Are retail associates ready to deal with abusive customers?

Discussion
Dec 07, 2016

Any job dealing with the public can be a tough gig, but retail employees are experiencing treatment from customers that veers into the territory of abuse with an alarming frequency, according to a recent article in The Age.

In the article, retail workers in Australia told stories of being spit on and yelled at by angry customers. One retail manager said that since he has been dealing with refunds and loss prevention, people have gone as far as to throw things at him and threaten him with a knife.

Employee anecdotes are bolstered by a study by the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, which represents retail and fast food workers, indicating that of the 6,000 members polled nationally, 44.4 percent had been abused physically or verbally by a customer. The organization has launched a campaign to encourage customers to remain calm when interacting with retail employees.

The internet is littered with personal anecdotes and news stories about retail workers outside of Australia facing down abusive and violent customers, especially in the context of attempting to confront shoplifters. In a 2013 post on one forum, an employee seeking retail management work expressed concern that being attacked and forced to defend oneself could result in the manager being fired. An online legal resource confirms that this is often the path of least resistance for an employer to avoid legal liability.

A U.K. government organization called Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released a document called Preventing Violence to Retail Staff, to address the issue of customer abuse, the first version of which was released in 1995.

The OSHA website reports that nearly two million workers in the U.S. each year report having been the victim of workplace violence, but does not split out statistics on employees who are victims of attacks or abuse by customers. It does, however, note that working with roles in which employees exchange money with the public increases the probability that an employee will be the victim of workplace violence.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Have you witnessed verbal and/or physical abuse of retail employees by customers in the U.S.? Is this type of behavior more prevalent during the holidays? What steps can retailers take to protect their employees from such behavior?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"How to respond to troublesome customers must be part of initial onboarding, but also reinforced on a regular basis."
"...bad customer behavior should not be tolerated — but you might take a moment and ask yourself, why are they so angry at me?"
"After 50 plus years in the business, angry or disgruntled customers are on the increase, as the demands they make are at times over the top."

Join the Discussion!

17 Comments on "Are retail associates ready to deal with abusive customers?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Sadly, abuse is part of daily life for front-line retail workers — especially during the holidays when lines get long and tempers flare. Some customers believe it is their right to be demanding — they are the customer after all. However, there’s a fine line between demanding and abusive, and front-line workers should not be subjected to this or any form of abuse.

The physical abuse described in the article is criminal and should be treated accordingly. Retailers need to take a strong, zero-tolerance position on abusive customers (which many do), and customers exhibiting this behavior should be asked to leave — period. The health and well-being of employees comes before any one customer.

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust
Jasmine Glasheen
Content Marketing Manager, Surefront
5 years 9 months ago

During my days on the sales floor there were many cases of customers threatening or stalking employees. Good retail employees interact with and are polite to everyone, so it can be hard to tell when an interaction takes a turn for the worse. Luckily, large department stores have strong security teams in place. Employees can easily call the security team and have them escort volatile customers/stalkers out, but it can be pretty jarring.

Verbal abuse, however, is slightly more of a gray area. I drew the line at name calling, but many associates grin and bear it. Associates being verbally abused are put in an uncomfortable position: Should they take a stance and ask the customer to leave, thereby risking a negative performance review, or should they respond with stoic kindness?

It’s important for employees in these circumstances to know that management and security stand behind their right to be treated fairly. As my retail experience is with big box stores who had pretty great no tolerance policies, I always felt safe.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

I have not witnessed abusive behavior but have seen customers denigrating retail staff. Unfortunately, some of this behavior is a byproduct of the demand for instant gratification prevalent in our society today.

Retailers can learn from these situations by doing the following: Understanding the reasons behind the customer abuse of staff. Taking a bad situation and fixing it before it becomes a real problem. Fixing the problem at the source. Changing a negative situation into a positive one. Seeing the problem from the customer’s perspective.

