Staying in Control During Confrontations
If someone you're trying to serve resorts to rudeness, it can be difficult to know how to react. Even if you deal with customers and clients on a regular basis, a burst of hostility can come as a shock, and you can quickly find yourself in a difficult position.
How do you manage your own feelings, so that you calm the situation and start looking for a solution? When do you make concessions, and when should you refuse to budge? Afterward, what's the best way to recover? And how can you prevent a similar situation arising again?
The coronavirus pandemic has put many companies and their customers under immense levels of pressure. And even in more normal times, some people quickly become rude and unreasonable – so it's always important to know how to respond.
In this article, we explore five strategies for dealing with rude customers, to give you the confidence to handle any hostile conversations that you may face.
Best Responses to Rude Customers
If someone's dissatisfied with the quality of goods or services that they've received from your organization, they're perfectly entitled to let you know about it! And if they remain calm and polite, despite their frustration or anger, you'll most likely be willing to help an unhappy customer. You'll try hard to put things right, whether that means replacing a faulty toaster, or providing compensation for a canceled flight.
The same applies when someone is questioning a change that you've made. You might have asked your customers to queue outside rather than congregating in the reception area, for example. Once again, people have a right to question you and communicate their unhappiness. And you'll do your best to explain the situation, and help them as much as you can.
But things change when people can't control their anger and resort to verbal abuse, offensive language, or even threatening behavior. When you're confronted by these rude customers, you need to take a different approach.
Why Does Customer Rudeness Matter?
Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, have studied the impact of customers' rudeness on employees. Their findings show that staff who expect to encounter rude customers at work react far less strongly than those who normally enjoy good customer relations, but who face unexpected rudeness. 
The researchers recommend that organizations train their people to deal effectively with irate customers, even when those customers are generally viewed as civil. And they add that rude customers should be dealt with at the time of the encounter. If you only defuse the situation temporarily, the problem will likely get worse.
Meanwhile, you run the risk of being seen as weak. And if there are safety implications, you could even put people in danger by being unable to hold your line.
The consequences of not handling confrontations effectively can be serious, both for individuals and their organizations. According to the UBC study, poorly managed disputes can lead to staff members experiencing stress and emotional exhaustion, which in turn can increase absenteeism and reduce performance.
An entire company can suffer if its reputation is damaged, and you may lose business if you get too many of these encounters wrong.
5 Strategies for Handling Rude Customers
What do you do, then, if you're suddenly on the receiving end of a stream of abuse? Here are five strategies for dealing with rude customers:
1. Stay Calm, Don't React
The first thing to do is to remain calm and not respond in kind. If you're faced with an unexpected verbal attack, a natural defense mechanism is to "bite back." The UBC research suggests that rude customers "... can violate an employee's sense of dignity and respect, and trigger negative emotions that can motivate employees to react negatively."
So avoid "fighting fire with fire." And be tactful, or you risk inflaming the situation further. Something as simple as taking some deep breaths will give you a vital few seconds to gather your thoughts and avoid retaliating in a way that might lead to you being viewed as the aggressor.
Staying calm will also help you to stay alert to your customer's behavior – which may deteriorate, whatever your response is. If that happens, it may be time to step away from the situation and contact a colleague for help.
Your personal safety is paramount. If you feel threatened by a rude customer, trust your instincts and act quickly. Our article, How to Deal With Violence at Work, explains how to stay in control during even the most confrontational encounters, in order to protect yourself and those around you.
If your interaction is by email or on social media, customers may be even more hostile or aggressive. People often say things online that they'd never say in person.
Resist the temptation to give someone a "taste of their own medicine." Take a deep breath. Perhaps go for a walk to release the tension. Do whatever it takes to gain distance before you hit "send."
When you do write a reply, keep your cool, state the facts, and make clear your willingness to help.
2. Don't Take It Personally
Why are some customers so rude? Chances are, your customer is angry about a bad product or service, and you're just the unfortunate target for their frustration. Many other issues may also have contributed to those feelings. During a long-lasting crisis such as COVID-19, for example, emotions such as fear, anxiety and restlessness can build up, until even the slightest inconvenience can become the "last straw."
So, instead of taking someone's rudeness to heart, try to empathize with your customer – up to a point. They want to know that you're listening to them, and recognize the depth of their feelings, so show that you do.
However, your response must not be dictated by the strength of their emotions. Developing emotional intelligence is a useful strategy for sensing other people's emotional needs, while retaining enough self-control to make the right response.
One way of learning how to deal with rude customers is to use Role-Playing. Our article on this can help you to rehearse your responses to a variety of challenging situations.
