How to deal with aggressive customers

Three key strategies when dealing with aggressive customers.

Customer aggression and conflict continues to be on the rise and a major concern for employers. 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 causes stress, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion for frontline workers. It can also impact on job satisfaction and risk of burnout and is leading to staff turnover and recruitment challenges.

There is a clear distinction between dealing with a customer that is angry, frustrated or upset and a customer that is aggressive. With aggression comes an increased safety risk. It is essential to build both confidence and capability in dealing with aggressive customers and must be approached with key three strategies:

1. Unacceptable customer conduct policy

Every organisation needs to have a clearly defined and documented formal unacceptable customer conduct policy in place to support the team as well as setting clear expectations for customers. There is a duty of care to comply with Work Health and Safety obligations, by identifying and mitigating potential risks towards customer service professionals and protect their safety and well-being at all times. The policy needs to visibly promote zero-tolerance for aggressive conduct in the workplace and educate customers of consequences of continued abuse, such as restricted contact or removal from the premises.

2. Clear escalation path

A clear escalation path is required that 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 the organisation and included in all induction training. No team member should ever be placed in a position where they are wondering what to do if faced with aggression or threats of any nature.
3. Skills to de-escalate

Managing customer aggression is a skill, and providing the team with knowledge and skills training is critical. I have witnessed firsthand the difference it makes when the team have the training, tools, de-escalation techniques and confidence to face even the most difficult of customer interactions. On a practical level, the following steps are recommended when dealing with an aggressive customer.

  • Assess

Be observant to the signs of escalating customer behaviour. The customer 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 a fist on a counter. These signals may alert you to escalating behaviour and help you to make a decision to exit the situation quickly.

  • Calm

It is important to remain calm and in control. You can prevent or stop an amygdala hijack by breathing, slowing down, and trying to focus your thoughts. This action allows you to regain control and then choose a reasonable and appropriate way to respond to the situation.

  • Exit or engage

You need to make an immediate decision whether or not to exit the situation immediately to ensure you not in any danger. Decide whether or not you are in a position to engage and have a conversation with the customer. It is important to ask questions to find out further details about their issue or problem and then take ownership for a resolution, outcome or explanation.

It is crucial for organisations to recognise the impact of customer aggression on team members and take steps to protect their well-being. 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 within the workplace.

Monique Richardson, author of ‘They Serve Like We Lead – How To Take Care Of Your People So They Take Care Of Your Customers’ is a service leadership and customer service expert.

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