Dealing With Difficult Customers

dealing with difficult customers

Dealing With Difficult Customers

October is National Safe Work Month. This initiative was started by Safe Work Australia to open up a dialogue about keep the workplace safe. Everything from work health and safety seminars to mental health at work and customer abuse falls under the purview of Safe Work Australia. In today’s blog we’re going to look at how to deal with difficult customers.

Difficult customers are not something new to retail and other customer-facing industries, however post COVID-19 there has been a marked rise in the amount of abusive customers, especially in the retail space.

According to the National Retail Association, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, more than 85% of workers claimed they were getting abused either verbally or physically regularly. And retailers reported an insane 400% increase in customer aggression.

This aggressive behaviour has real implications for the staff working in these industries, causing stress, anxiety and loss of motivation. Though the level of abuse might have dropped slightly since the height of the pandemic, verbally abusive and physically abusive customers continue to be an issue in customer-facing workplaces.

Let’s look at how to deal with difficult customers, when it’s time to kick them out of the store, and what precautions you can put in place to negate the risks.

Abuse or just another angry customer?

The first thing to establish is whether the interaction constitutes verbal or physical abuse or if this is just another angry customer. While a difficult or angry customer is still not a pleasant experience for anyone, it’s important to know the difference between them and save the situation if you can.

Just another Angry Customer

If a customer is:

  • Upset and expressing their disappointment
  • Showing some anger and asking what can be done

This is just another angry customer. People can be pretty upset when things don’t go their way. This kind of response is short-lived and reasonable, they will calm down.

How to deal with a difficult customer

You can negate the duration and intensity of their response by:

  • Showing empathy, trying to understand why the experience has upset them.
  • Lowering your voice so they will match your tone, this helps to calm them down.
  • Offering solutions to the problem, what can you do to fix this, so they are less upset.
  • Know what you can do within your company’s policies to fix the situation for them.
  • Stay calm, they will likely calm down soon.
  • Remember not to take it personally. When you are working in a customer-facing job, you represent the company and sometimes this means that customers will treat you like you are the company and take their frustration out on you. At the end of the day, they are upset with the company and not with you personally.

Now it’s Abuse

If a customer is:

  • Yelling
  • Swearing
  • Making sexist remarks
  • Making remarks about your cultural background, race, sexual or gender identity
  • Making personal remarks (calling you ugly or something to this effect)
  • Making threats, like I’ll get you fired
  • Standing over you
  • Invading your personal space
  • Throwing things
  • Pounding tables
  • Other physically threatening behaviours

Then it’s abuse, and this calls for a different kind of action. When a customer gets abusive you should:

  • Use calm language to try and deescalate the situation.
  • Ask them to leave the premises or disconnect the call (if you are on the phone with them).
  • Activate the alarms or call the security team.
  • Seek help from work colleagues.
  • Retreat to safer location.

Immediately after dealing with an abusive customer

Once the abusive customer has left or been removed from the premises, you will have store policies that dictate what you should do now to deal with the situation. But as a start you could:

  • Ensure the area is safe. Anything that has been broken is cleaned up, and any hazards are removed.
  • Take photos if they have caused any physical damage to the store, the stock or you.
  • Administer first aid if needed.
  • Provide support to anyone affected, comfort the worker who has abused or the other customers who witnessed the situation.
  • Begin the reporting process through your work channels and if necessary, through Safe Work and the police.

How to negate customer aggression and violence

There are some things you can do to minimise the risk of aggression or violence in customer facing roles. Identifying the risks and the possible scenarios before the arise will help to negate the possibilities of customer aggression.

Identify Possible Risks

In customer-facing industries there are certain situations and scenarios that can result in a higher risk of people becoming angry and possibly aggressive or abusive.

Here are some examples:

  • General stress and anxiety in the community related to the pandemic and the rules ie; physical distancing, rules around masks etc.
  • Condition of entry requirements such as requirement to check in or wear masks.
  • Products or services that are restricted or not in stock.
  • Limited business hours.
  • Queues and wait times, limits on the number of customers within a store.
  • Limited staffing.

Be aware and reduce risk where possible

If there are going to be wait times, queues or products not available it is understandable that this can result in angry customers.

Reduce the risk of customer aggression by:

  • Having signage explaining the wait times, restrictions or rules
  • Warning people with signage that a product may be sold out or unavailable.
  • Train staff and make everyone is made of aware of any rules, product shortage or other issues and how to handle customers who are affected by this.

Final Thoughts

It can be difficult dealing with customers who are stressed, upset or angry but provided they do not cross the line, and become abusive, showing empathy and trying to solve the problem will go a long way to calming them down.

There is no excuse for abuse so if customer is taking it too far, put your safety and your other customers’ safety first and get them removed from the premises. You can learn more about handling abusive customers here at the Safe Work Australia site.

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