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In fear of the customer

Conflict management training can help staff to live less in fear of the customer – and customer complaints in particular. Staff can be intimidated by the power of the customer – ironically often the more progressive the organisation, the more fear staff can feel. The Conflict Training Company promotes the adage that ‘the customer is always right’, but what happens to staff when the customer is always right?

Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961), often referred to as the mother of American Journalism, was quoted as saying “Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live”. Staff and organisations living in fear of customer complaints often do not have the freedom to creatively solve complaints or challenge verbal abuse. Inadvertently staff can be placed in a situation where they are expected to deal with the great variety of insults and abuse handed out by a small but impactful percentage of their customers. Organisations have a responsibility to their customers but also a duty of care for their staff, which includes protecting them from verbal abuse.

In many organisations the impact of abuse on staff from a small minority of customers is out of proportion to the total number of customers they deal with. Abuse from customers and the feeling of powerlessness to stop it is a key reason why staff leave any organisation who deal with the public. In addition to conflict training, progressive organisations need to proactively engage with the management of behaviour from this minority section of their client base. The good news is that this is very feasible.

Firstly, let the subject be aired. Abuse from customers is a hot issue for those who experience it. Ask staff how they would approach the management of abuse from clients – they will have lots of ideas (some of which may not be legal!)

Keep a record of the incidents of abuse to establish the extent of the problem. This is a very useful practice to empower staff and reinforces the message that they are important and have a voice. Without such a system staff can feel they are ‘defending’ themselves when a complaint is made. Remember to keep the reporting factual rather than emotional.

Organisations should then take action with repeat offenders; the client could be referred to a supervisor or manager and if the abuse continues their access to the service might need to be managed. For example, the client is informed that they can only communicate in writing unless they are calm and reasonable.

Lastly, a distinction needs to be made between a customer expressing frustration or anger, and being abusive. Staff should receive Conflict management training to assist them to handle a customer’s frustration or anger and to recognise and draw the line at abuse (personal remarks, shouting, sexism, etc.).

Could this be a charter for stroppy staff and lost customers you might ask? I don’t think so. It is a charter to involve staff in a subject that can have a real impact on them. This approach, along with some conflict training, empowers staff to work in the knowledge that they are supported and have the skills to challenge abusive behaviour in a professional and effective way. When staff set effective boundaries with abusive customers, the abusers have little option but to change their behaviour.

The result in short is, supported, skilled staff, delivering a high quality customer service.



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