Customer Conflict | Employee Stress, Safety, and the Bottom Line

Key Training Components for Employee Safety

Employees serving the public know all too well that difficult customers can be challenging to manage and, at times, very upsetting to deal with. A number of factors can quickly elicit customer anger including delays, line ups, service issues, rules, fines, payments, service restrictions, or negative decisions. It is recognized that conflict creates stress for workers. This can lead to health problems, increased risk of violence, and it can be very costly for organizations.

Employee Stress

An employee who is dealing with raised voice levels, verbal abuse, and at times, intimidating appearances, can experience a ‘fight or flight’ response. The ensuing stress response will often momentarily hinder the employee’s ability to think, and cause, among other things, their hearing to diminish, and co-ordination to lessen. It is important to recognize that good service efforts, in the earliest stages of conflict, averts many situations from escalating. Unfortunately, despite such service efforts, some customers will consciously or subconsciously say and do things that test the patience and tolerance levels of workers. In workplaces that deal with customer conflict on a regular basis, over time, this cumulative stress will affect the employee’s ability to ‘maintain their cool’ and respond professionally. Poorly prepared employees that lack the necessary skills and mindset for this type of conflict often respond to the escalating patron by either emotionally shutting down or escalating as well, and over time, these workers will eventually burn out.

Impact on the Employee

In the short term, under preparing staff for client conflict results in the feeling of failure, humiliation, and stress for the staff members. In the long term, the organization suffers from an increase in employee stress-leave, absenteeism, turnover, incidents of public threats and violence, and a decrease in productivity, service motivation, and morale.

Typical Organizational Response

In response to escalated public behaviours and incidents, organizations often react by implementing additional security measures such as panic buttons, protective barriers, CCTV cameras, extra security guards, etc. In a well-intended, but somewhat naïve, effort to support employees, organizations inform their staff that when it comes to various public behaviours, staff should not have to ‘take it.’ Through things like zero tolerance policies and various training curriculums, the staff members are encouraged to set verbal limits, point to zero tolerance posters, refuse service, walk away, call security, etc. This, as one can imagine, has nothing to do with defusing an escalating customer or effectively supporting those employees continually having to face these kinds of interactions. Perhaps one should ask how frontline employees feel after being yelled at or threatened by a member of the public who had been hammering the security glass with their fist. Infrequently do we see organizations objectively investigating incidents and properly addressing the factors that played a significant role in the escalation of the customer’s behaviours.

Worker Safety

The fact is that the outcome of an interaction is generally determined by the response of the worker to their customer’s behaviours or the situation at hand. Although physical security is an important consideration, the worker’s communication choices with members of the public will impact the level of risk more than the physical environment itself. Having said that, rarely are employees given the real-world skills required to effectively manage these potentially traumatic situations. When it comes to dealing with client/public behaviours, employees require practical tools in order to manage. A rehash of conflict resolution, service excellence, or the prescriptive ‘paint by number’ crisis response, will fall short and potentially even increase risk.

Key Training Components for Customer Management

Effective customer/patient management requires that staff have the ability to assess behaviours throughout the dynamic interaction and make safe and effective communication choices while managing their own emotions. The following is an essential list of things to look for in a truly comprehensive violence prevention curriculum.

  1. Training provides real world solutions for effectively managing early levels of customer agitation through to escalated behaviours and threats of violence.
  2. Training specifically addresses the kinds of risks your workers are likely to encounter during the course of their work.
  3. The Training Specialist confidently demonstrates the skills presented via spontaneous, job specific role-play.
  4. Employees are given the opportunity to actually ‘try-out’ the skills presented and should be required to respond to realistic, dynamic, job specific scenarios. Simply observing videos, discussing situations in groups, or reading out scripted responses is unacceptable.
  5. The Training Specialist identifies, critiques, and coaches those employees who may require adjustment to their ‘style’ of customer interaction.
  6. The interactive training provides the skills required to enhance personal safety for situations that are unlikely to be safely managed through standard de-escalation strategies; robbery, theft, sexual assault, and stalking.

Well trained employees learn that they do indeed have a choice in how they respond to difficult and sometimes volatile interactions, choices that inevitably determine the outcome. Renewed objectivity and increased confidence = reduced stress, improved morale, increased safety, enhanced service attitude, and productivity. Learn more about our Workplace Violence Prevention & De-escalation Training today.

Hugh Pelmore is the President and CEO of ARETE safety and protection inc. Hugh has provided over 5000 workplace violence prevention and harassment prevention workshops to virtually every industry sector throughout Canada. For more information on ARETE’s Service to SafetyTM | Workplace Violence Prevention or ARETE’s OnSide WorkplaceTM | Bullying and Personal Harassment workshops, go to

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