However, management can NEVER allow their staff to be abused in any manner, physically or emotionally. Here is where the manager needs to extricate the staff member and take control of the situation.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

I’ve seen angry customers, yet I haven’t seen anyone cross the line into being physically abusive. There are words, sometimes inappropriate, and regardless of the reason for the abusive language, there is no excuse for it. Stress and tension is higher during holiday shopping. When there is a confrontation, a manager must step in. If it is the store’s or employee’s fault, a manager can help right the situation. But even so, the manager must show employees that he or she has their back. It is an opportunity to showcase the manager’s leadership qualities, negotiation skills and to become a role model for employees to emulate.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest

As a supermarket manager in Chicago in the ’80s, trust me I had my share of abuse. How to respond to troublesome customers must be part of initial onboarding, but also reinforced on a regular basis. Lead by example and require your managers to stay on the sales floor as much as possible.

Lee Kent
Guest

I’m going to add a slight twist here. I stood in line one time and witnessed incredibly abusive treatment by a customer to the cashier. The cashier tried very hard to ignore the ranting and continued trying to ring up to get the customer out of the store. She was getting so rattled her hands were shaking. She finally asked the customer to leave and the customer would not. The cashier was the manager on duty so there was no one else to call.

My twist here is that none of us in the line, nor any other staff, said or did anything. In hindsight, I think that was awful, me included. It was clearly the customer who was in the wrong but we left it to the cashier/manager to handle.

Where’s the procedure for that? For my 2 cents!

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Training employees has dissolved into “over there is the bathroom and breaks are taken here — shadow Jane.” In addition, stores that were created to run on four or six person coverage are now on two. Everyone’s at the breaking point. Conflict resolution isn’t a part of the job description. Especially with the add-on demands of picking online orders.

Until retailers put enough people on the floor and train them well I would expect more and more instances of employee abuse by customers. Shoppers know if they do it and throw in, “the customer is always right” they’ll probably get their way and management will not side with the employee.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
Nikki Baird
VP of Strategy, Aptos
5 years 9 months ago
I think retailers need to be sensitive to the amount of frustration their experience creates in customers. We’ve come out of decades of cutting labor in stores, of forcing self-service onto customers, of forcing store employees to tell customers, “I’d like to help you but my system won’t let me do that.” Violence on planes is a good example — what do you expect to happen when you cram people together into less space than they’ve ever had, nickel and dime’d them to get there and then tell them things like “The flight is cancelled and we don’t have another for four days, sorry.” Of COURSE you will get people who are willing to cross the lines of polite society. I think you’re seeing the same thing in action in retail, though to a much lesser extent. You made me stand in line at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day in order to get the TV I can afford, and after standing in that line for hours, I got there and you didn’t have it? Yeah,… Read more »
Tom Redd
Guest

With retail shoppers that blow up, the floor training and role playing workshops are a must. Store people need to stick with, “the customer is always right.” Some of you know me and when I have seen this happening in a store I step in as a loyal shopper and help calm the customer down or get them out of the store. Sometimes the shoppers need to help control the other shoppers.

I have done this many times and store people are quite relieved when I get the other shopper quiet or convince them to leave the store … and I have not been beaten up yet! If you can ever help the store team then step up — and in — and help.

TRedd

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust
Meaghan Brophy
Senior Retail Writer
5 years 9 months ago

Tom, thank you for bringing this point up. I’ve been the associate in this type of situation. Just another customer coming up after the issue is resolved and saying “Wow, that person was crazy — you did a great job,” goes a long way. However, I think retail employees should be more empowered than “the customer is always right,” because that power dynamic is what creates a lot of problem situations in the first place.

gordon arnold
Guest
Yes, I have witnessed store associates abused by the consumer, and by management as well, on a daily basis for many years. This problem is growing for a number of reasons. As mentioned in the discussion, training is a problem that has only been dealt with from the legal perspective. Associates are gathered and instructed to read a company policy and training manual and told to sign a waiver form that is filed for future demonstration of company compliance. The manager in charge of this responsibility is rarely trained to instruct with any more effort or understanding. In short, the training to date is useless. This serves to nourish the problem and relative issues to the extent that exponential growth is seemingly out of control. Solutions like blame, outside consultative services and seminars have shown no ability to stunt the growth of these nightmares. Maybe attaching this issue to the corporate executive pay plans with outside and employee audits might be worth a try — as if that will ever happen or even be considered.… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

I don’t think the first two questions really matter. It does not matter whether I have witnessed abuse of an employee or whether it happens more at this time of year or any time of year. The fact of the matter is that it happens and that employees need to learn how to deal with it.