3. Listen and, If Appropriate, Apologize
Rude customers often need to vent their frustration. Always listen actively, no matter how unreasonable they sound. Demonstrate that you've taken in what they've said by occasionally reflecting back their words. For example, use phrases like, "So, it sounds like you're saying that…" "What I'm hearing is…" or "Is this what you mean?" This approach can also highlight any unrealistic expectations that may be behind the customer's complaint.
Be aware of your body language during the conversation. Keep your arms unfolded, and maintain appropriate eye contact to demonstrate your open attitude.
If you've been subjected to a barrage of abuse, saying sorry might run against every instinct you have. But if your customer's grievance is genuine, a prompt apology may staunch the flow of rudeness and provide the basis for a better relationship.
4. Stand Firm
Sometimes, however, you'll need to be more assertive to get your message across. If the customer is repeating the same points, or trying to prevent you from getting a word in, the time will come when you have to respond.
Do so clearly and confidently, and address the details of the situation, especially if the customer is saying things that are factually wrong, or asking you to go against the rules. This is never easy to do, but it can be helpful to remind yourself about why you're holding your line – particularly if you're fulfilling key responsibilities of your post, or enforcing health and safety rules that will protect everyone.
In addition, if you routinely back up colleagues when they're in a similar position, you'll be able to rely on their support when you need it, and know that you're part of a "united front."
5. Solve the Problem
The best way to disarm a rude customer is to involve them in solving the problem that's fueling their behavior. Ask them what they feel would be an acceptable solution. That way, you have something concrete to work toward.
Look for quick, simple solutions. Many problems that lead to customer rudeness will have occurred before, so your company may have policies that allow you to offer refunds or replacements, for example, with little fuss.
However, the truth is that there may be no easy answer to a customer's problem. During times of crisis, in particular, some people will push for responses that aren't possible, or answers that you simply don't have. When that happens, acknowledge the difficulty of the situation, explain your position clearly – but stick to it.
When to Step In
If you're a manager, one of your team members may ask you to step in to help resolve the situation. That means balancing your responsibilities to your customers with the duty of care you have to your people.
Where a customer's behavior has become unacceptable, it's important to let them know that. Be specific about what you've observed. For example, is their language and behavior insulting, discriminatory, or even threatening?
As a manager, it may be possible for you to negotiate a solution. But always ensure that you're helping your colleague to do this, and not undermining them. Equally, if you decide to take over the situation, make it clear that you're not questioning your team member's authority or ability, but simply taking the next step in your organization's response.
Dealing With the Aftermath
Encountering a rude customer can be a highly stressful experience, so it's important to take a breather afterward. You'll likely gain some valuable perspective if you remember that very few of your customers behave in this way.
It's also important to think through what happened, to consider whether this customer's rudeness reflects a bigger problem or a recurring issue.
You may need to report the situation to your manager. Always do this if you were badly affected by the incident; if the problem is beyond your remit to resolve; or if this encounter seems to be part of a pattern.
You might also need to follow up with the customer – even if that's not a pleasant prospect! Before doing so, check that all the information you're referring to is correct. Don't be afraid to seek advice from your manager, too. Use their support to boost your confidence when you make contact with the customer again.
Our article on Emotional Labor has tips for managing your emotions and remaining positive at work, especially if your role – or the environment you're working in – makes you particularly likely to encounter rudeness.
Supporting Team Members After a Confrontation
If someone you're managing has been dealing with a rude customer, check in with them to make sure that they're OK. Choose your time well – straight after the situation is a good moment for some team members, but not for others.
Discuss what was said, to ensure that you have a full picture of what occurred, and find out if there's anything you need to look into. As part of this, check that your colleague is equipped to deal with any recurrence of this situation, and address any training needs.
You may also want to consider carrying out some further research – by organizing a customer satisfaction survey, for example. However, in particularly tense or difficult times, it's better to focus on any quick changes you can make to lessen the chance of confrontations.
Above all, remember your responsibility to help everyone on your team to handle rude customers effectively. While it's important to protect your organization's outward reputation, don't forget that you have an even greater responsibility to your people. Supporting their well-being, especially in challenging times, will be an essential part of your company's long-term success.
Rude customers differ from unhappy ones in that they can't control their anger. They are unreasonable, unfriendly, and prone to using verbal abuse, offensive language and threatening behavior. But you're in business to serve your customers, so it's important to try to help them.
When dealing with rude customers, it's crucial to control your own emotions, and to counteract inflammatory behavior with calm, considered responses. Try not to take any comments personally. Listen actively to your customer, and apologize if it's appropriate to do so.
But stand firm when necessary. As much as you can, deal with problems in the moment. Don't be afraid to ask your manager or a colleague for backup.
After a hostile encounter, give yourself time to recover. Report serious or worrying incidents, seek any support you need, and be alert to any patterns of rudeness – so that you and your organization can take steps to avoid them happening again.
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