Modern Training

4 eye-opening tips for dealing with customer incivility from a 20-year service industry vet

Posted on: December 12, 2022Updated on: October 12, 2023By: JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

Rude customers. We’ve all met them. Hopefully, we’ve never been them. Rude customers were an unfortunate part of my daily life as a frontline manager for almost 20 years. You run into lots of interesting people when you work in movie theaters and theme parks. Most are friendly and accommodating. Some are … definitely not those things.

Bad customer behavior tends to escalate during the holiday season. It’s regrettable but unsurprising. Budgets are tight. Stores are packed. People are stressed. Frontline employees, especially seasonal workers who just stepped into their roles, need help dealing with challenging customers so they feel safe and confident doing their jobs. However, according to new research from Cleveland Clinic, the frontline may be facing the most challenging holiday season ever when it comes to customer incivility.

Cafe worker talking with angry customers

Customers are getting ruder

A reported 62% of surveyed frontline workers experienced customer incivility (rudeness, disrespect or insensitive behavior) on a monthly basis in 2016. That number jumped to 76% in 2022. 78% of workers believe bad behavior from customers towards employees is more common today than it was five years ago. Axonify’s seasonal worker survey uncovered similar concerns, with 61% of employees claiming to have experienced a hostile situation or conflict with a customer.

Bad behavior has become the norm rather than the exception on the frontline. Every employee—regardless of role, industry or time of year—deserves a safe and respectful workplace. They also need help overcoming these difficult situations when they occur. However, more than one-third of frontline workers told us they’re not trained on how to handle difficult customers.

This lack of preparedness and support damages employee trust, morale, engagement and loyalty, resulting in increased absenteeism, accelerated turnover, poor performance and negative business outcomes. After all, would you want to work hard in a place where it’s OK for customers to yell at you every day? Of course not!

We can’t wait for people to get nicer, so organizations must put plans in place to protect employees (and their businesses) from customer incivility.

Here are four tactics to effectively deal with rude customers.

1. Make sure managers are present

A manager is your best defense against rude customers. They’re a visible deterrent with the authority to “break up” with customers if needed. Their presence provides an immediate boost to employee confidence, especially for new and seasonal workers who have limited job experience and may therefore be more likely to stumble into challenging situations.

As a guest experience manager with Disney, I spent 90% of my time in the operation alongside cast members. I made every effort to be visible, even if I wasn’t needed. This helped me build relationships with my team and earn their trust. Persistent presence also allowed me to intercept issues before they reached the cast too many times to count.

While it’s getting harder for employees to avoid rude customers, it’s also getting more difficult for managers to protect them. The 2022 Deskless Report found that 49% of managers are burned out on a daily basis. They’re struggling to balance competing priorities, limited staffing and demanding customers. If you want them to take care of your frontline workers, you need to unburden them first. Look for ways to simplify the manager role, such as reducing administrative tasks and making it easier to find and share information. This will get managers out of the back office and into the operation where they can properly support their teams.

2. Appreciate great customers

Not all customers are challenging. Plenty of the people who walk into your stores, restaurants and hotels every day are awesome. Rather than focusing entirely on a small group that causes big problems, companies must acknowledge and appreciate the positive contributions customers make to their businesses.

For example, I empowered team members to grant small discounts to customers who were kind and patient during busy periods. It didn’t cost much, but it went a long way to demonstrate our appreciation and foster loyalty. Avoid the temptation to spend all of your time and energy punishing the bad. You still need to enforce the rules, but you can also find simple, unique ways to reinforce the good. Loyalty programs may recognize allegiance, but only frontline workers can recognize positivity.

3. Provide ongoing de-escalation training

Are you familiar with the LAST method?

  • Listen
  • Apologize
  • Solve
  • Thank

It’s a simple, memorable and incredibly useful way to overcome challenging customer situations. It was the first thing I learned on my first day at my first job. My trainers knew difficult customers would be part of my day-to-day. As a high school kid just entering the workplace, I had to learn how to deal with these situations ASAP to have a positive experience. Twenty years and three careers later, I still use LAST as a de-escalation technique.

People step into frontline roles with various levels of customer service experience. Some have been doing this for 30 years. Others have never dealt with the public before (like 17-year-old me). Customer service, especially reading and reacting to challenging situations, is a particularly difficult skill to master. It takes more than a one-and-done course to get everyone on the same skill level.

Customer service training must be an immediate and ongoing priority for every frontline worker. People need opportunities to practice applying their skills in safe, low risk environments. Customer service is a lot like safety in that allowing people to figure it out as they go adds unnecessary risk to the business. Instead, use microlearning activities to provide 2 to 3 minutes of training and practice to each shift. Plus, make sure managers have the knowledge and skill needed to coach and provide feedback on how employees handle challenging situations so they can learn and evolve their approach.

4. Enforce rules consistently

The easiest way to lose employee trust is to let rules slide. This is especially true when it comes to rude customers. Why should someone put in the hard work (or show up to work at all) if they feel like the company doesn’t support them in challenging situations?

As a manager, I knew my employees weren’t always right. They’re people. They make mistakes. However, I also knew how damaging it can be to overrule an employee in front of a customer, especially if the customer is wrong. When I needed people to pick up extra hours or take on extra tasks, they were more likely to help me out because they knew I always had their backs.

No matter the saying, the customer is NOT always right. In fact, they’re often wrong. They deserve to be treated with respect —but not at the employees’ expense. Post clear expectations for customer conduct and hold people accountable. Create escalation guidelines employees and managers can use to enforce the rules, including when it’s okay to “fire” the customer.

Rude customers are an unfortunate and unavoidable part of frontline work. If you want to attract, enable and retain staff, you must put tools and processes in place to help employees deal with them. It’s not just the right thing to do for your people. It’s also the best thing you can do for your bottom line. Research shows that people’s willingness to use a company’s products and services takes a 35% drop when they witness rude behavior.

You probably didn’t need the research to recognize that incivility is on the rise. There are lots of reasons for it, and it’s a hard problem to solve. But if every customer service business does its best to prepare employees, enable managers and recognize great customers, maybe we can start to reverse the trend this holiday season.

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect's Headshot

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

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