Tips to help your employees handle aggressive customers

With attacks and threats on staff increasing in recent years, it’s essential to make sure employees know what to do in these situations. Here are some top tips for preparing them.

Customer aggression and conflict continues to rise and be a major concern for businesses. During Covid-19, escalations of customer behaviour in some industries rose as high as 400 per cent. The effect of dealing with aggressive customers is immense. It can affect job satisfaction and increase the risk of burnout, leading to staff turnover and recruitment challenges.

There is a clear distinction between dealing with a customer who is angry, frustrated or upset and a customer who is aggressive. With aggression comes an increased safety risk. Building both confidence and capability in dealing with aggressive customers should be approached with three strategies:

Unacceptable customer conduct policy

You need a clearly defined and documented formal unacceptable customer conduct policy to support your team and set clear expectations for customers. There is a duty of care to comply with Work Health and Safety obligations by identifying and mitigating potential risks to your employees and protecting their safety and wellbeing at all times. The policy needs to visibly promote zero-tolerance for aggressive conduct in the workplace and educate customers on the consequences of abuse, such as restricted contact or removal from the premises.

Clear escalation path

This can include formal warnings, an immediate escalation to a manager, duress alarms or involvement of security or police. The formal escalation policy needs to be known and socialised across your business and included in all induction training. No team member should ever be wondering what to do if faced with aggression or threats of any nature.

Skills for de-escalation

Managing customer aggression is a skill, and providing your team with knowledge and skills training is critical. I have witnessed firsthand the difference it makes when the team has the training, tools, de-escalation techniques and confidence to face even the most difficult of customer interactions. 

On a practical level, these steps are recommended when dealing with an aggressive customer.

1. Assess

Watch for the signs of escalating customer behaviour. People may exhibit physiological signs, including clenching of fists or facial muscles, sudden movements, moving into your personal space, physical contact, shouting, throwing items or pounding on a counter. These signals will alert you to escalating behaviour and help you make a decision to exit the situation quickly. 

2. Calm

It is important to remain calm and in control. You can prevent or stop an amygdala hijack (in which your emotions may run wild) by breathing, slowing down and trying to focus your thoughts. This will allow you to regain control and choose a reasonable and appropriate way to respond to the situation.

3. Exit or engage

You need to make an immediate decision whether to exit the situation immediately to ensure you are not in any danger. Decide whether or not you are in a position to engage and have a conversation with the customer.

If you feel it is safe to do so, hear the customer out and let them vent their frustration. Empathise with them and, in some cases, it may even be suitable to provide an apology. Ask questions to ascertain details about their issue or problem and then take ownership for a resolution, outcome or explanation.

4. Report

Depending on the severity of the situation, it may need to be escalated immediately to a manager, security, or the police. Post incident, a formal report should be prepared, details added to any customer notes, and leadership informed. 

It is crucial you recognise the impact of customer aggression on team members and take steps to protect their wellbeing. This includes the implementation of policies, providing training on de-escalating difficult and aggressive customer behaviour, offering support and championing a culture of respect from customers.

This story first appeared in issue 41 of Inside Small Business magazine.

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