TEN TOP TIPS : Managing Staff Who Deal with Angry and Aggressive Customers

Russell Crowe throws phone at the concierge. Trevor Mallard has punch-up. Road rage increases. Supermarket rage appears. Participants yell and scream on reality TV.
People are increasingly stressed and expressing that more freely in business situations. If your staff are not properly prepared to deal with anger and aggression then the consequences could be costly for your business. Not only could it alienate those angry customers and their money, other customers might be put off – and OSH would want to know what you are doing to protect your staff from this ‘hazard’.
Training in dealing with such situations and providing on­going support will help to ensure the best handling of angry customers so your business keeps running with minimal disruption.

• Ask your staff what difficulties they face with upset customers. Some staff keep quiet about such problems. Customers who are angry towards the receptionist can be charm personified when the boss or expert arrives on the scene.

• Notice signs of stress: Excessive sick leave, time spent telling ‘war stories’, worried looks and staff churn. This is high cost to the business.

• Notice how staff behave towards each other. Monitor how you behave towards staff yourself. Expressions of anger, irritability or unease within the team can signal that staff are getting hard time from customers. Counsellors call this ‘parallel process’. What happens in one part of the system is replicated in other parts.

• Generate positive attitude towards customers no matter what. Don’t talk about them as the enemy, no matter how stroppy they might get. Think ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’. When they nut off they are simply trying to tell you of their needs, even if they don’t use the best words or expressions. Avoid being judgemental.

• Respect your staff. The way you relate to your staff is important for helping them deal with upset customers. Treat your staff the way you would like them to treat your customers. The customer-service-profit chain has been shown to significantly influence business outcomes.

• Debrief staff well when they have had an upsetting incident. This requires listening to their feelings, validating their experience and reassuring them they have done well in the circumstances. Take their concerns seriously. It’s not about having few beers and telling them to toughen up and get over it.

• Get comfortable with feelings yourself. Problems arise when feelings are ignored and denied. Emotions often trigger past memories for all of us. If necessary get counsellor or life coach who can help you deal with some of the emotional interference you may have from your past.

• Encourage your staff to exercise, take recreation breaks and have outside hobbies that relax them. Highly emotional situations pump adrenalin into the body ready for fight or flight. The adrenalin needs to be used up through exercise, stretching and deep breathing. Let them take short walk after really bad incidents.

• Get professional help when required. This could be Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) counselling for your staff who are affected by angry customers. It could be training programme that gives staff the knowledge and skills to change the way they relate to customers.

• Have lots of fun in your workplace. If you are genuinely laughing, it is hard to be worried and stressed about people who upset you. Note: This is not substitute for the above nine points.

John Faisandier is director of TUF: Thriving Under Fire – blended learning programme for front-line staff dealing with angry and aggressive customers.

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