Long queues, refusing a sale and faulty goods are just some of the reasons why customers can snap. So teaching staff how to cope with angry customers is a vital tool, keeping situations under control before they turn nasty.

Keith Fernie, manager of David Sands’ store in Kelty, Fife, recently attended a course on how to deal with angry customers, designed by Fife Constabulary community safety officers PC Mark Anderson and PC Kenny Greig. “When someone starts shouting, confronting them will only make matters worse,” says Keith. “Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue.”

Linda Bolland, anger management specialist at the British Association of Anger Management agrees that shouting back at a customer isn’t a good tactic. “A counter-attack will only inflame and enrage the customer. You need to counteract the rage by doing the opposite – staying calm and focused,” she says. “You don’t want to be drawn in.” Instead, you should make eye contact with the person, advises Bolland. “Don’t eyeball them aggressively, but look at them with empathy. You want to appear as if you are open to learning something from them,” she says.

Once you have listened to the customer’s viewpoint, Bolland recommends clarifying what they have said. “This shows that you are listening to them, rather than just paying lip service,” she says. “Staff need to use ‘I’ statements, instead of ‘you’ statements. For example: ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I hear you’, rather than ‘Are you sure?’ and ‘Can you please calm down’.”

The best way to prevent customers from getting angry is to remove the cause of their frustrations. Margaret Banfield, who runs Embankment Stores in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, has taken preventative measures when it comes to queuing in her store. “Customers don’t get angry about queuing because we have a policy of not letting anyone wait,” she says. “We always have two staff available to work on the tills if it gets busy.”

However, if a queue is unavoidable then there are effective strategies that can help to manage customers’ stress levels. “If you’re on a busy till, don’t just concentrate on the person in front of you – address those in the queue,” says PC Anderson, who has taught a number of Spar and David Sands employees how to deal with difficult customers. “Tell the queuing customers: ‘I appreciate your patience and I’ll serve you as soon as I can’,” he suggests. 

“It diffuses the situation because you have given people attention, otherwise by the time they get to the till they’ll be simmering.” Body language is also vital, he adds: “Only 7% of communication is spoken; 35% is the tone of your voice and the other 58% is non-verbal. You need to look up and smile at customers – this will be read as sincere.”

Team support
Involving senior members of the team can also help to calm customers down, says Anderson. “For example, with the underage sales policy, if you have taken a stand and refused to serve someone you need to have agreed beforehand that the manager will always back you up,” he says. “That way, if the customer does demand to see the manager, then he or she will reinforce the message. Sticking up for each other stops customers getting angry because you can claim that it isn’t an individual’s decision, it is simply store policy.”

Margaret says she has used a similar no-nonsense approach in her store. “We had an angry customer who insisted he was old enough to buy age-related products. But he couldn’t prove it, so we all just had to keep calmly reiterating the fact that we couldn’t serve him without ID,” she says. “At first he wouldn’t listen and kept trying it on and getting angry. 

But when he realised that none of the staff would serve him, he eventually calmed down, left the shop and came back with a birth certificate. As long as you are firm but fair with customers, they will learn to accept the rules and realise that getting angry doesn’t help.”

Saquib Ghafoor, owner of Nisa 8 Till 10 in Tyne & Wear, encourages staff to call on him if customers become difficult. “If an employee is approached by an angry customer, then I advise them to make sure that they get another member of staff on the tills so that the employee can deal with the customer one-to-one,” he says. “If the problem continues, then staff can call me or my brother [and co-owner], Shami. Getting us involved helps calm the situation straightaway.”

Anger diffusion is without doubt a core skill that most c-store employees would benefit from learning. Even if managers can’t send employees on a course, they should at least prepare staff for worst-case scenarios, says PC Anderson. He suggests discussing an action plan with staff. “They need to know what to do if they can’t calm someone down,” he says. “Staff need to think about whether they can get into an office and lock the door; whether they can get out of the shop; whether there is a code word that will alert other members of staff; and whether they know where the panic buttons are.

“These things need to be discussed in advance – it’s too late after the event.”
Personal safety officers
In 2007, Fife police introduced a personal safety training course for convenience store staff. The training was provided to eight Spar stores across Dundee and Fife. The police had already been offering women's safety training and they adapted that course material to make it specific to a retail environment.

The training taught staff how to handle difficult situations, such as refusing a sale, in a tactful, professional manner, and resulted in increasing staff confidence and morale.

PC Mark Anderson, who was involved in the training, is keen for the courses to be rolled out nationwide, so that other convenience store retailers may benefit.

For further details on the course please ring Fife Constabulary on: 0845 600 5702