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Conflict with customers

Conflicts with customers cannot be completely avoided. However it is important to manage conflicts, otherwise they will grow bigger and may become unresolvable. Read more here about conflict with customers and what you can do as an employee, a manager or a member of the health and safety group.

Understanding conflict with customers

Understand the conflict ladder and how to prevent a conflict from developing

How to manage conflict with customers

Conflicts should be de-escalated and should be managed early on. Read more about what you can do.

For employees

For employees

How to prevent conflict

As an employee at a shop, you’ll be in the line of fire if there is a conflict with a customer. It’s therefore important that you understand how to stop conflict from escalating and to de-escalate conflicts if they develop.

Therefore: Start by reading the section on conflict above, so that you understand the conflict ladder and the five stages that most conflicts go through.

Tips on managing conflicts

  • Identify the conflict early on. Be aware of the fine line between disagreement and conflict at step 1 of the conflict ladder. There is much to be gained from managing the conflict early on.
  • Put conflict and how to manage conflict on the agenda at your shop. Be open about how you react to conflict or what you find difficult in conflict situations with customers.
  • Don’t think of the customer as ‘difficult’ (don’t be personal); think of the situation as difficult (be objective).
  • First try to understand the customer; then, try to make yourself understood.
  • Don’t think that you know what the customer thinks. It’s better to ask one more time.
  • Describe the situation. Say out loud how you see the situation, but without blaming the customer.
  • Be factual. Only say things that the customer can also accept as facts. Everything else can be misunderstood or perceived as blaming.
  • Let the customer feel you’re on the same side and have the same goal: to resolve the issue! “Let’s see what we can do together to…”
  • Accept if you don’t have the energy for conflict and ask a colleague for help before the conflict escalates and becomes more difficult to resolve.
  • Practice all kinds of customer situations; also the easy ones.
Ask a colleague for help

If you are having difficulties managing a conflict, ask for support from a colleague.

You can agree with your colleagues in advance about how you want to be helped, for example:

  • Ask a colleague to take over servicing the customer.
  • Ask a colleague to help you and the customer manage the conflict.
  • Ask a colleague to offer to help you if they see you having a conflict with a customer.

If you notice that a colleague is having a conflict with a customer, stay close by so that the colleague can ask for your help if they need it.

When conflicts can't be resolved

Not all conflicts can be resolved. This may be due to several reasons:

Not enough time: There is not always enough time to ask questions and understand the customer, or for the customer to explain her version of the situation. For example, if you are a checkout assistant at a supermarket, or if there’s a long queue of people waiting at the counter.

You don’t have the emotional energy: Because conflict is about emotions – yours too – you won’t always have the patience not to become angry with the customer. If you already know this about yourself, ask a colleague for help as soon as possible before the conflict escalates.

The customer doesn’t want to resolve the conflict: Maybe the customer is just having a really bad day and maybe the customer was already frustrated and angry before entering the shop. If you listen to the customer’s story, it might help. Or maybe there is really nothing you can do.

It can be very difficult to manage customers like these, but the more prepared you are, the easier it will be. If you’re sure of yourself, you will send a more confident signal to the customer and you’ll also be less affected by the situation. Prepare yourself with questions and phrases and talk together at the workplace about how best to manage these situations.

The customer may behave in a certain way or be in a certain mood that doesn’t allow for dialogue. In these situations the tools in the conflict ladder won’t be useful.

Read more

Related pages on Det du mærker

For managers

Establish the best conditions for conflict resolution

Find supplementary information about this topic in the sections If you are an employee and For health and safety groups.

Establish the best conditions for conflict resolution

The conflict ladder described above under Conflict with customers is a good tool to help you and your employees to understand and de-escalate conflicts with customers.

You can use the conflict ladder as a common reference to talk about conflicts and prepare employees to manage conflict.

Organisation of work

The risk of conflicts with customers can be linked to the way in which work is organised at the shop. For example, you can prevent queues at the check-out by opening more check-out points, or you can reduce waiting time during peak periods by increasing the number of shop assistants.

Similarly, you can make sure individual employees have more energy to manage customers by having them rotate between servicing customers and doing other work, and by ensuring everyone knows they can call for help from a manager or colleague in critical situations.

Everyone has to know the rules

If every employee knows about the shop rules and policies, conflicts can be more easily prevented and de-escalated.

Employees should know about the shop’s rules and policies for returns, exchanges, complaints, etc. Otherwise, the employees will not be able to communicate clearly with customers in conflict situations. It is also crucial that the employees know their mandate, i.e. that they know whether they can give customers their money back and, in general, when they can make their own decisions and when to call for a manager, for example.

Similarly, it is important that you have talked about what is acceptable to do or say to a customer. For example, can an employee ask a customer to leave the shop? Can employees themselves leave? When is it a good idea to contact a colleague and/or manager? If employees know their mandate, it will be easier for them to deal with the situation, because they know what is acceptable and what is not.

As a manager, you must also make sure that the employees are familiar with the response plan that has been prepared for the shop, and that they know when the plan applies.

