Effective Strategies for Handling Difficult Customers in Retail – A Comprehensive Guide

In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore step-by-step strategies for handling challenging retail scenarios and techniques that could ultimately keep you, your coworkers, and your customers safe.

Introduction

If you work in a customer-facing role, customers see you as the face of your business. This is great for creating positive experiences for them; however, it also means that unhappy or angry customers are likely to vent their frustrations on you.

Unfortunately, knowing how to deal with these angry customers is becoming more important. In 2023, 148,599 crimes were reported at retail locations in New Zealand, and over 2000 of these included serious assaults on retail staff. Additionally, 61% of retailers reported experiencing some form of threatening behaviour in the previous 12 months.

The good news is that there are simple, yet effective strategies you can use to de-escalate angry and aggressive customers, resolve their issues and keep yourself safe.

In this guide, you’ll gain some basic skills for handling an angry customer, dealing with verbal abuse, navigating aggression and correcting misinformation.

For more detailed training on these skills, with video demonstrations and manager checklists, check out our De-escalation courses

How to handle an angry customer: a step-by-step approach

Angry customers are a normal part of business. No matter how good you are at customer service, mistakes can still be made, miscommunications can occur, and customers can have bad days.

Whatever the reason, it’s your job to see past their anger, understand the issue and find a suitable solution. Here’s how:

Stay calm

When you’re faced with an angry customer, keeping calm is the first and most important thing to do. It’s normal to feel afraid, anxious, or even angry, too. However, you need to remain calm and composed so you don’t escalate the situation. So, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this person’s anger isn’t about you.

You also need to show your customer that you’re calm and friendly, rather than confronting them. Take a step back to give them space, stand at a slight angle, leave your arms relaxed at your sides, and keep a neutral facial expression.

Actively listen

In most situations, angry customers just want to feel heard. They want to make you aware of the issue and how it’s made them feel. You can help calm them down by giving them the time to vent, listening to them and taking their concerns seriously. 

So, let them speak without interrupting them. Show that you’re actively listening by staying focused on them, making comfortable eye contact and nodding your head. This shows that you hear what they’re saying (even if you don’t agree).

Apologise and empathise

When the customer has finished speaking, it’s your turn to show them that you care about their concerns and understand what they said. You can do this by empathising with the customer and acknowledging how the situation has made them feel. 

An easy way to achieve this is by sincerely apologising to the customer for the situation, even if it’s not your fault. Saying, “I’m sorry” can go a long way in helping a customer feel heard. You can then assure them that you want to solve their issue.

Most of the time, a customer will calm down once they feel that you’ve understood them and are trying to help.

Clarify and resolve the issue

You may need to ask the customer more questions about the issue to understand what happened and why they’re angry. 

In some cases, there may have been a mistake, such as the customer’s order not arriving within the promised timeframe. Or maybe everything was correct, but your customer wasn’t aware of the process, such as no one told them it would take two weeks for their order to arrive. 

When you understand the true cause of the customer’s frustration, you can offer a solution. You may not be able to fix past mistakes. However, your goal is to make the customer happy, so work out what you can do to resolve the issue for them now.

Get help if you’re stuck

In some situations, you may not be able to help an angry customer because you’re unsure what to offer them or they don’t seem satisfied with any of your solutions. 

This is the time to get your manager to help. Use a phone or intercom to call for assistance by calmly saying something like, “Could I please get your help at the service desk.”  You could also ask a teammate to get them if that’s easier. 

This allows you to stay with the customer, which is important because an angry person left alone has more time to overthink things, feel ignored, and get more angry. 

If this isn’t possible, it’s okay to leave the customer. Just make sure you tell them why you’re leaving and how long you’ll be. 

How to deal with verbal abuse: protecting yourself while providing assistance

Some people find it difficult to regulate their emotions. They can become verbally abusive, and this may be directed at you.

In a perfect world, you should never have to deal with verbal abuse at work. However, from time to time, it can happen, so you need to know how to help the customer while keeping boundaries that protect you. Here are some strategies:

Focus on resolving the core issue

A verbally abusive customer is an angry customer who wants an issue resolved. So, your best chance at calming them down is to show that you want to help. 

This doesn’t mean you have to tolerate verbal abuse; however, in the first instance, try not to focus on the customer’s behaviour. Instead, validate their feelings by responding with empathy, like this:

  • “I understand that you're frustrated…”
  • “I'm sorry that you're feeling upset…”
  • “I can see that something is wrong…”

You should also end these statements with a promise to take action, such as “...and I want to help you.” This shows the customer that you’re hearing them and you’re not the enemy. In most cases, this response will help them realise their anger isn’t necessary.

You can then follow the steps for ‘Handling an angry customer’ to resolve their issue.

Establish boundaries

If the customer doesn’t calm down and continues to verbally abuse you, you need to make it clear that it’s not acceptable and doesn't help their situation.

Politely yet firmly ask them to stop the behaviour by saying something like, “I would really like to help you. Can you please stop yelling at me so I can try to find a solution that works for you?”

It can be hard to stand up for yourself in a situation like this. However, it’s important to set your boundaries to protect your well-being. If you’re not feeling confident, take a step back from the customer first to give yourself some more space. 

