HR Headaches: How to Respond to Rude Customers and Teach Your Staff

Dealing with a rude customer can be difficult, but with the right training, your staff can respond appropriately and diffuse the situation.

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How to respond to rude customers

The aftermath of the pandemic has small and medium-sized businesses struggling to keep up with demand and supply. Shortages in staffing and inventory are challenging. Add disgruntled or rude customers to the mix and you may see a minor scuffle or an incident that goes viral. For most businesses the old-fashioned, “the customer is always right” is standard operating procedure. Many businesses, large and small have learned that not only is the customer not always right, but that model can also have a negative impact on employees.

There will always be customer issues to address in business: workers and customers make mistakes that need to be corrected. There will also, unfortunately, be aggressive and rude customers. Front-facing employees are generally the brunt of anger that can escalate (sometimes very quickly) from verbal abuse to the destruction of property and even physical attacks. Training frontline staffers and their managers in how to deal with combative customers is key to keeping the workplace safe for employees and other clients.

The customer isn’t always right

Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson shocked the business world when he wrote, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” Branson also insists on impeccable customer service in all his businesses. How do both be true? He suggests employees put themselves in a customer’s shoes when there’s a problem and work together to resolve it.

Often the customer isn’t right,  they may be asking for something that’s unreasonable. They may be abusive and threatening. When business leaders support employees to handle these situations professionally, they provide the best possible customer care. But business leaders must remind their staff being abused isn’t part of the job: they don’t have to tolerate that type of behavior.

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

Prep employees with support

There will always be rude customers that are hard to manage, demand more than what’s reasonable, or are simply disruptive. Siding with them over employees sends the wrong message. When you let employees know you trust them to do their best, even in the heat of the moment, you provide the support they need to manage customers who are difficult.

Remind staff that they are not being paid to be abused — no one deserves to be mistreated by rude customers. If frontline employees are intimidated or threatened by a customer, they must immediately call their supervisor for support. The message must be clear: you don’t have to tolerate abuse – we’re here to help.

Supporting staff is only the beginning — they’ll need training to handle the public when things go south. Basic training can help employees de-escalate the situation, empowering them to resolve the issue with the customer before it gets too heated. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to bring in reinforcements – either a manager or sometimes security or law enforcement. Here are some tools that might work.

De-escalate the situation and rude customers with empathy

You may see them coming, or they may spontaneously erupt, but as soon as a customer becomes abusive or unruly start with empathy. Your gut instinct may be to go on the defensive – you’re under attack and that’s natural. Shifting that reactive response can lower the tone immediately. Rather than fighting back and watching the situation get worse, try an empathetic posture and tone.

Keep your voice even and calm, speaking slowly and quietly. Apologize and ask the customer how you can help fix the problem. You may have no fault in the mistake, but you can understand how frustrating it can be. Working with the customer to resolve the problem, rather than arguing, can keep the situation from getting worse. Here are two examples.

  • You’re short-staffed and a customer has waited in a long line to check out. By the time they get to the counter they’re visibly upset. Start the encounter with “I’m so sorry you had to wait – we’re short-staffed but we’re trying to do our best.” It may not be your fault there’s a long line, but sharing that you know how frustrating it is to be in one often cools down the situation.
  • A customer has received the wrong food or product – again, you may not have been the one who prepared their order, but you know how annoying that can be. “Oh no! Let me fix that for you right away – I’m so sorry!” Empathy, instead of defensiveness, should be the first response to try to keep the problem from escalating.

Take rude customers down a notch

If the customer sees you’re trying to be reasonable and helpful, they’ll be reasonable too.

Sometimes empathy doesn’t work. The customer may be rude, vulgar, or abusive. The next step is to try to resolve the problem professionally. Let the customer know you’re sorry they’re upset, and you’re happy to help, but you’ll need them to work with you, calmly to get that done.

Start with a calm, empathic tone, and avoid the instinct to go on the defensive: “I’m sorry you’re not satisfied and I’d like to fix this, but I need you to work with me to get what you want.” They may not be quite ready to calm down – you may have to repeat yourself a few times, but often, if the customer sees you’re trying to be reasonable and helpful, they’ll be reasonable too.

Fix a rude customer’s mistakes with kindness

Occasionally the mistake is completely the customer’s fault. They showed up at the wrong time or day for their appointment. They bought something from another store and are trying to return it to yours. You’ll want to point out the mistake with kindness rather than shaming them. Often making a joke, “No worries — I’ve done the same thing myself,” can help. Stay calm to try to resolve the problem with kindness and a bit of humor, if possible.

When rude customers get out of hand

Some customers will continue to be abusive no matter how hard you try to help. For these, it’s time to bring in assistance. “Let me get my manager to help you,” should be the calm response whenever an employee feels threatened or overwhelmed by rude customers. It’s not their job to be mistreated – when they need help, their team leader must step in.

Often just knowing they’re talking to someone in charge helps calm down an unruly customer. The manager may use the exact tone and techniques as the employee did, but they feel better accommodated when someone higher up hears their concerns.

Don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior

In some instances, employees will need to call their manager and outside assistance. You may want to warn the customer you’re calling security or the police or do so quietly, but if the situation escalates to one where you feel threatened or intimidated, definitely call 911: it’s always much better safe than sorry.

Remind your employees often they are not required to tolerate inappropriate behavior from anyone – even customers. If they can’t manage the situation or the customer, or if they feel endangered in any way, call for help immediately.

Few people are trained to manage arguments, so offer these basics.

Employee checklist:

  • Keep a calm, empathetic tone – speak quietly and slowly. Apologize for the mistake or problem and offer to fix it.
  • Don’t take insults personally. Don’t go on the defensive, don’t argue – stay calm and professional to try to de-escalate the incident.
  • Call manager for help if you can’t resolve the situation or if the customer continues to be rude.
  • Call security or the police if you feel threatened or intimidated in any way.

Managing the aftermath of a rude customer

Unruly customers can make employees feel drained after an encounter. If the customer was very aggressive or threatening, consider sending them home rather than finishing their shift. Small steps that recognize they’ve been through a lot message your support for employees and their professionalism.

Employees are the face of your company to the purchasing public, but that doesn’t mean they need to tolerate abuse. Not all customers are worth keeping: talented employees are. You’ve trained your staff to manage rude customers properly, but mistakes happen. Remind staff they have your support and trust to resolve issues professionally. If the situation is beyond their ability or they’re intimidated, they should be confident there are people and resources to help and support them.

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