Move out of the world of retail and just think of all of the articles that you have been reading about abusive passengers on airplanes.

Just as flight attendants have been trained to deal with these situations and airlines have very definite policies on how to deal with the problems, retailers need to take the same approach.

Karen McNeely
Guest
Although nobody should be abused on the job there are certainly ways to defuse most upset customers. My first rule of thumb is to not get defensive and realize that the customer is usually not attacking the employee directly, but venting their frustration to them as an agent of the company. Realizing this can make it seem less personal. Secondly, you need to exercise empathy. The worst behaved people feel like they’ve been treated badly, so while you may not feel like helping them out, that really is the best thing you can do. Some version of, “You seem very upset, what can we do to fix that for you?” will go a long way. If the employee is not able to accommodate the customer’s wishes (which could sometimes be as simple as acknowledging that they had a long wait or had a frustrating experience and to apologize for that, but sometimes not) then either explain what you can do and/or offer to let them talk to someone who has more authority than they do.… Read more »
Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust
Meaghan Brophy
Senior Retail Writer
5 years 9 months ago
Yes. Absolutely. As an employee in retail settings, I have experienced verbal abuse over the phone and in person (luckily never physical abuse or actual danger). The key to getting through in a verbal abuse situation is recognizing that it is not personal. Remaining calm, friendly, helpful and even joking around can help defuse the situation. Getting upset or angry in response will only fuel the customer’s fire. Usually, when a customer is being verbally abusive they are not actually angry with the retail employee. They are having a bad day and any speed bump in the customer service interaction serves as the icing on the cake and gives them an avenue to vent built up frustrations. Since the holidays are a stressful time for many people, and many more people are out shopping than usual, it does create a perfect storm for an increase in abusive behavior towards associates. However, there is a line between an angry verbally abusive customer and an actually dangerous situation. Managers need to train their associates on how to… Read more »
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Contributing Editor, RetailWire; Founder and CEO, Vision First
5 years 9 months ago

I have witnessed many ugly situations, and they escalate during times of stress, i.e., holidays. Retailers need to have defined policies and stand behind employees in abusive situations.

Tony Orlando
Guest
After 50 plus years in the business, angry or disgruntled customers are on the increase, as the demands they make are at times over the top. We do have a policy of not arguing with customers, and if they are still not satisfied, the manager or myself will step in to resolve the problem. Modern technology online has upped the ante on everything from free guaranteed 1 hour delivery to price matching, and a no questions asked money back on any return, no matter how much the product was already eaten or destroyed by the customer. This will make for some tense moments at the courtesy counter or check out, and it needs to be handled quickly, and fairly, with someone who can keep the conversation flowing smoothly. We have had to escort — sometimes a police escort — a few drunk customers over the years, as I will not tolerate anyone trying to engage in lewd activity with my young cashiers. For the most part we have dealt with these issues without anyone coming… Read more »
Kyle Harris
Guest
5 years 7 months ago
Well, it’s two-fold. There are untold numbers of unscrupulous retailers out there. Even some of the legitimate ones can have a history of questionable practices. So when someone enters a retail establishment, their internal defenses are already up. And it’s retail … we open the door to the general public and invite anyone in. You don’t know what kind of day/week/life these strangers have had, but you do your best to make their time in your establishment the best you can. Those of us who have been in this a long time, you learn something about an abusive customer. Reacting to them NEVER works. It’s like a Democrat and a Republican arguing. And, in fact, it makes a bad impression on other customers. I’ve had a number of people BUY things after getting verbally abused by someone else and keeping my cool. Years ago I had a customer come from another location and we were supposed to hold something for him and didn’t. He saw the last one of his Christmas presents walk out our… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"How to respond to troublesome customers must be part of initial onboarding, but also reinforced on a regular basis."
"...bad customer behavior should not be tolerated — but you might take a moment and ask yourself, why are they so angry at me?"
"After 50 plus years in the business, angry or disgruntled customers are on the increase, as the demands they make are at times over the top."

Take Our Instant Poll

How well trained are retail associates when it comes to dealing with abusive customers?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...