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Supporting staff who challenge difficult customer behaviour

Who is responsible for creating angry customer behaviour such as swearing, being patronising, sexist, sarcastic, aggressive, condescending or rude? This question can often be baffling for staff. Frequently they answer by saying they themselves or their organisation create the behaviour. The logic operating is that if we provided the service properly the customer would not react in this way. In other words, we are responsible for the customer behaving in this way.

This assumes that the customer does not have a choice about their behaviour, so if we disappoint them they are entitled to behave in this way. Is this correct? Of course not. Although we may sometimes wish to say something rude to the customer in the face of their provocation, we choose a different option (usually!). The customer has the same choice and a great many of them exercise that choice and behave appropriately.

We need to start allocating responsibility for bad behaviour in the correct place. Customers are responsible for the way they behave. Organisations can indeed make life difficult for customers but it is still the customer who is responsible for how they react.

If a customer behaves inappropriately have I got the right to ask them to stop? Almost all staff members will answer yes to this question, yet many find great difficulty when it comes to acting on it. On almost every single conflict management courses we run, staff will ask how to get customers to stop this negative behaviour. What we believe they are really asking is, ‘How do I stop bad behaviour without actually asking the customer to stop’? They are often fearful that asking the customer to refrain will cause them to react even more, a complaint may be made, and their job might be threatened. This is a very real fear for staff particularly in these difficult economic times.

The only way to stop bad customer behaviour is to ask them to stop doing it. Yes, there are specific strategies that shape how we ask the client to stop, but essentially we have to ask. As mentioned above the customer is responsible for how they react to being asked to change their behaviour. If they do react negatively and make a complaint, it is important not to shoot the messenger. Managers should encourage their staff to address challenging customer behaviour as long as it is done in a professional manner (i.e. not getting angry back at the customer).

We have encountered situations where staff members who have challenged customer behaviour have been asked by their manager if a customer service role is the right one for them. The clear message here is just absorb the bad behaviour and say nothing or you are obviously not up to the job.

Teams and organisations need to change this culture. The customer is king and they may always be right, but that does not provide them with permission to abuse staff. Train staff to handle difficult behaviour and support them through the process when they do challenge poor behaviour.

Each staff member is only responsible for their own behaviour. If they remain professional, calm and in control when asking a customer to refrain from bad behaviour and the customer ‘erupts’, that is the customer’s responsibility.



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