The Consumer Vigilante

How to Defuse Aggression and Steer Clear of Danger with Consumer Vigilantes


There’s a certain degree of extremism that’s popping up, a sense of “I’m going to get results, whatever means necessary.”

 Pete Blackshaw

Executive vice-president of Nielsen Online Strategic services.

Last August a 76-year old retired nurse named Mona Shaw walked into a Comcast office with a hammer and smashed a computer keyboard and telephone switchboard to smithereens and then screamed, “Have I got your attention now?” Why? Because, according to Ms. Shaw, Comcast failed to install her service properly.

Mona Shaw has become a media sensation, appearing on the Oprah show, podcasts, and television news broadcasts.  T-shirts with her silhouette holding a hammer with the tagline: “Have I got your attention now?” have been created.

Ms. Shaw’s behavior is the textbook definition of Consumer Vigilante. This is real, very serious and potentially dangerous for those of us serving customers.

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: on average, 5 retail or service employees are murdered and 4,500 are assaulted on the job by customers each week in the U.S. (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)

Consumer vigilantes are nothing to play with. Psychologist, Dr. Terry Riley, offers this observation: “Today’s customers are more harried, more demanding, and more dangerous than ever.”

With an apparent trend toward more incidents of vigilantism and rage, “the safety of your employees, your customers, and your company’s assets takes on new, urgent, and challenging dimensions.” (Riley, 2002).I want to help you protect your employees, your customers, and  your assets and in this article I offer 8 tips to help you protect your employees and your assets from today’s consumer vigilante.

There are some proactive approaches you can deploy to intercept an escalation in aggression. These approaches are no magic formula, but they can assist you in keeping the hostile customer from escalating into rage. Following are 8 tactics to help you.

  • Avoid the appearance of a physical challenge. Body language is powerful in any human interaction and especially so with angry or hostile customers. Your body language needs to send the message that you are cooperative and open. The best stance is going to be to the side of the customer. This way, you pose no physical challenge to the customer and you’re also in a less vulnerable position should the customer become violent.
  • Help customers feel they have choices, options and control (Bacal, 1998). It’s very important for customers to feel they have some control over the outcomes of their situation. Give them options and let them make choices, even small ones. Reducing choice and removing privileges tends to encourage aggression.


  • Immediately isolate the customer.  Terry Riley in C.H.A.R.M. School (Lessons in Customer Hostility and Rage Management) gives this advice: “The customer’s increased state of agitation warns of potential violence. If he has not already been isolated, do this immediately. Then make sure that a backup notifies the local law enforcement authority of the situation. If backups are not available, you must alert security or the police. It will probably be necessary to use a coded message to request assistance so as not to further enrage the customer.”
  • Use a calm tone and non-inflammatory words. Deliberately use your voice to create calm. Speak slowly (so that you can think before you speak). Avoid escalating your voice, and never threaten the customer with inflammatory statements like: “If you don’t calm down, I can’t help you.”
  • Strategically deploy “delay” tactics. Robert Bacal, in Defusing Hostility, says “As long as the aggression is not escalating and shows signs of lessoning, there is an advantage to allow a “time-out”. Look for an opportunity to interrupt the escalation process by creating a time out. Asking for further clarification of detail of the issue, for instance, both refocuses the customer on the issue and causes time to pass.
  • Don’t leave the customer. It is best that you don’t walk away from an angry or hostile customer. Your departure may infuriate the customer or leave him feeling abandoned. If you absolutely have to step away, your delays should be brief (no more than 30 seconds). It’s better to call on a co-worker to conduct research/carry out business for you than to walk away.
  • Don’t make the customer feel quarantined. The customer should never be made to feel punished, ignored, or alienated, as these feelings will lead to increased escalation in aggression. 
  • Get help.  If the customer expresses rage on any level, you must immediately get help from a backup, security, etc. Do not attempt to handle an escalated customer by yourself.

Deploy these strategic tactics if ever you are face-to-face with an aggressive customer, and you’ll have a far better chance of defusing aggression and steering clear of danger.

Sources Cited

Bacal, Robert,  Defusin g Hostile Customers: A Self-Structional Workbook for Public Sector Employees by Robert Bacal, Bacal & Associates, Winnipe g , Mb , Canada .

Riley, Terry, Ph.D, C.H.A.R.M. School : Lessons in Customer Hostility and Rage Management, Applied Psychology Press, Santa Cruz , CA, 2002.