bill allegedly shot and killed an off-duty state trooper working security for the restaurant.

It is not clear what displeased the customer — be it the food, the service, the prices. Whatever his beef, the resulting violence fits an emerging pattern of recent years: Vengeance has increasingly led many unhappy customers/clients to kill.

Growing numbers

A Kentucky physician was slain last year by a patient over a dispute involving a prescription for pain killers. A California man, unhappy over his dealings with a San Francisco law firm, killed eight at the firm's offices. And a Prince George's County, Md., man attacked two furniture deliverymen for being late and damaging goods, killing one and injuring the other.

Though the problem of customers registering their complaints through violence is not of epidemic proportions, the number of killings committed by angry clientele now roughly equals those by disgruntled employees.

Twenty-five years ago, it was virtually unheard of for a dissatisfied customer to seek murderous revenge against a company or service provider. However, economic resentment is now felt not only by aggrieved employees, but also by unhappy clients and customers who seek to avenge perceived mistreatment by restaurants, stores, hotels, law firms and hospitals.

From 1997 through 2008, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workplace killings committed by angry clientele has more than doubled, even while workplace homicides in general have declined.

Behind the trend

In 1997-98, 60 homicides were committed by disgruntled customers and clients; in 2007-08 the figure was as high as 133. Overall, 500 such cases occurred from 1997 through 2008, more than half of which took place in public buildings, such as restaurants, banks or retail stores. Of these homicides, 20% involved office workers or health care and social service employees. The alleged assailant at Applebee's had a criminal record, but so do millions of other Americans who regularly dine at restaurants and shop in stores. His past history of criminality is obviously not the only issue here.

The steady rise in customer/client violence appears to stem from a combination of factors, including worsening economic conditions and greater corporate depersonalization. In a complex, bureaucratic society, more and more citizens are feeling powerless against incessant phone recordings or red tape. Criminologists recognize that frustration increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior.

Unlike popular recommendations for reducing the threat of employee violence, a company can hardly profile or pre-screen its clientele or refer irate customers to an anger management program. Yet a solution to the problem of the vengeful customer is clear. Companies must enhance their customer relations efforts to deal with the growing alienation and cynicism among consumers. This is more than just a good business strategy; it could defuse volatile situations before they turn violent.

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are criminologists at Northeastern University in Boston and co-authors of Extreme Killing.