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How to deal with difficult customers during the pandemic

Editorial Team

7 min read
Two birds chirping

Customers have been known to behave badly from time to time. They’ve yelled at employees. They’ve shoplifted. They’ve attempted to return used or damaged products, sometimes outside the return policy. They’ve launched frivolous lawsuits. Over the years, customers have proved that despite the motto “the customer is always right,” it doesn’t always mean their actions put them in the right.

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The pandemic has brought a host of new challenges for small business owners. Amongst them, business owners now have to navigate some new ways customers are refusing to follow the rules. Wearing masks is one of the primary measures we have to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, so it makes sense that many states have required masks as part of their reopening safety measures. That doesn’t mean every customer is ready to comply.

As we’ve seen stories circulate about customers who refuse to wear masks or abide by social distancing measures, what can small businesses do to avoid uncomfortable situations like a customer throwing a tantrum or bullying employees? Let’s take a look.

Understanding why customers act out

There are two ways to interpret the age-old adage that the customer is always right. The first is that the customer is always correct in their actions, regardless of what that action is. The second is to assume that regardless of the behavior, the customer is acting out of a genuine feeling or opinion and that in itself is valid.

As a general rule, the second interpretation offers a more productive path forward. It affirms the experiences of your staff, who often have the unfortunate experience of being on the receiving end of a customer’s emotional stance while also recognizing the legitimacy of that emotion. From this perspective, understanding why some people are balking at safety measures can help you find a proactive solution.

Many people are experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and anger. The coronavirus pandemic has upended every aspect of our life and disrupted many of our everyday tasks like running to the grocery store. Because of this collective loss, we’re experiencing grief over the way our lives used to be. Not everyone is ready to process these uncomfortable feelings, so they may rely on defense mechanisms.

Displacement, a common defense mechanism, is when people transfer their feelings from the original source (in this case coronavirus) to someone or something else (like the required safety measures). Displacement may be responsible for some of the outbursts that we’re seeing from customers. When we understand that, we can provide boundaries for behavior that also hold space for the grief and anger a customer is experiencing.


Steps you can take to prevent an altercation

Preventing altercations before they occur is the ideal way to handle difficult customers. While you may not be able to prevent every instance of conflict, communication can go a long way towards helping reduce tense interactions.

To increase the likelihood of customer compliance, communicate your safety measures early and often. You can outline all your social distancing protocols, mask requirements, and other safety procedures on your website. You can include them in their own web page, add a banner to the top of existing pages, or do both. If your small business has a social media presence, share the same information on those platforms.

Consider sending an email blast to your customer base with your safety information. It may act as a deterrent for those customers who would refuse to comply no matter what. It also gives people the warning they need to process the new procedures, and even more customers may find solace in the steps you’re taking to keep them safe. You may even find that an email like this brings more customers back because it increases trust in your brand.

You should then continue to communicate safety measures at each customer interaction point.

Extra steps for restaurants

When a patron calls to make a reservation, outline the required safety measures for dining in your restaurant. Post eye-catching signs in the windows. Include reminders that can be set on the table, folded inside the menu, and posted throughout the restaurant. If you’re asking patrons to keep their masks on when they’re not eating, whether the server is at the table or not, you can consider having the host share that information with your guests before they move to the table. That way they have to opt-in to your protocols before they’re seated. If there is an issue, it’s easier to ask the patron to leave if they’re not already in the middle of the dining room.

(For more information and tips, see our COVID-19 Restaurant Survival Guide)

Extra steps for retail businesses

Post clear signs on the exterior of the building letting customers know what to expect when they come inside. A retail business might set the boundary asking customers to peruse baby clothing with their eyes and not their hands, for example. A beauty retailer might explain that lip products cannot be sampled. A coffee shop might stress the use of paper instead of ceramic cups.

Whatever safety measures your business needs, you have every right to take them. Use the spaces outside and inside your business to keep reminding customers of your procedures. If you have a rule banning product sampling, include a small sign next to the product. Remember that these safety procedures are new to all of us, so it’s only natural that people will need reminders. Train your staff on how to offer those reminders in a way that doesn’t shame the customers and it will go a long way towards preventing outbursts.

(For more information and tips, see our COVID-19 Retail Survival Guide)

Extra steps for service businesses

Service industries have the most prolonged face-to-face interaction with their customers, so the risk is highest for service professionals. On the flip side, customers are most prepared to encounter safety measures in this sector.

Many hair salons have started asking customers to not only wear masks and social distance but also perform temperature checks before they’re allowed to enter the salon. Once you’ve outlined your safety measures, you can outline them for customers when they make an appointment. You can even ask them to sign off on those procedures before the appointment (be sure to give them a heads up you’ll ask for this before you do). Add some reminder signs in and outside of the business, and you’re set up for success.

How to mediate customer conflict and prevent escalation

When you can’t prevent a customer blowup, these de-escalation tips will help you take your customer from a ten to a two while protecting your employees.

  • Ask management to handle these conflicts whenever possible: The business owner or manager should ideally be the person to handle these situations. After all, your employees are already putting their health at risk to come to work, so they don’t need a customer yelling at them over being asked to wear a mask.
  • Listen: This is the moment to bring back that understanding for why your customer may be so upset. Listen with empathy and without judgment.
  • Give them your undivided attention: Your customer’s feelings are valid and important to you; providing your undivided attention demonstrates this to the customer.
  • Show them empathy: You get why they don’t want to wear a mask (we all do!). Show them you understand how they’re feeling.
  • Remain consistent with your communication: You can repeat the guidelines you’ve clearly stated.
  • Remain calm: Escalating your own feelings may escalate the customer’s anger.
  • Lay out the expectations: If a customer refuses to comply, you can ask them to leave. That’s within your right, the same way that refusing to wear a mask is within theirs.

In the end, safety is the priority. Prioritize your health and safety and the health and safety of your staff. That’s why we have these coronavirus measures in the first place.

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