[Ordering Publications] [Email
Us] [Seminar Information] [Speaking
Information] [RETURN TO MAIN PAGE] [Chat
Room To Discuss Workplace Conflict]
here to be updated when site changes
On The Line
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
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
First, you need to observe customers as they approach, and
prepare yourself for the possibility that they may show hostile
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
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.
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
an employee will explain that it is against "our policy to do"
what the client wants. This infuriates many people. Even
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?"
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