Skip to main content

Handing belligerent customers – with better customer service

The right customer service can help mitigate shopper aggression.

We’ve all seen videos of customers being abusive to airline personnel, in grocery stores, in banks, and … also, bad customer service examples are everywhere.

Stories have been written about the abuse and there is an abundance of signs imploring people to not mistreat staff. But frankly, posting a sign does little to keep it from happening.

In these times, especially, we should be treating each other kindly. All of us are under an enormous strain of non-stop bad news everywhere we turn which runs the gamut from “There’s a new virus coming” and “There’s a ship stuck in the canal” to “There’s a cat stuck up in a tree.”

Why? Everyone everywhere is looking to catch eyeballs and let’s face it…fear sells. The constant fear we’ve endured over the past two years has decreased our capacity for empathy. Instead of going from zero to 10 on a gradual scale and escalating to out-of-control when something is more warranted, we now go directly from zero to 10; we’re either on or off.

This is a vicious circle only you can break. We must teach empathy with employees, or they will be unconsciously tripping that on/off switch in customers.

An example of a bad customer service interaction
This past December, I drove to Newark airport to leave for a scheduled business trip to Dubai, got the COVID-19 test the airline had recommended, waited, and got my negative result.

It was 5:45 pm. We boarded in an hour.

I went to business class check-in and tried to upload my test results. It didn’t take.

I asked an agent, “This isn’t working and I’m flying to Dubai shortly - can you help?”

“Scan this,” she said.

I scanned the QR code she had on a badge. She walked away.

The website was in Arabic.

I found her again. “Hey, that didn’t work. It’s in Arabic and I don’t speak that.”

“Try again,” and she stuck out the badge. I scanned it - the same thing. “That didn’t work, and it won’t take the Covid test results.”

“Then I guess you took the wrong test,” she said.

“What?” I shouted.

“Sir, you can’t yell at me.”

“What are you saying? I just took the test United said to take. I have the negative results.”

“Sir you can’t raise your voice at me.” That made me even more upset.

“Wrong. I paid $10,000 for a ticket in business class on this airline. I did everything I was supposed to do. You’re going to get on a phone and call a supervisor and get this done. Now.”

Yes, not my finest moment but…. She got on the phone and low and behold, she could fix the problem in under a minute.

Why do I share this bad customer service example? Because it highlights the other side of what is happening with the customer/customer service interaction. Employees have no idea what is going on in a customer’s life prior to interacting with each other.

We went back out into the world expecting people to be nicer. Our hearts were open to new possibilities. To fulfill our craving for human contact. To get back to normal. But normal is gone.

Customers are greeted with signs telling them to be patient with fewer employees and less merchandise. Retail associates, hospitality workers, and almost every business’s employees came back to a world with fewer employees. Shorter hours. More self-service. Less merchandise. More demands.

Associates thought with the return of shoppers, there would be a greater appreciation for retail workers. That they would treat them better than pre-pandemic.

But here’s the thing. We treat people we fear much worse than those we feel empathy for. And that’s on both sides.

What part do associates play in creating angry customers?
In more normal times, something might have irritated a customer, but they wouldn’t end up swearing at you, calling racial epithets, or threatening to – and do – flame you across multiple social media channels. But that is happening more and more.

This often comes from associates anticipating a reaction. Since they’ve met with some resistance before, they can fear that all customers will be belligerent. I must tell him something he won’t like, let’s get this over with, etc.

Because of that they may feel defensive and attacked all the time. I imagine the airline agent, dealing with a record number of travelers, has plenty of stories of when customers went off on her. I might even be one of them as a person with privilege and a business class seat.

But they don’t change how they deal with the public and so the cycle repeats. And remember, those who practice empathy but see others get away with dismissing customers will either become coarser themselves or move on to an employer who values empathy.

How bad customer experiences can be avoided
When coaching after a blowup occurs, I always ask the associate, “What did you say to them prior?”

From a customer standpoint, it often isn’t just that they couldn’t get a refund, or an update on an order, it is the way information is relayed or the tone used. If it comes off dismissive, you’re lighting the match for a blowup.

On my most recent flight, I started to enter the CLEAR FastPass lane, held up my phone like I usually do, and the woman stopped me and asked in an accusatory tone, “Are you trying to use CLEAR to get in TSA pre?”

I’m sure she has thousands of people who try to use that lane not knowing it is separate from TSA pre, so anyone working the front of the CLEAR line is bound to have had her patience trounced on again and again. I was irritated that it sounded like I had done something wrong, but politely said, “Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

But someone needs to train employees to simply start with, “Good morning.” Wait. And then ask the question without the attitude. They’d find people would be nicer to them.

What are the root causes of bad customer service?
Understand the customer – while it can seem hard to have compassion for everyone, sometimes changing the way you view the abuser can give you insight into coping with the abuse. Keep the abuse - within reason - in its proper context. When the customer gets angry, it isn't about you, it's about them and the frustration they feel.

Most of us learned how to be empathic toward others from how we observed others interacting with people. We still do.

If you see your boss being dismissive of an employee or customer in front of you, it will harden your feelings. Worse, hear them being dismissive behind a co-worker’s back and you feel they might say the same about you. Some people call this “siege mentality.”

This developed as some associates, many considered essential workers, developed zero tolerance for anyone not wearing a mask precisely covering the mouth and nose as the customer entered the store. In a world where they couldn’t control much, they could control those entering your business. That helped erode empathy as well.

Maybe working with a mask on makes people irritable. Maybe having to shop with a mask on makes people irritable. What excuse will you have once masks are no longer required?

You can change how customers treat you by how you engage them. Talk to them as people, not something to handle quickly so you can move on, and practice empathy. What is empathy? It’s the ability to step into the eyes and heart of someone else, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives and to use that understanding to guide your actions. That makes it different from being kind or sympathetic.

George Bernard Shaw said, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” Empathy is about discovering those tastes.

You can’t just focus on product knowledge without realizing that left alone, untrained employees will revert to how they feel when threatened and act accordingly. They continue providing reasons customers don't return.

When someone leaves and conditions do not improve, work gets shifted to others without additional pay or training, and the narrative becomes “Step up, work harder!” rather than "How can we fix what is happening together?”

There are no easy solutions and as mask mandates are lifted, the rotten feelings we have toward customers and shoppers could remain. It will be paramount to anyone working in retail to acknowledge and work to address all sides of the situation if we are to get through it.

Otherwise, whether someone is treated poorly or witnesses someone else being treated unfairly, they might pause before getting in their car and going to a brick-and-mortar store. And everyone loses when consumers just go online.

[Read more: CSA Exclusive: Q&A with Bob Phibbs, ‘The Retail Doctor’]

More Blog Posts in This Series

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds