We train on our conflict management course to handle difficult behaviour but what happens if the staff member cannot get the customer to behave appropriately? Does that mean they have failed? Many members of staff will experience that belief after the event. The truth is we can only calm a situation if the customer consents to calming down. They can withhold their consent and make life very difficult – it’s their choice. If we make ourselves responsible for a customer’s behaviour when they are withholding consent we put ourselves in an impossible position.
Staff can get very stressed if their efforts to calm a situation fail and the customer becomes abusive. In reality the customer’s consent to calming down depends upon their mental functioning, how vital the issue is to them, what is happening in their lives at that time, and whether or not they view getting abusive as a strategy for achieving what they want. In fact when a customer views aggression as a means of achieving what they want they will work very hard at not giving their consent to calming the situation.
We run conflict management courses for a Housing Association which holds meetings that are open to all of their tenants. A pressure group was formed by some tenants around a particular issue and their key strategy was to stand up at any tenant meetings and shout out slogans until the meetings were abandoned. Without calling the police or organising a security team to remove the people engaged in the disruptive behaviour there was actually little the staff could do to calm the situation.
Organisations need to recognise that customers are responsible for their own behaviour and sometimes they can decide not to consent to behaving appropriately. In these situations staff have the right to manage the situation and terminate the interaction appropriately. Members of staff who manage these interactions well and curtail abuse should be supported, particularly if a customer complaint arrives – frequently it will. Abusive customers tend not to like having their abuse terminated no matter how ‘gently’ it is done.
Counting and trying to reduce the number of customer complaints is usually a positive action but counting the number of complaints can have a negative side effect. When members of staff fear receiving a complaint they tend to avoid challenging customer abuse. We have seen evidence where low levels of complaints actually meant that staff had to take high levels of abuse. The levels of abuse staff had to absorb lead to low staff morale, high stress levels and consequently, staff absenteeism. Managers should by all means monitor the number of customer complaints but they must be careful about the consequences for staff who have to handle abusive customers.
We train staff on how to handle customers in order to win their consent to behaving appropriately and on what to do if customers will not. Either way, it’s ultimately the customers’ choice!