How To Deal with Angry, Difficult Retail Customers: A Guide To Calm Angry Customers

Covid caused a spike in bad customer behaviour, but difficult customers are not new. Read why it’s time retailers adopt a zero-tolerance policy for abuse & get tips to handle disgruntled customers.
min read
Retail Express Team
June 20, 2022
Retail Express Team
June 20, 2022

Table of contents

It’s been a tricky time to be a human over the last two years — particular if you've been keen to dodge a virulent, deadly disease. Or if you work on the retail frontline.

Lockdowns, masks, QR codes and product shortages and limits have all taken their toll on the polite retail professional who must deal with difficult, angry customers while Just Trying to Do Their Job.

Incidences of bad customer behaviour have skyrocketed in Australian retail since the pandemic. But it’s not been as bad as in the US. In September 2021, a woman pulled a gun on servers at a Philadelphia restaurant after she was politely asked to order online.

So at least no one is getting shot down under. We are the lucky country, after all. But how much abuse should a retailer take? 

And how should you deal with angry customers in retail during and after Covid? 

It's essential that retailers know how to calm down an angry retail customer while setting firm boundaries. In this article, we'll show you how.

Like to improve the customer experience, automate tasks and de-stress your staff with better POS software? Get a live demo with one of our retail experts to learn more about Retail Express today.

Disillusioned, angry customers aren't always personally attacking the shop assistant during the pandemic. They don't always see the retailer as a human being. Instead, they’re raging against the machine. "We will not take this unjust policy, this discrimination! Our rights, our freedoms! Now, cop this!"

Angry retail customers raging against the machine{What’s really going on: angry retail customers raging against the machine}

It’s undeniable that Covid has created a spike in incidences of aggression. Time magazine’s editor-at-large recently wrote, "The combination of a contagious, life-threatening disease and a series of unprecedented, life-altering changes in the rules of human engagement has left people anxious, confused and, especially if they do not believe the restrictions were necessary, deeply resentful."

In the article above, psychologist Bernard Golden says, "Half the people fear Covid... half the people fear being controlled". In the minds of some, lashing out at frontline workers is not rudeness; it's civil disobedience. 

(Meaning: Disillusioned, angry customers aren't always personally attacking the shop assistant during the pandemic. They don't always see the retailer as a human being. They are raging against the machine. "We will not take this unjust policy, this discrimination! Our rights, our freedoms! Now, cop this!")

Although Covid has fuelled many horrible events in retail, sadly, they're nothing new. As Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at the QUT Business School, Gary Mortimer, argues in a recent article for Inside Retail (paywall alert),  customer abuse and aggression have been happening for decades.

But isn’t the customer always right?{Why the ‘customer is always right’ fallacy needs to change}

Mortimer argues that, among other things, there is a solid sociological basis for this behaviour and that customer abuse is deeply embedded in the service economy. After all, it's 'serve-ice' with an unconscious understanding of a master/servant dynamic. 

How often have we been told that the customer is always right? 

Retail assistants warmly welcome customers into the store, ask if there's anything they need, scurry to get them a suitably sized garment, and perhaps even make them a coffee. The 'master and servant' dynamic is at work. 

Compounding the problem is that many workers in retail are female or from minority or migrant groups. And these groups are (unfairly) expected to be subservient and often more the subjects of aggression and abuse. They lack what Mortimer calls a "status shield", unlike, say, a doctor or lawyer, and are considered easy targets.

But what happens when the retailer must ask the customer for proof of purchase? Or to put their mask on and stop touching the display products? Who's the boss here? 

Mortimer explains that "customer enchantment (quickly) turns to disillusionment". The fragile master/servant relationship is threatened. The customer becomes disillusioned, powerless and downright offended — and the abusive language and behaviour begin.

However, "The fact is, the customer is not always right. Abusing retail and fast-food workers is wrong. No one deserves a serve while they are just trying to do their job", says SDA National Secretary Gerald Dwyer.

