My first job was at Kmart. I was 16. It was at Kmart that I learned that customers could be difficult. Customers could get so upset they’d cuss, make threats, and demand to speak to a manager.
It was at Kmart that I learned how not to handle a difficult customer. This lesson came from the courtesy of my friend, Beverly Johnson. One Thursday evening, Beverly, just 17, was put in charge because management in our area was gone for the day.
I joined Beverly on a price-check at the Service Desk. When we got to about 20 feet away from the Service Desk, Beverly and I looked at each other and without saying a word, our eyes communicated, “Oh shit.” We saw one of our notoriously difficult customers.
The customer was Nancy. She was known to return large numbers of items, usually clothing. She’d have her kids (all 5 of them) wear the clothes until they literally wore out. Then, she’d return the clothing. She always had a receipt, and she knew that anything could be returned anytime for an in-store credit. If you dare challenge Nancy, she’d raise her voice, get her dramatic hand gestures going and then, demand to see the store manager. Tonight, Beverly was the “manager.”
We approached the desk, and the first thing Beverly said was, “We’re not taking that junk back!”
“Excuse me?” Nancy was genuinely shocked. No, this little girl didn’t just tell me I cannot return these items! is what I imagined she was thinking.
Beverly, serious as a heart attack, said again, “We’re not taking that junk back.”
“Little B$#&@, yes you will!” No, she didn’t! Even for Nancy, this was extreme.
Matching the customer word for word, Beverly spit out, “B$#&@, no we won’t!” I was glad Beverly got this customer and not me. I would have been far too timid to even know how to respond to this mess.
Nancy punched Beverly! For real, she did! I mean she hit Beverly hard, with the fierceness of a football coach who didn’t like the referee’s call.
What did my friend Beverly do then? Well, she knocked the crap out of the customer, and within 2 seconds, they were in an all-out brawl at the Service Desk. A Blue Light Special was going on right behind them in the jewelry department, and pretty quickly, a crowd gathered around – not to stop the fight, but to watch the show!
You know what I learned from Beverly’s fight with a difficult customer that day? Well, at the time, I learned…nothing. I was 16! I thought Beverly was pretty amazing! I wished I had that kind of courage.
But later, as an adult working to help companies handle difficult customers, I realized I did learn something from the Kmart fight. I learned that some customers can be liars or schemers…and if you dare call these customers out, you risk getting punched in the face!
I also learned how not to respond to difficult customers. Here’s where Beverly, and I love her to pieces still, went wrong with the customer. Beverly approached the customer with an aggressive attitude.
When face-to-face with a difficult customer (or on the phone), you can respond in one of 3 ways. You can:
You can let the customer over talk you, yell, or cuss while you just sit there and take it. Being passive also includes giving in to the customer’s demands. Our Kmart customer, Nancy, was used to passive managers that let her get away with returning old worn goods. The thing about being passive with difficult customers is you’ll become a doormat, and pretty quickly, you’ll get burned out on your job.
Beverly, at least 17-year-old Beverly, is the poster child for an aggressive response. Escalating your voice, not offering the customer options, arguing, playing tit for tat, and becoming defensive all spell out aggression. This response is never effective. It could get you fired, or make you a social media star. Can you imagine what would have happened if Beverly’s fight occurred today? She’d be all over Twitter, FaceBook and Snapchat in like 2 minutes!
My definition of being assertive is “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t be mean when you say it.” An assertive response is right between aggression and passiveness. It’s an assertive person who says to the cussing customer, “If the cursing stops, I can help you. Otherwise, you can call us back when you’re feeling better.”
Here are some more great assertive responses:
“I’m trying to help you, but if you continue to yell and swear, I am going to ask that you call back another time. It’s up to you…which would you prefer?”
“I’m sorry. It isn’t possible to help while listening to that language. If it stops, I can help.”
“If a few minutes helps you calm down before we continue, that would be fine. You can certainly call me back.”
“I want to help you, yet the language is getting in the way.”
The next time you have a difficult customer to deal with, choose to respond assertively. Never be a doormat, but don’t knock the customer out either. Just say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t be mean when you say it. When you speak assertively, you’ll stay in control, and your supervisors will be impressed with your style.
How to De-escalate Angry or Agitated Customers
De-escalation Training to Help Your Employees Get Angry Customers to Back Down, Pre-empt Escalations to Supervisors and, In General, Handle Difficult Customers with More Ease.
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