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Article 6 min read

Dealing with abusive customers: 3 ways to have your team’s back

Learn how to carefully handle abusive customers and support your team in the face of conflict.

By Erin Hueffner, Staff Writer

Last updated March 14, 2022

Things were quiet in the store, until the incident. It was a lazy Saturday morning, and I was shopping at a local boutique after grabbing my usual latte. While I browsed racks of fuzzy sweaters, a woman huffed to the checkout counter. Uh oh, I thought. Within moments, the woman was shouting at an employee. She wasn’t just irritated—she was enraged. I watched from a distance as a bewildered staffer tried to calm her down, but this seemed to make her angrier. Red-faced and heaving, the woman spouted obscenities and stomped away before circling back for a second barrage. I stared, open-mouthed in shock as the employee burst into tears. Finally, a manager appeared and swiftly escorted the tantruming woman from the store.

Abusive customers are taking a toll on service teams. Here’s what you can do

Awful as it was, this kind of display isn’t uncommon. We’ve all seen viral videos of airline workers being assaulted by unruly passengers and restaurant employees getting yelled at by upset customers. As the pandemic wears into year three, some people take out their pent-up frustration on the first person they see, and that’s often a service worker. But many workers aren’t willing to put up with abuse anymore, and employers are increasingly taking their side. Some businesses are taking a new look at whether the idea that “the customer is always right” fits the times and are providing extra moral support for their staff. One restaurant shut down for a “day of kindness” in July 2021 after customers brought staff to tears. And a study in the UK revealed that abusive behaviour by customers is on the rise, leading business leaders worldwide to call for stronger protections for their employees. Workers are fed up with abuse. The U.S. Labor Department reported that a record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November 2021, with restaurant and healthcare workers leading the surge. While the reasons are somewhat uncertain, the Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing. After the last three years, many workers are burned out. The bottom line? Businesses need to take good care of their staff, now more than ever, if they want to keep their doors open. One of the hardest things in customer service is trying to help someone who’s complaining, venting frustration, or maybe even cursing at you. And although it’s rarely personal, when a customer gets mad, it sure can feel that way. We’re all human, and we have human needs—to be heard, be validated, and feel safe. That’s true of your customers and your frontline team.

Businesses need to take good care of their staff, now more than ever, if they want to keep their doors open.

But what should you do about customers who cross the line into abusive behavior? It comes down to this: to take good care of customers, you must first take care of your team.

1. Train your team in de-escalation techniques

When you feel threatened, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode: your face reddens, your heartbeat quickens, and you can’t quite think straight. It can happen when someone’s tone gets aggressive or you get a snarky text message. We’re hard-wired to react this way. But when you’re in customer service, anger management is part of the job, so de-escalation training is key. De-escalation strategies help people reduce, prevent, and resolve conflict. Taking the time to train customer service employees in the art of handling tense situations is empowering for them and good for your customers. The goal is to consider the customer’s needs and come up with solutions while protecting your staff’s well-being. Here are some tried-and-true tips:

  • Use positive language. Try to avoid negative terms like never, don’t, and no. By setting a positive tone, you are guiding the conversation.
  • Thank the customer for bringing the issue to your attention. Being genuine in your appreciation can help the customer feel heard. Customer complaints are an opportunity to correct a problem you otherwise would have missed.
  • Tell the customer what you’ll do to help them. After you’ve heard the customer’s complaint and gathered as much information as you can, it’s time to take action. Break down the steps you’ll take to help resolve the issue, and give them a timeline for follow-up. Then, follow through with your promise.

2. Teach customer service best practices

Your staff will inevitably encounter tense situations with customers. Equipping them to handle upset customers means making training a priority—both around good customer service techniques and company policies so they feel empowered to help, or to draw the line. Let them know they have time to resolve an issue, so they don’t feel like they need to rush through a ticket with an irate customer. Here are some best practices to consider:

  • Let frustrated customers vent. That doesn’t mean letting them use foul language or attack you personally—that’s abusive behavior. But recognize that anger and frustration come from not having a need met. If you listen carefully, you may be able to uncover the root cause of their issue.
  • Apologise. Even if you’ve acted 100% within your company’s terms, if the customer doesn’t feel heard, it doesn’t objectively matter. Genuinely apologize for whatever has gone wrong, and then listen to what they have to say.
  • Offer a discount or refund. If the concern is reasonable or if your company messed up, apologise and offer a way to correct the situation. This might mean a discount, refund, or replacement. Make sure your team knows how to do this quickly to diffuse the situation.

3. Make psychological safety a top priority

Sometimes, people are just unreasonable or want to pick a fight. Agents will perform better when they know their manager and their company have their back. It’s crucial to create a standard conflict-resolution process (before things get hairy). Think through the steps and train your employees on what to do when customer relations get tense. Smart use of tech can make it easy for employees to ask for intervention. Influence Mobile uses Zendesk for customer service and has a button on its agent dashboard that employees can push if they need help with an abusive customer. “Our agents are all trained on what to expect and have customer service experience,” says Tracey Hamblin, director of support for Influence Mobile. “We understand that people get frustrated, but we draw the line at getting personal and foul language. The staff knows they can pass abusive customers off to their manager. They don’t have to take the brunt of it.”

The staff knows they can pass abusive customers off to their manager. They don’t have to take the brunt of it.Tracey Hamblin, director of support for Influence Mobile

A policy should address what your team should do if a customer starts yelling, uses profanities, or becomes threatening. Make sure this policy is clear to customers, too. Let the customer know in no uncertain terms that you are here to help them, but you will need to end the interaction if their behaviour continues. If that doesn’t help, your team can and should ask an abusive customer to leave or end an interaction immediately. They should also be able to flag the customer in your system to alert management. And if the customer is a repeat offender, consider whether, or what lengths you’ll go to, to save their business. Ultimately, your team will benefit from seeing that their well-being comes first.

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