Monique Richardson (main photo) is the author of Managing Difficult Customer Behaviour – A Practical Guide For Confident Conversations and is one of Australia’s leading experts in service leadership and customer service. In this guest post, Richardson offers her expert tips for dealing with angry clients or customers…
The impact of Leadership support in managing difficult customer situations can never be underestimated. According to new research from the Institute of Customer Service customer-facing team members have been subject to increasing levels of hostility since COVID-19, with more than half (56%) having experienced abuse from customers during the pandemic. As lockdown measures start to ease and more businesses open, there are practical ways leaders can support their teams even in the most difficult of situations.
When a customer expresses difficult behaviour, there is usually a reason why. In some cases, these situations could have been prevented. Proactive measures such as having customer focused processes in place, setting clear expectations, effective communication and adequate tools and resourcing may all assist in the prevention of customer issues. It is also valuable for organisations to analyse customer feedback, complaints and issues and look at root cause analysis to enable corrective measures to be put into place to eliminate these instances occurring in the first place.
The ability to stay calm under pressure and manage difficult behaviour is a skill and like all skills, they need to be learnt, practiced and refined. Supporting the team by providing practical training in problem solving and de-escalating customer conflict is essential. Leaders need to ensure the team have the self-awareness, mindset, skills, and techniques as this increases team member confidence and capability. As managing difficult behaviour is the most challenging aspect of working with customers, investment in training and skills development is paramount.
An empowered culture and leadership style can have a significant impact on the customer and team member experience in difficult customer situations. Empowerment can be in the area of autonomous decision making, discretionary spending or feedback.
When faced with a customer issue, the team needs to know they are empowered to make decisions and generate creative solutions without having to say “I need to speak to my Manager’. While there are times leadership involvement and input are invaluable, team members need to have clarity around decisions they can make and know they will be fully supported.
Empowerment also relates to discretionary spend to resolve an issue. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Chain are well known for empowering and supporting team members at all levels up to $2000 per guest, per incident. The amount used for each occurrence is much lower. Not only do the team feel trusted, they are able to resolve problems quicker than having to escalate the guest to a Leader and will come up with more creative and memorable solutions.
Feeling empowered to make suggestions, recommendations and provide feedback in regard to the prevention of difficult customer situations is important. The frontline is closest to the customers and will often have ideas around innovation and
improvement that must be encouraged by leaders. True empowerment leads to increased team member morale, efficiency, an improved customer experience and can result in a reduction of complaints and issues.
Every organisation needs to publicise either via the company’ website or through signage that unacceptable customer conduct will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Unacceptable customer conduct can be defined as aggression, harassing words or action, swearing, racial abuse, threats, violence or assault. Having clear and visible policies and procedures in place ensures the team feels safe, reduces stress, sets expectations of behaviour for customers and provides a supportive work environment. There is a limit to the level of behaviour team members should have to tolerate and leaders have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment at all times.
In a difficult customer situation if the behaviour extends to unacceptable conduct, it is a leadership responsibility to support the team in following through on the organisations policy. This may include the customer being escalated to a leader, terminating a call or being asked to leave the premises or other escalation procedures. Availability and accessibility of leadership is vital during these times. Following through is an important way to demonstrate the leadership team takes these occurrences seriously and reinforces poor behaviour will not be tolerated. If there has been a particularly difficult interaction, de-briefing and support should be made available to the team member.
I have witnessed in the many organisations I have worked with the difference between leaders who empower, educate and support their teams when managing difficult customer situations and those that don’t. Managing difficult customer behaviour is tough, and when there is leadership support, it has a major impact on stress levels, morale, and engagement. When team members know the leadership team has their back, they will be able to manage difficult customer behaviour with increased confidence, peace of mind and a deep knowing support is always available for them.
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