Handle Abusive Behavior

25.06.2018 |

Episode #6 of the course How to serve upset customers by Jeff Toister


Generally, it’s our job to try to help an angry or upset customer feel better.

Yesterday, we focused on ways to avoid certain words or phrases that are likely to trigger a customer’s anger if we use them at the wrong time. This approach often works, but like most techniques, it’s not foolproof.


When Customers Cross the Line

There are some occasions where an angry customer crosses the line and becomes abusive. Some swear, yell, or even threaten. Others engage in inappropriate behavior, such as sexual harassment.

Our role changes in those moments from trying to help the customer to protecting our own safety, as well as the safety of our coworkers and customers. Today, we are going to focus on two things:

• How can you tell when a customer has crossed the line?

• What should you do when that line is crossed?


Where Is the Line?

The exact location of “the line,” or when a customer has crossed it, can be difficult to determine. It various by industry, by situation, and even by the individual.

For example, employees at an apartment complex have strict rules about appropriate behavior when interacting with tenants. One rule is the tenant must fully clothed before employees enter that person’s apartment. This is designed to avoid any uncomfortable situations or any sexual harassment complaints from either the employee or the tenant.

Those same rules wouldn’t work in an assisted living facility where employees help residents with daily tasks such as bathing. Employees of that business need a different set of standards and work rules to determine what is and is not appropriate behavior from residents.

It’s a good idea to have a conversation about abusive behavior with your boss and coworkers. Discuss experiences you’ve all had where you believe a customer crossed the line and try to identify a few guidelines for determining when behavior crosses the line in the future. You may find through these discussions that people have different opinions about what will or will not be tolerated, so it’s good to try to get everyone on the same page.

One type of behavior that clearly crosses the line is violence or the threat of violence. If that happens, your first concern should be safety for you, your coworkers, and other customers.


What to Do When the Line Is Crossed

This can also vary by industry, situations, and the individuals involved.

You may be able to de-escalate some situations yourself. For instance, a bartender might directly address a customer making sexually suggestive comments by politely and firmly asking them to stop. Or a contact center representative might firmly advise a customer using profanity that they will disconnect the phone call if the customers continues to swear.

Such direct approaches can often be highly effective, but many employees are understandably uncomfortable being so direct about abusive behavior, especially when serving a customer face-to-face.

Sometimes, it helps to have a manager intervene. Abusive customers will often dramatically change their tone when a manager gets involved. This allows the manager to help de-escalate the situation while protecting the employee from further abuse.

Every situation and business is a little bit different, so it is a good idea to identify your procedures for situations where a customer crosses the line. Here are specific questions to answer:

• What specific actions should you take?

• Is a manager or coworker available to assist you or intervene?

• How do you contact security or the police if someone threatens violence?

Knowing the appropriate security procedures in advance can give you the confidence to do the right thing whenever you are faced with an abusive customer.

I hope you won’t need today’s lesson too often! Tomorrow, we’ll move on to a more pleasant topic—recovering an angry customer.


Recommended reading

Why Sexual Harassment Is a Customer Service Issue


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