Managing Conflict: Customer vs Employee

Managing Conflict: Customer vs Employee

Customers are the lifeblood of your business, and in the digital age, if you fail to please a customer (or worse, you leave them feeling cheated or disrespected) the news of that failure can spread like wildfire. Thanks to Yelp, Angie's List, and similar sites that aggregate consumer's ratings of a business' products and services, a single, well-written rant going viral can obliterate years of reputation-building efforts. In short: Beware the disgruntled customer. They can be far more costly than you believe.

Remove the employee from the situation

When a situation has escalated to the point that a manager must intervene, one of the best ways to diffuse some tension quickly is to physically separate the two parties. Ask your employee to complete a task in another part of your store or office. Better yet, allow the employee some time to blow off a little steam by suggesting he or she take a break.

Listen from the customer's point of view

Once the employee has left the immediate area, find a quiet place where you can sit down to discuss the situation with the customer. Your goal at this point is not to defend your employee, your product, or anything else. Your goal is to understand the situation from your customer's perspective. Use neutral, open-ended questions or prompts such as:

  • "Help me get up to speed. Let's start from the beginning. . . "
  • "Can you tell me a little more about what has happened?"
  • "What happened next?"
  • Ask the customer what you can do to make it right

Do not fall into the trap of assuming you know what the customer wants. It is possible that a "win" from their perspective is something entirely different, and something much easier to provide.

Consider a situation, for example, where a customer is expressing anger over an item being out of stock after being assured on the phone that the item was available. They made a special effort to get to the store, and now they're disappointed. They hired a babysitter, spent money on an Uber to get there, and needed the item urgently.

An argument began when the customer berated your employee for "lying" to them about the product's availability. As it turns out, it wasn't that employee who gave the customer the faulty information, but he or she had a strong reaction to being called a liar, and things escalated on both sides after that.

A "win" for your customer might be as simple as walking out the door with an apology and a similar item in their hand. Suggesting a similar item and apologizing on behalf of the person who gave them faulty information may just do the trick. Assuming your customer wants free, next-day shipping on the item in question plus reimbursement for their Uber fare would have been overkill and would still have been a "loss" in the customer's eyes.

Use body language to communicate respect

While you are speaking with your customer, be mindful of your body language. Avoid closed fists, furrowed eyebrows, and crossed arms. When you are seated, lean forward slightly when your customer is speaking, make periodic eye contact (without staring them down), and nod occasionally. These all silently communicate that you are listening. When your customer knows you are listening to them, they feel respected. When they feel respected, they are much less likely to attack your business online. In fact, they may praise you for how you handled the matter.

Follow up with your employee

Your last step for diffusing an employee-customer confrontation is to follow up with your employee. Use all of the above tips for interaction. Listen to his or her side of the story. If the customer's request was unreasonable, demonstrate empathy for your employee by saying you understand that the situation was difficult. If the employee handled the interaction inappropriately, take time to discuss how to handle it more appropriately in the future.

Read "Managing Workplace Conflict: Employee vs Employee"