Agent Retention

Guest Post: How To Deal with Unruly Customers In the Pandemic Era

Dan Gingiss is an international keynote speaker, customer experience coach, podcaster, and the author of The Experience Maker: How To Create Remarkable Experiences That Your Customers Can’t Wait To Share.

Companies across many industries are being faced with a new and daunting task: dealing with unruly and disrespectful customers. And front-line workers often bear the brunt of customer misbehavior, whether in person or in a contact center.

A major hotel chain recently issued an internal memo from its leadership to hotel owners and managers. 

“We all know this has been an incredibly difficult time in our industry. The global pandemic and societal issues have put pressure on you, associates and guests in countless ways,” the memo began. “Across many industries, including ours, what used to be simple conversations and attempts to resolve guests’ concerns have changed in tone and intensity and at times can escalate unnecessarily into larger scale confrontations. These scenarios can ruin a guest’s experience, take a toll on associates, significantly damage brand reputation and impact business. We are also mindful of public scrutiny of these customer interactions with associates grappling with making real-time decisions as unique and difficult situations unfold.”

Compounding the issue is the fact that there is no longer such a thing as an “offline” experience, because any customer interaction can be photographed and shared on social media – thereby bringing it online. Even customer service calls can be secretly recorded and then shared with the world online.

The hotel’s memo outlined de-escalation procedures – such as treating “every guest with dignity and respect, even when it may be challenging” – as well as when to engage local law enforcement if things really get out of hand.

Restaurants are also consistently dealing with bad customer behavior, usually over masking policies, according to the Wall Street Journal. For example, an Erie, PA brewery owner felt the need to post a sign saying “BE KIND OR LEAVE” on his front door.

The Journal further reported that more than 60% of restaurant workers said they had suffered from emotional abuse and disrespect from customers, and 78% said their mental health had been negatively affected in the past 12 months. 

Today many companies are now questioning the age-old mantra of “the customer is always right,” with some going so far as to outline conditions under which a customer is no longer welcome.

One restaurant owner shared his public Facebook post with the Wall Street Journal: “As we settle into a dine-in paradigm once again, one that puts a premium on the well-being and job satisfaction of each and all of our staff, I feel compelled to make something clear: Any guest who demeans, or belittles the staff of this restaurant will not be welcome here any longer.”

Others have tried to diffuse difficult conversations with humor. A retailer in Long Grove, IL posted this sign on its front door: “If you come into the store without a mask, we will have to take your temperature. P.S. We only have rectal thermometers. Choose wisely.”

What can customer service teams do to avoid confrontations with angry customers?

First, recognize the diverse perspectives of your customer base. Whether for social, political, or religious issues, different customers may react differently to your company’s policies.

Next, try de-escalating first, with empathy and understanding. Remain calm and do not overreact. As the hotel’s internal memo tells employees: “Please do not mirror the negative tone of a guest when conversations get difficult. Words and tone matter.”

Finally, clearly communicate to employees when it is appropriate to call in the reinforcements. For example: 

  • Escalate issues to management when you think (or know) your company has really screwed up. This could be a faulty product, an erroneous marketing campaign, a system outage, or a particular circumstance where a customer was just not treated in the right way. These are generally issues that an agent won’t be able to solve for the customer by themselves.
  • Call Public Relations for any inquiries from the media, such as questions relating to your company’s stock or earnings reports, or any scenario that has the potential to devolve into a scandal or crisis.
  • Call Human Resources for any issue that involves any of your company’s employees, such as complaints about specific employees, general or specific threats against any employee, or social media posts from disgruntled employees or ex-employees.
  • Call the police for any issue that involves real or threatened criminal activity or physical harm to oneself or others.

Ongoing coaching and training of customer service employees on how to react (and how not to react) to customers will be critical to maintaining healthy discourse and a pleasant working environment.