Retail Express offers powerful and flexible retail POS software that can help your business avoid frictions and frustration and offer outstanding customer experiences. Plus, our CRM and loyalty tools make rewarding customers effortless. Get in touch with Retail Express today to find out more and organise a free live demo.

Actionable ways to deal with difficult retail customers{Actionable ways to deal with angry, difficult retail customers}

Tackling this issue is multifaceted, so we've broken it down to the following points: 

Remember the phrase: "I wish I could. What I can do for you is…"

1 highly effective trick to calm an upset customer during Covid-19{1 highly effective tip to calm an upset customer during Covid-19}

NPR News interviewed customer service expert David Brownlee, who advises the following to help diffuse patrons before they explode: 

  1. Let's imagine the customer doesn't want to wear a mask. (Or take their sticky ice cream outside. Or not smoke.)
  2. Take a deep breath and listen to the customer with empathy. Let them vent a little.
  3. Ask them: "So what is the problem with wearing the mask?" Let them tell you. Perhaps they think it's unnecessary. Maybe it's impinging on their freedom.
  4. Finally, you reply with the promised simple technique/magic words: "I wish I could. What I can do for you is…"
  5. Brownlee says this is usually enough to diffuse most situations. 

However, sometimes situations escalate, and the customer begins to yell. Receiving abuse is not part of your job description, so get out quickly. Walk away, call the manager or contact the security guard immediately.

From the blog: Ultimate Customer Experience Examples & Actionable Tips for Every ANZ Retailer

5 Tips on how to deal with an angry customer — at any time{5 Tips on how to deal with an angry retail customer — at any time}

Business advisors Keyba offer the following advice:

  1. Control your emotions, stay silent and give the customer your full attention, listening closely – Although the moment is heated, it may be easy to diffuse the situation and convert them from a bad customer to a loyal customer. (Closely listening will also help you decide if you want to keep them) Don't rush them. If required, take notes to show that you are trying to resolve the issue.
  2. Show empathy and acknowledge their situation and feelings – Speak slowly and calmly. Repeat their complaint so they know they are being heard. Do not blame anyone — be it the company, suppliers or staff.
  1. Clearly explain the positive things you can do to help the customer – Customers respond well to being prioritised and listened to. Be honest with what you can do and how you will do it. Stay confident and don't show uncertainty. Explain how you/management will resolve the problem and the likely outcomes. Ask the customer what outcome they would prefer. If appropriate, ask them if they'd like a beverage while they wait.
  1. Ask the customer if they would like a follow-up call – By demonstrating your willingness to follow up and ensure all needs are met, you're exceeding expectations and delighting the customer. That’s important. But you must deliver on your promise so you don’t undo all your good work.
  2. Thank the customer for alerting you to this issue and allowing you to resolve it – Again, unhappy customers want to be heard and acknowledged. Now, suppose you deal with the situation successfully and make the customer feel happy. In that case, you also have an opportunity to cross-sell or upsell. Then, your efforts reap positive rewards on several levels: customer happiness, loyalty, brand building and increased sales.
“Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for retail customer abuse...”

Storewide policies & strategies to manage aggressive customers & stop abuse{Storewide policies & strategies to manage demanding customers & stop abuse}

  • Provide instruction, staff training and supervision on how to de-escalate aggressive behaviour. Be sure staff are clear on their rights and perform role-playing exercises to practice their responses to rude people, and disgruntled or bad customers.
  • Have clear policies and procedures on how your business manages aggressive behaviour - and ensure all staff are aware of these policies and procedures.
  • Communicate storewide policies to customers – exercise a zero-tolerance policy for customer abuse. Be highly proactive in your messaging. Put signs outside clarifying rules on mask-wearing, social distancing and hygiene. Have signage in different languages. Amplify these messages on several channels — social media, call waiting messages and in-store audio recordings.
  • Let customers know that these rules are part of the whole organisation. Everyone has to follow it — both staff and customers. Staff should explain to customers that they are simply following orders — these rules are not at the discretion of the individual employee.
  • Have a one-page document for customers outlining the rules – make this readily available for staff to show customers. This takes away ownership from the employees.
  • Explain that these rules are based on government directives with fines involved – Be open and honest about your company's responsibilities under these government directives. Explain that you must comply to look after everyone's health and safety. Tell them there are huge fines if your retail store doesn't comply.
  • Communicate reasons for shortages: Display messages if items are out of stock (due to freight/supply problems) and give positive messages regarding your actions. E.g., "We’re working with a new supplier and plan to have more stock available in three weeks.”
  • Consider physical barriers – Barriers enforce safe entry and physical distancing — in case aggressive behaviour by an irate customer escalates
  • Consider video surveillance, security or duress alarms – This is useful for high-risk work environments
  • Consult with online and floor staff to identify violent or aggressive behaviour risks – Are there long queues in certain areas? In demand/short supply products? Are there any situations where you know there may not be a positive outcome?

