If a less-than-cordial salesperson at your favorite store has already put a damper on your holiday shopping experience, relax. One Brigham Young University professor says poor customer service is probably not the fault of the person behind the counter.

"They just get burned out," says Gary Rhoads, an associate professor and member of the BYU business management faculty. "It's not necessarily from talking to so many customers. It's more from not being able to appropriately cope with the stress."Rhoads drew that conclusion after he and Jerry R. Goolsby of the University of South Florida conducted a study showing that customer service representatives rank ahead of lawyers, nurses, social workers and air traffic controllers in several categories relating to job stress. The two studied customer service representatives in various department stores and other agencies in the United States and Europe.

"The problem customer-service employees encounter is that they lack the proper training people need behind the counters," Rhoads said. "These people are grumpy because their work environment is very stressful and they haven't been trained properly to deal with it."

Ray Farley, manager of University Mall's ZCMI store, disagrees. He said his store hires more than 100 people to help with the holiday rush, and each employee is required to spend a week learning customer service techniques and procedures.

"They go through extensive training," he said. "They are required to get a certain number of hours of training in customer service, policy and procedure before they go on the floor. They are then assigned to a seasoned employee before they go out on the floor by themselves. They are very ready to meet the problems they may get."

But the salespersons who hunker down in the holiday trenches disagree with what their superiors say.

Kathleen Anglin, of Spanish Fork, has spent several holiday seasons behind the retail counter. The 15-year veteran has rung up tickets for several big-time Utah county retail stores, and managed stores like J. Riggins and Rollinex Shoes in University Mall. She said she feels employers would rather save money than properly prepare new employees for the stress of the job.

"They pull in these young kids to save money by paying them minimum wage," she said. "Most of them don't know how to cope with the public."

Rhoads contends that while proper training could help salespersons with the pressure, employers spend far too little time promoting it.

"Often the training time is not enough, and there usually is no follow-up offered," he said. "They don't have the skills and resources they need for a job with a high stress level."

The lack of training ultimately leads to the even larger customer service problem of "depersonalization." That happens when the employee comes to the end of his or her rope. People waiting to purchase items are treated as objects by the employee. In that state of mind, employees also feel indifferent about who they help, lack any personal character and are generally callous and cold to the public.

"People who work with the public as much as customer service people do, burn out their coping mechanisms, get overwhelmed then just burn out overall," Rhoads said.

Anglin said salesperson burnout is abundant locally . . . especially during the holidays.

"I've seen a lot of burnout," she said. "I still go through hard days when I burn out because I become completely absorbed by my work. That's when the burnout begins."

Although several causes may be to blame for the holiday season service blues, Rhoads said he feels that any reproach should fall not on the employee or customer, but on the store's management techniques and resources.

"A customer service job is inherently positive," Rhoads said. "People go into the job looking for the good they can do to the public. But they aren't trained well enough to cope with unhappy customers, and managers just don't back up their employees after they have an unpleasant interaction with a customer."

Managers of local department stores feel that grumpy Christmas-shopping customers are partly responsible for grumpy customer service employees. They say good customer service is an important part of retail industry and one they work hard to implement.

"It's not fair to say that bad customer service is solely the fault of the employee, manager or the customer," Farley said. "I don't think customer service has died a horrible death. It is as alive and well as it has ever been because our customers demand better service."

Roger Hamlet, manager of the Provo Sears store, said he feels his employees naturally want to help the customers but are often misunderstood by the general public.

"Every one of the salespeople is another human being, and they don't get up in the morning thinking, `What can I do wrong today?' " Hamlet said. "They want to do good to every customer. All retail stores try to take extra care of the customer."

"If you work in the service industry, you have to care and you have to try and you have to be successful," Hamlet said. "If you don't care about the customer, I don't want you in the store as an employee."