Managing the Impacts of Customer Aggression

Managing the Impacts of Customer Aggression

Customer aggression has been around since the advent of trade. Yet for some industries these days, such as retail, banking, hospitality and healthcare, inappropriate customer behaviour has become a daily or weekly occurrence. In fact, many people working in these industries just accept that they will be ‘given a serve’ as part of their job. 

Having worked as a critical incident clinician for many years, I have witnessed countless times the heavy, psychological toll that customer aggression takes on the lives of innocent people. I have sat in shock listening to many people who suffer from PTSD, burnout, and crippling anxiety because someone thought it was acceptable to verbally abuse or physically assault them. I am still baffled by the ‘Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde syndrome’ – the many offenders who normally live by the golden rule, treat their friends and family with respect and dignity, yet are abusive towards customer service staff when they don’t get their own way.

Too often employers are blind to the aggression inflicted upon their staff, not realising that inappropriate customer behaviour exists along a spectrum. This ranges in intensity, from dismissive or critical comments, to making threatening remarks, to more conspicuous acts such as violence or assault. Employers’ failure to appreciate this spectrum contributes to Workcover claims, sick leave, staff turnover, burnout, and low morale. Not to mention the loss of dignity that comes from being mistreated by customers.

If you work in an environment where there is customer aggression, there are a number of things you can do to take care of yourself:

  • Realise that no matter who you work for, whether you interact with customers over the phone, or face to face, you have a right to feel safe in your workplace. Likewise, your employer has a moral and legal obligation to keep you safe at work. 
  • Complete customer aggression training. This will help you to respond to conflict more effectively, without escalating it and to use collaborative strategies to turn some situations around. Ask your employer to pay for it. They have a duty of care to provide you with the skills to negotiate these tough situations. 
  • Debrief with someone that you trust after an incident. Don’t ignore what happened or sweep it under the carpet. Pretending the incident didn’t happen will only add to your stress, numb you out, or wear you down. Do you know who your ‘go to’ people are at work? Can you debrief with a work colleague, manager, or someone else? Does your organisation have an Employee Assistance Provider (EAP) that you can reach out to? 
  • Understand that everyone has a different threshold or breaking point. And this threshold changes, depending on what is happening outside of work, your health, staffing levels, accumulated stress, management support…the list goes on. The important thing is that you track where your threshold is and take the necessary steps to look after yourself, such as raising your concerns with management, taking time off, going for walks, meditating, doing yoga….even changing jobs if you need to! Self-care will be different for everyone. 
  • Understand that your (autonomic) nervous system has an evolutionary hierarchy of responses that shuttle between states of safety and danger throughout the day. You can think of it like a ladder that you move up and down on depending on how safe you feel at work. For instance, when you are having a positive interaction with a customer, you feel present, connected, and social. If the customer behaves aggressively towards you, however, then you may instinctively slide down towards the middle of the scale into a defensive fight/flight mode, where you feel in danger, chaotic, angry or on edge. If you are feeling overwhelmed or trapped by the customer’s behaviour though, your nervous system may slide down to the bottom of the scale, where it goes into a state of freeze or shut-down. We all move up and down the ladder to some degree throughout the day. The two most important questions here are (1) where on this ladder do I spend most of my time at work?  (2) what actions do I need to take to feel safe (er) at work?  

Listed above are only a few brief ways to help you deal more effectively with customer aggression. If you would like more support with challenging customers or feel you may have been traumatised by a previous incident, then reach out to Greg Hack at Mind Up. Greg has expertise in treating workplace injuries, trauma, anxiety, depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, grief and loss, and phobias.