Customer Experience News & Trends

Customers behaving badly: How to handle 4 tough situations

As hard as you work to make experiences great, some customers work harder to make them awful. Here are four real-life situations when customers behaved badly – plus effective tactics to handle them.

It’s especially important to address issues with tough customers because studies show that front-line staff who regularly handle them get stressed. Then morale drops and turnover rises. So companies suffer from losing good employees.

You can learn from the smart moves or sour mistakes made in these situations.

1. Customer threatens employee

Most customers are rational. A very few are irrational and don’t deserve to do business with you.

Case in point: A lot went wrong when a teenage boy working at a bakery bought a cookie for a police officer who had ordered one.

After the officer thanked the young man for the gesture, the next customer at Great American Cookies in Katy Mills Mall in Texas turned angry. According to the employee’s mother, who posted the incident on Facebook and started a viral firestorm of criticism: “The family walked up and said ‘are you going to buy mine too?’ My son replied with ‘I’m sorry I bought his because he is wearing a badge …’ Then this customer started verbally attacking him, calling my son a racist & threatened to beat him up. His wife threatened to go back there and slap him.”

Their complaints prompted the cookie store to suspend the employee. His boss quickly rescinded the suspension, apologized for doing it and backed up his decision to buy the cookie and handle the irate customer.

Better approach 1: Companies want to ban customers who threaten violence to employees, not reward them with a gift card, discount or, in this case, employee punishment. They’re potentially dangerous to employees and business.

Better approach 2: Investigate thoroughly before acting. The manager “wrote up” the employee after hearing the angry customer’s account and before getting more of the story from colleagues. Once he had the full story, the manager recognized he’d acted hastily and should apologize and reverse the decision.

2. Customers are rude, disrespectful

Some customers are harder to handle because they’re condescending and rude. In one study, front-line service pros estimated that 19% of the customers they deal with are downright rude, impolite or disrespectful. From that study, here are a few comments employees said they’ve heard from rude customers:

  • Why don’t you get a real job?
  • You must feel proud to wear that uniform. But my sunglasses probably cost more than you make in a week.
  • Don’t talk to me. I don’t understand Spanish people, and I don’t like them.

Two tactics to try when dealing with customers who are rude and condescending:

  • Call discreetly for back up. An employee who was trying to help a mean customer slipped her boss a sticky note  that read, “This woman doesn’t like me.” That was a lighthearted, simple cue for someone else to try to alleviate the situation.
  • Be a guru. Avoid getting defensive. Instead, stay graceful, tactful and calm. Persistent, level-headed behavior can remind them that you are a professional who needs to be treated as such, according to Brenda Pontiff, the founder of Partner Track Academy.

3. Customers lie

Angry customers, who are likely to be rude, are also likely to lie, a University of Sydney study found. Part of the reason: They’re more likely to have extreme reactions — such as lying even though they aren’t normally liars — when they’re upset, researchers found.

For instance, a customer sent five products back to Kelsey Advertising & Design for a refund. The company refunds or replaces products that haven’t been used. Four of the returns were in original packaging and condition, and one had been torn open and even placed into another package. An employee told the customer they’d refund the four. The customer insisted all five were unused.

Eventually, Brandon Eley, interactive director at Kelsey, got involved. The customer continued to say all of the products were unused and threatened to have her credit card company stop payment for that fifth, questionable item. Eley let it go.

His winning approach: Consider the cost of letting the customer lie. In Eley’s case, it was only about $10. Calling her out on the lie and trying to stop the credit card threat would likely cost him more money, time and stress than the product loss. Not all customer lies will be this inexpensive. So when there’s more at stake, the best bet is to back up your side with all the documentation you have — and never outright accuse customers of lying.

4. Customers demand

Most customers have expectations — and you see eye-to-eye on how to meet them. A few customers have demands — and it’s nearly impossible to even get eye-to-eye.

For example, a Dunkin Donuts customer arrived one morning demanding her meal free (beware, if you watch this: she uses profanity) because the employee the night prior didn’t give her a receipt. Granted, Dunkin does offer free items if the clerk fails to give customers a receipt. In this case, the customer had no proof of any purchase. What’s more, she showed up with a camera to demand more and then posted her rant on social media.

Some customers demand more attention, deals and perks. Social media has made it even easier for them to broadcast their demands and complaints.

A better approach: Even if you try to align expectations, some customers (like the Dunkin girl) will demand more. Rely steadfastly on the expectations your company sets — such as timelines, processes, and quality and relationship standards. You don’t have to tell them, “It’s our policy,” but you can remind them of your consistent practices and how you use them to treat all customers fairly.

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