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Why Leadership Matters Most In Managing Difficult Customer Behaviour

Difficult customer behaviour is evident across all industries. Whether in Contact Centres, Hospitality, Government or Retail, difficult customer behaviour has always been part of the service industry.

Why Leadership Matters Most In Managing Difficult Customer Behaviour

A recent report from the National Retail Association showed some retailers suffered a 400% increase in aggression and abuse following customer anger at retail restrictions. These increases have not been isolated to Retail as many organisations have reported increases in difficult customer behaviour due to multiple factors including financial impacts, job losses, social issues and stock shortages. 

A critical responsibility of every organisation and leader is ensuring the protection, safety, and well-being of team members. This includes having clear guidelines and procedures in place to safeguard the team, and providing training, coaching and support to equip them to manage difficult behaviour effectively.

Leadership commitment has the most significant influence on outcomes for customers and team members and leaders can provide support by focusing on the following areas:

1. Investment in training 

When leaders invest in the training and development of their team, it has a meaningful impact on both the team and customer experience.

Managing difficult behaviour is a skill, and learning a skill requires knowledge and practice. Having a well-designed and delivered training program that focuses on self-management, de-escalation techniques and skills practice can greatly assist in developing the skills and confidence of the team.

When training is followed up by leadership coaching in the workplace it can further embed the learning. Having the team observe or buddy with a leader during escalations can also be a great source of learning and insight.

2. Empowerment of the team 

Leaders need to ensure the team are empowered to assist the customer when they have a complaint, issue or there has been a service failure. Empowerment can relate to decision making (the decisions the team can make before having to escalate to a leader) or discretionary spending (the spending authority to resolve an issue).

The faster the resolution, often the better the outcome for the customer and the team and having clear empowerment also reduces the need to escalate to a leader. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel are famous for this, every team member in every role has a $2000 limit allocated to them. It was found their spending is less than the leaders as they are closer to the customer, feel trusted and can come up with more creative and immediate solutions.

Empowerment enables a better customer experience as well as impacting on team morale and engagement.

3. Support for customer escalations 

When the team has been provided with training and feels confident, escalations reduce. If a team member feels out of their depth or is lacking confidence in managing the customer, they will resort to transferring the customer to a leader. These escalations may be unnecessary and take up time and resources, are more costly and often leaves the team member feeling disempowered. 

If the team member has done everything possible to de-escalate the situation and the customer still demands to speak to a leader, a warm transfer and explanation of what has occurred will assist in reducing customer frustration. Leaders being available and accessible to the team for escalations is crucial, if not, it can serve as a huge source of irritation to the team and may heighten the customers behaviour.

4. Clear polices and guidelines 

It is the obligation of every organisation and leader to have clear and well circulated policies and guidelines in place to ensure the safety and protection of the team in regard to unacceptable customer conduct. This includes:

  • Verbal abuse and swearing
  • Personal or racial abuse
  • Threats to self, others or property
  • Violence
  • Abuse or aggression

Visible messages in an office, store, or website sends a clear message to customers declaring zero tolerance for poor behaviour. Asking customers to treat team members with respect and courtesy is a key leadership responsibility.

5. De-briefing and support 

There are times when a team member has to deal with aggression, abuse or significant issues that require appropriate leadership de-briefing and may also need to be referred to EAP (Employee assistance program) for particularly serious incidents. Having an available leader to talk to and share the experience can help to support the team member and ensure they feel cared about and listened to.

Managing difficult customer behaviour is not solely the duty of the team member. Organisations need supportive leaders, strategies for making customers aware of their responsibilities, and confident team members who feel comfortable and supported in managing the difficult behaviours they may experience at work.


Author Credits

Monique Richardson is the author of ‘Managing Difficult Customer Behaviour - A Practical Guide For Confident Conversations’ and is one of Australia’s leading experts in Customer Service and Service Leadership. For more information visit www.moniquerichardson.com.au

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