Customer Abuse

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Cuts, bruises, chipped teeth and a concussion aren’t what you usually expect to come away from a manicure with – but one Perth nail-salon customer did recently, after an alleged assault by a fellow customer.

I’m sure Sydney real estate agent Ellen Bathgate never imagined, either, that her job would involve a punch in the face from an angry ex-tenant, and her first ever black eye.

Nationwide right now, we’re seeing a spike in disappointed, grumpy, and angry customers, and I don’t think many frontline staff are equipped to deal with it.

So what do we do? How can we curb aggressive and abusive behaviour and keep staff and customers safe? And what’s behind all this anger on the streets?

When someone erupts into violence, verbally or physically, it’s because the oldest part of their brain – the reptilian brain – has taken over. Stress encourages this part of the brain to rule the show and take control – and it uses ‘fight, flight or freeze’ for self-preservation. Quite literally, stress impairs the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which leads to less empathy, antisocial behaviour, reduced creativity and less flexibility.

If a workplace environment is seeing an increase in grumpy, reactive customers, this in turn will be feeding staff stress and encouraging the oldest part of their brain to take over, as well. Think of the impact this has in a customer-service exchange. When stress is present, it tends to make people more protective of themselves. It’s no wonder that alongside short customer fuses, we’re also seeing pockets of service with no empathy, service given with little to no social skills, and service approaches with little creative thinking and/or problem-solving and even less flexibility… ouch!

It can become a harmful cycle.

We’ve all experienced some level of trauma these past few years, and that stuff catches up with us. I’m certainly not making excuses for grumpy customers, or grumpy staff. Abuse and violence are never acceptable. I am making a case, though, for the importance of managing your stress response, particularly if your working day involves dealing with humans.

Of course, employers need to take all the obvious, practical steps first. Do your best, where practical, to avoid staff working alone, or ensure they have back-up close at hand; put security precautions in place to ensure their safety. Put up ‘Zero tolerance to abuse’ posters if that’s appropriate! Importantly, provide effective support for staff members who have experienced abuse.

Take care of your people, so that they’ll take care of your customers.

Beyond that: we need to train our way out of this.

We need to equip staff with tools and training that will give them some confidence that they’ll be able to handle difficult situations. We need to provide people with the soft skills – social-intelligence skills – that allow them to interact with all sorts of humans.

No one should have to face violence at work. However, I do think that people in service roles who aren’t trained to deal with the ‘human stuff’ – the variety of emotions, the unpredictability of customers – will be left behind and will not be able to perform well in a service role, nor will they enjoy their work.

I have always believed that customer service is not a question of capability or whether people care or not, but rather, is about how well they manage themselves when faced with pressure and different scenarios – how they self-regulate.

We need to provide people with the tools to improve their management of stress. Managing the oldest part of the brain when it’s running the show, and knowing how to bring it back into line, is a critical customer-service skill for this era. Never has the connection between employee wellbeing and customer service been stronger.

Train your people, support your people, protect your people. Let’s do all we can to end workplace violence.

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