Customer Service: Managing Bad Customers

Recent news stories have described the challenges that many customer service professionals face in today’s environment.  These stories capture customer impatience with understaffed businesses, objections to public health guidance and irritation about missing items due to supply chain shortages.

Many customer service representatives are taught that the customer is always right. And it’s true, your customers may be right that there are staff shortages, new guidelines and missing goods. However, that does not translate into permission to treat your employees badly.

Here are five tips for helping your customer service professionals manage these realities:

  1. Work with staff to identify the lines between what is acceptable irritation and what is unacceptable rudeness, and how to change their own behavior when lines get crossed. This takes active communication, done through small meetings, one-on-one coaching and check-ins during the day.
  2. Empower your staff to help customers where they can, by suggesting alternatives or showing them self-service resources. Post information about how customers can order online to avoid the frustration of staff shortages or public health constraints.
  3. Give your employees a list of acceptable phrases that they can use to respond to an angry customer. Offering a simple, heartfelt “I am sorry” can really help diffuse a situation, for example. Sometimes, employees need help in knowing exactly what to say. Having a list of options is empowering.  Sharing examples in real time can help calibrate expectations.
  4. Have a robust second line in case conflict gets escalated. Your frontline employees are there to provide a service, and spending time listening to someone rant is not serving other customers.  Show your employees and customers that you care by providing another person, ideally with conflict management training, to take on the more difficult cases.
  5. Consider posting ground rules, so that customers will understand that there are limits to the behavior you will accept from them. Something like “our team members are here to serve you—please be polite” may remind customers that they are working with other human beings.

Staff shortages are frustrating for everyone, and increase the need for a robust management structure to support the team members who are there.  This may highlight the need for structural adjustment in shift management, or alternative recruiting strategies.  Engage your staff in this conversation, as they may have ideas that empower both them and the organization.