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Resources To Prevent & Deal With Workplace Conflict With Customers and Colleagues
Understanding Hostile Customers (Article) 
 
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On The Line 

Understanding Hostile Customers 

You probably see hostile customers every day.  You know, the ones 
that treat you like a personal dumping ground for everything that 
has ever gone wrong in their lives?  They may be sarcastic, or 
abusive.  They may swear at you, threaten, attempt to intimidate. 
They are difficult to deal with, and an encounter with one of 
these people can ruin your day. 

Although you may be provoked, it isn't a good idea to respond in 
kind.  Doing so will usually inflame the situation, and can in 
fact put you at risk.  Yelling back, or trading insults can 
result in only negative consequences for you. 

Let's face it.  You don't have time to waste arguing and 
yelling...you have too much to do.  But you do need to deal with 
hostile customers.  You need to get the situation under control, 
deal with it and get on with your work. 

There are a number of techniques you can use to do this, but this 
month we are going to help you understand what is going on when 
hostile customers direct their anger at you.  Understanding angry 
people helps us become less reactive, and less prone to losing 
our own temper. 
 

It Ain't Personal 

The first thing to remember about angry customers is that while 
their behaviour is directed at you (and it can be personally 
insulting), the real source of the anger is elsewhere.  The angry 
person is not usually angry at you as a person. He or she is 
usually angry at you as an employee of an organization that is 
perceived as cold, unfeeling, and unhelpful.  Since it is 
difficult to yell or abuse an entire organization, the angry 
customer will direct anger towards you. 
 

What Does The Angry Person Want? 

One of the half-truths about hostile customers is that they want 
their problem solved. This isn't the whole story.  When a person 
is initially denied something from an organization, they get to a 
point where the problem becomes secondary.  Yes, they want the 
problem solved, but after a point, they get so angry that they 
are unwilling to work positively to get what they started out 
wanting.  Even if you could work something out with them, they 
would still be angry. 

It is important to realize that very angry people want an 
opportunity to vent their anger, and they want to be heard and 
acknowledged.  If you don't acknowledge their anger, and move too 
quickly to try to solve the problem, you will likely make them 
angrier and more abusive. 
 

What To Do? 

There are specific things you can do to take control of potential 
hostile situations so that they don't escalate into major 
time-consuming conflicts. 

First, you need to observe customers as they approach, and 
prepare yourself for the possibility that they may show hostile 
behaviours. 

People who are irritated or upset will show tell-tale signs even 
before they open their mouths.  They will send non-verbal clues 
which may include hunched shoulders, clenched fists, red face, 
fidgeting and restlessness, staring or avoidance of eye contact, 
rapid movement, etc. 

You need to look for these signs so that any outbursts do not 
surprise you.  Many hostile situations get out of hand because 
the employee reacts too quickly to hostile behaviour, because he 
or she did not expect it. 

If you see a hostile person approach, prepare yourself mentally 
by reminding yourself that you CAN control the situation, and 
that you need to keep yourself under control.  If you get angry 
yourself you are likely to contribute to the deterioration of the 
situation. 
 

Second, when you are in contact with a hostile customer, you must 
strive to present yourself in as un-bureaucratic a way as 
possible.  Remember we talked about customer anger being really 
aimed at the organization?  If the customer perceives you as an 
object, a piece of the bureaucracy, they will be more likely to 
be more abusive.  However, if the customer sees you as a human 
being who doing the best you can, it is more likely that he or 
she will show less aggressive behaviour. 
 

Specifics: 

Let's get more specific.  How do you do this? 

1) Speak in a friendly manner.  Do not speak in a monotone or in 
a way that implies that you are uninterested. 

2) When possible use the customer's name as soon as possible, and 
also introduce yourself if that fits the situation. 

3) Greet the person properly.  Don't look up from your paper work 
and say "Yes?", or "Next".  That makes you look like part of a 
machine.  Try "Good morning, Mr. Smith". 

4) Listen carefully.  Show the customer you are listening by 
paraphrasing what was said back to the customer.  This shows your 
interest and concern.  A common error made by people is that they 
don't allow the customer to finish. 

5) Don't use the "P" word.  The P word is "POLICY".  Many times 
an employee will explain that it is against "our policy to do" 
what the client wants.  This infuriates many people.  Even if the 
request is against your policy, find other words to say it. 
Rather than simply quoting policy, explain the purpose of the 
policy (eg.  "Sir, we need to make sure that you are dealt with 
fairly and others are too.") 

6) Never say "I only work here" or "I'm only following rules". 
Again this makes you into a non-person.  It may be true that you 
don't make the rules, but try saying it this way:  "Sir, the 
regulations are made by [whoever].  Perhaps you might want to 
talk to [so and so] and indicate that you feel the regulations 
are unfair.  Would you like the phone number?" 
 

Conclusion: 

Every hostile situation is different, and not all solutions will 
work all the time.  The general principles we have talked about 
here are to be prepared by observing customers early in the 
process, and make sure that you come across as a real person. 

There is a lot more to defusing hostile situations, and we will 
try to discuss some of the things you can do to gain control, and 
reduce the nasty outcomes of these kinds of conflict situations. On The Line 
 
 

 
 
 

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