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Handling the Unruly and Rude

I was talking with some fellow retailers at a trade show recently and the discussion came around to the perceived higher level of rudeness and unruliness among customers. I say “perceived” because everyone felt it, but no one had actually measured to know if it truly was more than before. Our guts said “more” but it could also be that we were more sensitive to it. It could also be that those who were rude were no larger a crowd, just louder.

While there are many theories why there might be more rudeness and unruliness in the world, we felt it best to focus instead on how to diffuse the angry, rude customers when they showed their ugliness. One thing became clear in our conversation …

When you answer rudeness with rudeness you get more of the same. 

It is entirely justifiable to treat rude people the way they treated you. But it doesn’t make things better. It doesn’t even feel good to you except for a fleeting moment. More often it just escalates the situation. An eye for an eye and everyone goes blind.

At the same time, simply ignoring it doesn’t help either. When a customer treats you or your staff with extreme rudeness, you have to stand up for yourself and your team, otherwise you are condoning that behavior. How you stand up for yourself, however, can make or break the relationship you have with that customer.

Understand that rudeness often comes from ignorance, entitlement, or someone simply having a bad day and taking it out on you. Rarely is it intentional and done specifically to harm you. More often the person being rude doesn’t even recognize it.

Here is the phrase I found most helpful when confronting a rude customer …

“I’m sorry. Is there something wrong?”

This puts the burden on the customer to explain her behavior. Often this question is all it takes to turn that behavior around, especially if their rudeness comes from having a bad day.

Sometimes they do have a problem and this question gives them the space to air their complaint. Having someone listen to their complaint is another quick way to end rudeness and unruliness. Most people just want to feel that they are being heard.

Sometimes their problem is legitimate. They have a real reason to be unhappy. If that is the case, follow up with this question …

“I’m sorry. What can I do to make it right?”

Over my twenty-four years of retail I have asked that question dozens of times. Never once has a customer asked for more than what I was already willing to do to make it right. Not once. More often than not their answer was far less than I planned to do.

Notice how both of those questions address the behavior without stooping to similar behavior? Both of those questions get to the root of the rudeness, whether it comes from ignorance, entitlement, or just having a bad day. Both of those questions put the burden on the customer to justify his or her actions in a non-confrontational way.

I have asked those questions of some of my favorite and best customers. I could have just “fired” them and told them to take their rudeness elsewhere. Instead I treated them with dignity and kindness without letting them get away with their behavior. Their behavior changed and it paid off huge in the long run.

You can debate all you want on whether there is more rudeness, whether we are more sensitive to rudeness, or whether the rudeness just seems to stand out more.

Me? I’m more interested in finding tools that work to diffuse difficult situations when they arise and turn unhappy customers into evangelists for your brand. I hope you are, too.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Those two questions work in many situations beyond retail. Try them and see what happens. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.

PPS I have only asked one person to never set foot in my store again because of rudeness, and he was a sales rep.

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