Care for your employees

Compliment your employees when they do well

Conflicts with customers are part of life, and they cannot be completely avoided. The goal is to de-escalate conflicts and resolve them before they grow bigger and become unresolvable.

When an employee manages to de-escalate a conflict, you should recognise this and compliment them. Use examples of situations that went well to enhance the collective understanding of how to successfully manage conflicts with customers.

Not always possible to solve a conflict

There can be many good reasons why an employee does not manage to de-escalate a conflict:

  • There was no time to deal with the conflict and reconcile with the customer.
  • The employee was unprepared for the situation. Conflict has to do with emotions, and it’s not always possible to act with patience and calm in a stressful situation.
  • Perhaps the customer didn’t want to resolve the conflict and was just having a really bad day and was already frustrated and angry before entering the shop. Or perhaps the customer was drunk, confused or in some other way out of sorts and could not be reasoned with.
Follow up if the conflict was not resolved

If one of your employees has been involved in a conflict that was not resolved, the employee may need to process the experience by talking with you, the manager, about what happened.

If you’re helping an employee process an unresolved conflict, you can use the same tools that you use when managing conflicts with customers.

  • You can help the employee to understand what happened by being curious and asking the employee how she experienced the situation.
  • You should respect and acknowledge the employee’s experience of the situation, even if you don’t agree with it. Make sure that both you and the employee keep to the issue at hand and do not bring other problems into the conversation.
  • Avoid becoming personal. For example, don’t imply that the employee is at fault.

When the employee has told her version of the situation and has calmed down, you can start to talk about how the customer might have experienced the situation, and you can give advice about how to approach similar situations differently in the future.

It’s important that you are appreciative and constructive in your feedback. Otherwise the employee will feel misunderstood or will feel that you are blaming them for the conflict, and then the conflict may affect the relationship between you and the employee.

Tools and links

BFA Handel has a dedicated website, Trapned.dk, with information on how to de-escalate – or diffuse – conflict situations with customers. The site includes a number of tools to help you to develop a shared knowledge about conflicts and conflict management at the shop. Among other things, the site contains a playbook for a staff meeting, short films and slides as well as a leaflet, which you can use as your ‘textbook’ on conflict management.

  • Resources: Check out the Trapned.dk  (de-escalate) website (opens in new window).
Related pages on Det du mærker

 

For health and safety groups

The work of the health and safety group

The health and safety group can help prevent conflict with customers in several different ways:

Build knowledge about conflict management

Under the Conflict with customers section you can read about the conflict ladder, which is a good tool to understand how conflicts develop and what to do to de-escalate the situation.

You can help to ensure that every employee is familiar with the conflict ladder and their options for action, for example by handing out materials or addressing the topic at a staff meeting.

Look at how work is organised

The risk of conflicts with customers can be linked to the way in which work is organised at the shop. For example, you can prevent queues at the check-out by opening more check-out points, or you can reduce waiting time during peak periods by increasing the number of shop assistants.

Similarly, you can make sure individual employees have more energy to manage customers by having them rotate between servicing customers and doing other work, and by ensuring everyone knows they can call for help from a manager or colleague in critical situations.

Use the health and safety risk assessment

You can get an idea of the situation at the shop by identifying how you organise work as part of your health and safety risk assessment (APV).

Moreover, you can use the APV to interview employees about their experiences with conflict: How often do they experience conflict with customers? Do they feel prepared and able to manage conflict? Do they need more knowledge, training or clearer procedures?

Resources: Find methods and tools under Health and safety risk assessment and action plan.

Put conflict on the agenda

The quick method:

If you want to address the subject of conflict with customers at a small workplace, a simple staff meeting may be a good place to start. You can exchange and discuss your experience with customer conflict at the meeting and share ideas about how to prevent conflict. At the end of the meeting, you can all assess whether there is a need to launch initiatives.

  • Watch a short film together about customer conflict. Check out the Trapned.dk website (opens in new window) for more films.
  • Talk about the film: What is it like at our workplace?
  • What can we do to prevent and manage conflicts with customers?

For the chair of the meeting: Prepare for the meeting by reading more about conflict management on this page. Also, download tips for the meeting itself in the Staff meeting guide.

Initiatives based on a health and safety risk assessment

You can conduct a health and safety risk assessment (APV) with special focus on psychosocial working conditions and examine the factors that affect the occurrence of customer conflicts and that affect how such conflicts are experienced and managed.

There are several ways to conduct a health and safety risk assessment:

  • The dialogue method by which you identify the problems at a staff meeting and discuss causes and solutions together.
  • The questionnaire method by which you collect employees’ opinions and experiences in writing, and then find causes and solutions either in the health and safety group or at a staff meeting.

Tools and links

BFA Handel has a dedicated website, Trapned.dk, with information on how to de-escalate – or diffuse – conflict situations with customers. The site includes a number of tools to help you to develop a shared knowledge about conflicts and conflict management at the shop. Among other things, the site contains a playbook for a staff meeting, short films and slides as well as a leaflet, which you can use as your ‘textbook’ on conflict management.

  • Resources: Check out the Trapned.dk  (de-escalate) website (opens in new window).
Related pages on Det du mærker