Workplace Wisdom

What Can You Do When a Customer Explodes?

I just watched a customer take offense in a situation where no one was actually in the wrong. She reached into an awkward — although salvageable — circumstance, and pulled out a negative experience for herself — and a terrible experience for the employee trying to help her.

Round 1: The Customer Picks a Fight Over a Price

I was finishing a cup of tea in my favorite frozen yogurt place when a customer came in and ordered two large yogurts. The young woman behind the counter rang them up and asked for $15.50. The customer became completely indignant, protesting that the price had always been $7.25 for a large and that the employee had rung the order up incorrectly, as if she were trying to steal a dollar.

The employee said she was sorry and explained that a large had been $7.75 for as long as she had worked there; the customer, with great agitation, asked how long that had been, and seemed to take the answer of “two months” as a personal insult. Two months “was nothing,” she said, and loudly noted that she had been coming there for years. She paid the $15.50 with great agitation, and left in a rush.

The employee had tried to apologize and was never rude. But her plain, factual answers somehow only added fuel to the fire that the customer herself was stoking. The customer reacted as if she thought that the employee — a high school student — was playing her for a fool, which incensed her even more than the unexpected higher price.

Round 2: The Customer Returns

After the customer stormed out, the employee, red-faced and clearly rattled, returned to her tasks of restocking and cleaning up, trying to behave normally. Then, suddenly, the customer came back, demanding to know what time the owner would be in the next day. The employee said she wasn’t sure, and the customer upbraided her for not knowing. The employee protested that the owner did not share his schedule with her.

The customer scolded her again, this time for not knowing. Then she asked even more forcefully, “Will he be in tomorrow?” When the employee, afraid to say the wrong thing and attempting to avoid a third reprimand, assured her that he would be there, the customer criticized her for changing her answer, and left again.

The employee looked like she might cry, and rushed to the back of the store. She reemerged a few moments later to tend to the customers who were coming in. There was a brief lull in traffic as I was packing up to leave, and I thought about what I could say to her.

The Interaction’s Aftermath: What Did It Mean? Could It Have Been Handled Differently?

I approached the counter, put out my hand, and introduced myself to the shaken young woman. “She was shocked by the price change,” I told her. “It threw her off completely. You didn’t do anything bad.” She managed a bit of a smile. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “She was so angry.”

“Sometimes people get overwhelmed,” I said, “and they can’t even hear your apology until they calm down. I wish I had thought of it at the time, but the only other thing you could have done would have been to actually point to the price up on the board, but she might have been even more offended.”

“I called the owner,” she said, holding back tears. “I told him what happened, and I left the receipt for him. I don’t want him to be mad.”

“You can tell him I was here,” I said. “He knows me; I’m here all the time. I can tell him what happened. There really wasn’t anything else you could do once she got herself so upset. Now you have to let it go.” She nodded, and tried to smile again.

Sometimes, customers — and other people — upset themselves. Something that happens in an interaction triggers feelings that are deeper than we can see, and go well beyond what a situation seems to call for. If you’re a caring and responsible type of person, like this young employee, you can feel guilty and ashamed, even when you’re barely at fault. But you can’t always make it better. All you can do is be self-aware, recover through self-management, and hope that the other party will do the same, recognizing that you meant no harm.

Have you ever been in a situation like this — as the customer, the employee, or the bystander? If so, is there anything else you wish you had done?

Onward and upward,

LK

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