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

December 22, 2021
HR Headaches: How to Respond to Rude Customers and Teach Your Staff

Many small and medium-sized businesses struggle to keep up with demand and supply when it comes to retaining support staff to serve their customers. Shortages in staffing and inventory are challenging when they occur. Add disgruntled or rude customers to the mix, and you may see a minor scuffle or an incident that goes viral. For some businesses, the old-fashioned, “The customer is always right” approach is standard operating procedure. But 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. The need to address customer issues in business is always going to exist. Both the customer service representative and customer might make mistakes that can create a tense situation. Unfortunately, there will also always be aggressive and rude customers as well. Front-facing employees generally bear 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 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." His philosophy is, 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 can 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 angry customer isn’t right. They may be asking for something that’s unreasonable or simply just exhibiting rude behavior. They may be abusive and threatening. When business leaders support employees to handle an unhappy customer's situation professionally, they provide the best possible customer care. Business leaders must also remind their customer service rep support team that being abused isn’t part of the job. Simply put, they should not – and do not – have to tolerate abusive behavior when dealing with a customer's complaint.

Prep employees with support

There will always be rude customers who are hard to manage, demand more than what’s reasonable, or are simply disruptive. Siding with them over your 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 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, and 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. In essence, your best bet is to provide them with the tools they need to deal with rude customers. If this doesn’t work, it’s time to bring in reinforcements — either a manager or sometimes security or law enforcement. Here are some additional tools that can empower employees to handle these delicate situations.

De-escalate the situation and treat 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, remain calm and try an empathetic posture and tone when handling rude customers. 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 let them know you 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 2 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 1st response to try to keep the problem from escalating.

By recognizing that a rude or angry customer’s behavior is often due to circumstances beyond either of your control, you take control of the situation and can turn an irate customer situation into a good customer service experience. This not only de-escalates the immediate problem but can do wonders for a business's reputation if customers will walk away with a satisfactory resolution.

Take rude customers down a notch

Sometimes empathy doesn’t work. The customer may be rude, vulgar, or use abusive and offensive language. 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 calmly work with you to get that done. Start with a calm, empathic tone, and avoid the instinct to become defensive. For instance, a customer service rep can say, “I’m sorry you’re not satisfied. 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 even-tempered 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, you might prefer to do so quietly. Either way, if the situation escalates to you feeling threatened or intimidated, call 911. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Remind your employees often that 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 your employees these basics to teach them how to instinctively handle rude and unhappy customers.

Employee checklist for best responses to customer rudeness

  • 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, and don’t argue. Stay calm and professional to try to de-escalate the incident. Practice active listening to what the customer is saying.
  • Call a 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 the employee home rather than forcing them to finish their shift. If they’re that upset, be sure to follow up with them a few hours later to make sure they’re OK. Not all customers are worth keeping, but retaining talented employees is definitely a priority. Small steps that recognize they’ve been through a lot signal your support for employees and their professionalism. So 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. Let them know you are there to intervene on a case-by-case basis if things go beyond their control or comfort level.

Knowing how to handle rude customers betters your business

Helping employees overcome significant obstacles they face, such as rude customers, goes a long way toward creating a positive company culture, reducing turnover, and retaining top talent. Not only that, but when employees are happy, customers experience higher levels of satisfaction. This means you’ll expand the number of loyal customers you have and grow your revenue stream. For more on important aspects of customer service, HR, and management, count on the business tips, tools, and resources at Workest.

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