Three Strategies for Managing Irate Customers

In many parts of the Western world, early January in retail is a tough time. Customers exchange and return unwanted holiday gifts, stores hold large sales to get rid of whatever merchandise did not make it off the shelves in December, and the college students helping out over the holidays have returned to school, leaving many stores overstressed and understaffed. People in the retail business, like those in the airline industry, food services, and call centers, work with consumers who are not always happy. As websites like the tongue in cheek will attest, customers make life difficult. In many cases the source of a conflict is the disparity between a customer’s desire and the policy of the store. In these cases, those on the retail front lines are caught in the middle, charged with defending a policy that may or may not be in line with their own values while appeasing the person who is irate that she cannot exchange her jeans without a receipt.

What is the effect of these difficult customers on a working environment? Does the existence of a common “enemy” bring staff closer together as they attempt to navigate the tricky waters between customer satisfaction and corporate policy? Or does the displeasure and irritability of the consumer rub off on the staff leading to an unpleasant, and even hostile, work environment? I am not aware of a definitive study that answers this question, but anecdotal experience is inclined toward the latter. In these cases, incivility is contagious. Rudeness or unhappiness on the part of customers has a direct effect on the working relationships of those with whom those customers interact.

In the absence of worldwide civility training for consumers, any change will have to occur from within the retail industry itself. How, then, can we promote a positive work environment when an element of incivility is inherent? If customer incivility is transmittable to retail employees, can those same employees transfer their good behavior to customers? If so, it seems this should be the goal of every retailer. Taking hostility and rudeness out of the equation on both sides would help close that tricky gap between consumer and corporate desire, increasing the chance that both parties walk away happy and that the person in the middle of the conflict has a more pleasant and fulfilling work experience.

There have been attempts at this in the retail world with varying success. The key factor in the unsuccessful attempts seems to be that they attempt to enforce the illusion of happiness on the part of the employees instead of taking an interest in how the employee actually feels. Some programs even require employees to engage in mock banter in front of customers to create a simulation of a happy workplace. The problem is that neither employees nor customers are fooled by this empty cheer. In order to create a legitimately happy workplace, employees must interact with each other on a human level and share the frustrations of their work, but with a view toward fixing them. Any workplace improvement must include the goal of collaborative problem-solving amongst the group that ultimately has a positive influence on the greater retailer-consumer relationship.

Tips for Better Retail Worklife:

  1. Talk to your coworkers. Forced banter doesn’t work but chatting about the commute, your kids, or your vacation plans increases empathy on both sides of the relationship.
  2. Take time before and after shifts to crank up and then, decompress. Instead of moving right from your busy life onto the sales floor, take time to switch gears and connect with your co-workers. Similarly, don’t leave work still upset about the irate customer. Take time to discuss the situation with your colleagues and get input so that you can avoid such a situation in the future.
  3. Create an SOS signal. There is power in numbers. While it is never a good idea to create the impression that you are ganging up on a customer, you should create some sort of signal, a codeword or even a scratch of the nose, that says “I need help now!” and elicits a response from your coworkers or manager.

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