From the blog: Redefining The Post-Covid Retail Customer Experience with Innovation, Connection & Relationships

Penalties for coughing & spitting: how to report it{There are penalties for coughing and spitting – here’s what to do}

Penalties apply to people who intentionally spit out or cough on a worker (while at work or travelling to/from work) in a way that would reasonably likely cause fear about the spread of Covid 19. If an incident occurs, you can report this breach of rules to Crimestoppers.

Contactless payment is fast and hygienic for retail stores during Covid

Think ahead: proactive in-store ideas to avoid frustration during Covid{Think ahead: proactive instore ideas to avoid frustration}

Prevention is better than damage control. Think ahead – and as mentioned above, speak to all staff for feedback on any potentially frustrating circumstances that may lie ahead. Could you alleviate potential frustrations with any of the following?

  • Avoid queues: Covid has been synonymous with queues, making even the best of the short-tempered. Consider hiring extra cashiers so that no one has to wait. Similarly, use quick keys at the POS to hasten check out further. These on-screen buttons for popular products require just one tap rather than searching for an item. 
  • Enable contactless payment: Allowing a customer to quickly swipe their mobile phone to make a payment can save valuable time throughout the day.
  • Keep your store tidy with popular products easily accessible: Make it easy for customers to find what they want so there’s no reason to feel inconvenienced.
  • Add registers through mobile devices: You can easily open another iPad or laptop and connect it to your POS if you have an omnichannel POS system. It’s a perfect solution for busy times, depending on your retail industry.

Read more on how eCommerce POS integration can dramatically improve your business

Sweetening the deal: gift vouchers to appease disgruntled customers{Sweetening the deal: gift vouchers to appease disgruntled customers}

Sometimes things will go wrong. It may be your fault; it may be nobody’s fault — but either way, the customer is left feeling disgruntled. And at a time when we’re aspiring to offer outstanding customer experiences, an apology may not be enough. So why not sweeten the deal and win your customers over for life with a gift voucher to make them feel acknowledged.

Retail Express has convenient POS software for times like this. You can create fantastic brand experiences using some of our CRM and loyalty tools. For example, you can give them an omnichannel gift voucher (providing you’ve combined your bricks and clicks, omnichannel-style). It’s quick to implement, easy to please, and chances are, your customer will spend over the designated amount—win/win.

The last two years have certainly proved to be a crazy ride for retailers, toilet paper aside. Keep in mind, though, that you can quell many a hysterical moment simply by listening intently and acknowledging the customer. But if that doesn’t work, remember the SDA’s latest slogan: No one deserves a serve — especially when you’re just trying to do your job.

Need industry information on Covid-related work issues?{Get helpful industry information on Covid-related work issues in your state}

Safe Work Australia provides a handy portal here, covering each state with information on current business restrictions, work health & safety, vaccine info, risk assessments, signage and more.

Next steps-

Retail Express may not be able to stop all customer abuse. But we can offer you incredibly powerful and flexible retail POS software that helps your retail business avoid frictions and frustration. Plus, you can create outstanding customer experiences to sweeten the deal with our CRM and loyalty tools. Get in touch with Retail Express today to find out more and organise a free live demo.

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