People are People

That is to say, anyone can treat anyone else in a particularly good or bad way, no matter what the circumstances, at any given moment.  So, don’t consider me unsympathetic toward a customer who received undeserved rude treatment from a merchant.


Betty White SaysBut there are those occasional, often hilarious stories that pop up every so often about unhinged customers and the creative ways in which a shopkeeper or employee chooses to fight back using social media.

For most retailers and service providers who suffer the occasional abuse by a customer, however, justice is usually fleeting. The customer seems to have the upper hand when it comes to behaving badly and getting away with it.  Therefore, what are a merchant’s options for how to respond?

The first step any store owner or manager should always take is to have a protocol in-place before the scene occurs.  In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to think rationally, so having a plan ahead of time helps a great deal.

As far as the plan, this gets rather debatable.  It really comes down to the personal values of the one in authority in the business.

One strategy often taught and practiced is to, well, just take it.  This is really a calculated business decision aimed at cutting losses and minimizing the damage.  This strategy often results in giving in to the unreasonable demands of the customer, no matter how unjust, and as quickly as possible allowing the customer to end the interaction while preserving decorum and peace in the immediate environment.  The hope is that other customers, if present, won’t be impacted and that the unruly customer won’t come back any time soon.  Secondarily, it is also aimed at hoping the unruly customer won’t be as motivated to head home and launch a personal social media war aimed at badmouthing the undeserving merchant in every way imaginable, forcing the merchant to engage in additional damage control online.

Yet this strategy is not without its downside.  Possible negative outcomes can include demoralized employees who felt like the boss didn’t have their backs, financial losses if significant value in goods and services were sacrificed, the personal stress of feeling robbed of your dignity without recourse.  Perhaps the least considered but most damaging outcome is setting a precedent in the community that this kind of consumer behavior is acceptable that other customers (and certainly those of the ilk and following of the offending one) may be encouraged to follow for the short-term benefit of getting free stuff if not for the cruel thrill of it.

Therefore, another strategy (and one I tend to favor though many will disagree) is the community parenting approach.  I tend to see business owners as leaders in the community whether they see or sought this for themselves or not.  The parent’s rearing of a child has reverberating consequences through the human community as the results of that parenting have a lot to do with what the child grows up to do and to be (impacting other people).  A parent who won’t correct a child and gives in to the child’s demands creates an entitled adult.

How a business owner influences customers is also supremely important, which is why bad merchant behavior is as heinous as irresponsible parenting.  So, is there something to be said about merchants who don’t defend their employees, their stores, or themselves when they have nothing to apologize for?  Is there a negative impact on other customers of simpering before mistreatment (like raising prices to cover the losses of the bribes paid to make problems disappear) or on the community of people who will likely also continue to deal with adults being rewarded for acting out their entitlement complexes?

It’s an emotional issue, and so one analogy I use is this: As a leader of employees, if an employee cheats me on his paycheck by reporting unworked hours, and threatens some kind of legal action if I challenge his time card, I don’t merely have a matter between me and the employee to solve, it affects my other staff.  If, to keep him quiet, I acquiesce and pay what I believe is unearned wages, I communicate to the staff that this behavior is not egregious enough to pursue.  I’ll leave this rhetorical, but what are the net long-term effects of that?

It would be presumptuous to claim there is a clear right answer, here. It takes knowing oneself to discern the right way to go.  I prefer to invest the time to try to connect with an unruly customer’s heart and head and see if there was yet any remaining vestige of good parenting that just got overtaken with the other present circumstances of that customer’s life.  If I can find it and appeal to him or her to do the right thing, then everyone is indeed better off.  If I can’t, then the message, which I am willing to suffer the consequences of sending to my employees, other customers and the community, is that theirs is not acceptable behavior.  I must resist not deliver that message in an angry or emotional manner, maintaining professionalism. But if the customer does not wish to utilize personal behavior modification, I may and have, in the past, chosen to dismiss the customer from my establishment and encouraged that one not to return. Even if a social media firestorm ensues, I trust the community of people living around me enough such that I respond online with a factual, non-emotional account of what went down. I tend to believe that the kind of customers I want are the ones who will be smart enough to see the truth.

That’s just me.

Jeff Koenig

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