Know when a customer cannot be helped

If your customer keeps verbally abusing you after you’ve asked them to stop, then they’re probably not going to listen or be reasonable. Take a deep breath, stay calm and without raising your voice, follow these steps:

  • Ask the customer to leave your store: “Please stop swearing at me, or I’ll need to ask you to leave the store.”
  • If they refuse to leave, tell them you’ll call security or the police: “Please leave, or I will need to call security.”
  • If they still don’t listen, then calmly make the call in a position where they can see you.

It's important not to threaten the customer, but saying these comments can help them realise they need to make a choice — either calm down and receive your help, or leave.

How to respond to aggressive behaviour: keeping yourself safe

Dealing with angry customers can sometimes escalate to them demonstrating violent and aggressive behaviour. This could include threats, kicking out, damaging property, or presenting a weapon. 

Although these situations are rare, they’re still possible, so you need to be prepared. Knowing what to do in a range of situations is the best way to keep yourself safe.

Here are some quick tips to help you respond appropriately when faced with violent and aggressive customers. 

Prioritise your safety

If you feel unsafe or notice the customer’s behaviour becoming aggressive, you need to remove yourself from the situation.

Give them a reason why you need to leave that sounds positive and helpful, even if it’s a lie. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry you’ve had this issue. I think my manager will be able to help you more than I can. Let me go grab them for you.” 

However, if a situation is getting violent, and the customer becomes physically aggressive, threatens you, or has a weapon, don't wait to explain yourself. Get away from them as quickly as you can.

Follow protocol

Once you’ve safely disengaged from the aggressive customer, you’ll need to get somewhere safe. This may be a backroom, behind the counter, or out of the store. 

Then, call security or the police. If you have security nearby, then this is the best option because they’ll get to you faster than the police can. 

Finally, follow your workplace’s procedure for dealing with aggressive customers. This may involve making your teammates aware of the situation, getting customers out of the store, calling for assistance or getting to a safe meeting spot.

Armed demands

In extreme situations, such as an armed robbery, a customer may threaten you with a weapon and start making demands. In these situations, you’ll need to be agreeable and compliant, so they have no reason to hurt you. 

Let the customer vent and stay calm, avoid eye contact, move slowly, keep your hands visible and do whatever they say, even if that means giving them money or valuable goods. 

These situations can be extremely frightening. However, it’s unlikely that they’ll hurt you if they get what they want.

After an event

After facing a violent or aggressive customer, you’ll probably feel shocked, upset, anxious, or stressed. This can make it really difficult to think clearly. However, it’s important to write down whatever details you can remember about the customer and the situation. This is crucial information for your workplace and the police, and helps them to understand what happened and what legal action to take, if necessary.

You may also need further support. It’s very normal to feel shaken by a confronting customer, and no one expects you to bounce back straight away. Talk to your manager if you need time, advice, or professional support. Your well-being is extremely important, and they are there to help you. 

Correcting misinformation: politely addressing customer misconceptions

Sometimes, the customer is not always right. They may be annoyed or frustrated about something that is unreasonable or out of your control. For example, they might have misunderstood your sale dates, assumed their product comes with a warranty when it doesn't, or not realised that delivery times are longer during the Christmas period.

Whatever the reason, many customers don’t want to admit they’re wrong, and they may expect you to solve their problem. Here’s what you need to do:

Kindly correct the misinformation

If the customer has received incorrect information or believes something that’s not true, politely and respectfully explain the correct information. Don’t tell the customer they’re wrong, blame or criticise them, as this will only make them defensive or angry. 

Instead, use clear and simple language to explain the correct information and help them understand. If you need to use facts or evidence, such as terms and conditions, emails, or receipts, make sure you do this kindly without making your customer feel embarrassed or foolish. 

Empathise with the customer

No one likes to feel embarrassed or silly, and your customer may feel this way if they realise they’re wrong. You should do everything you can to prevent them from feeling this way. 

When it’s appropriate, show them empathy. You may want to say, “I’m sorry this wasn’t explained to you earlier.” or “I completely understand why you’re confused. I’m sorry you feel like this.”

Be professional

When you correct a misunderstanding, your customer might argue with you. Remember, they feel wronged by your business, so it may take time for them to understand and accept your corrections. 

If this happens, stay calm and polite. Gently address each of their concerns, one at a time, using evidence where possible. Your goal is not to prove you’re right but to help your customer understand.

Offer assistance

If your customer has an issue due to a misunderstanding—such as missing a sale or not receiving their order in time for an event—there may still be a way to help them. 

Ask questions to understand why they’re frustrated and what the core issue is. Is there something else you can offer them? Can you go the extra mile to make them happy? 

Your goal should always be to support your customers and ensure they leave your store feeling satisfied with the help they receive. 

Summary

When dealing with an angry customer, staying calm, giving them your full attention, and trying to solve their problem is essential. By following the steps in this guide, you can de-escalate the situation and turn their negative experience into a positive one, which can be very rewarding.

For customers who cannot be helped or are verbally abusive or aggressive, you now have some tips to keep yourself safe, which is always the top priority. 

In the perfect world, you shouldn’t have to use any of the strategies you’ve learned in this guide. However, by having them in your toolkit, you can feel more confident that you’re prepared to help every customer while keeping yourself, your teammates and your customer safe. 

For further information and training on these techniques, check out our De-escalation courses.

Published by:
Deanna Kelland
Instructional Designer
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