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How to Support Frontline Staff Dealing with Conflict and Unruly Customers

Apr 29, 2022 / SkillsVR

All over the world, we’re seeing an alarming increase in incidents involving aggressive and violent behavior directed towards frontline staff. Whether it’s on a plane, at a fastfood restaurant, a retail shop, or at a hospital, workers at the frontline are being confronted, yelled at, and worse, physically hurt. 

Effects of conflict situations to staff wellbeing can range from mild to extreme. After all, not everyone will manage conflict the same way, and not everyone will react to conflict the same way. 

During our conflict management VR training pilots, we accumulated valuable anecdotes and insights on what helps (and doesn’t help) most frontline staff when it comes to dealing with unruly or aggressive customers. 

With those insights in mind, here’s a list of how those of us in leadership roles can support our frontline staff to better manage workplace conflict!

Provide effective de-escalation training 

Prevention is better than cure: an age-old adage that strongly applies to managing workplace conflict. 

Teaching our staff how to prevent conflict from escalating will help them learn to defuse risky situations quickly and minimize any potential abuse that customers can inflict on them.  

The SkillsVR conflict management training, for example, immerses staff in simulated conflict situations, training them for all levels of conflict so they know what to expect. This is critically beneficial especially for new or younger employees who are often at the frontline and yet have no experience dealing with risky situations. 

The VR scenario gives them an opportunity to experience conflict without putting them at risk while giving them practical tools for de-escalating and managing conflict, which they can learn and practice all in VR! 

Effective de-escalation training, VR or no, is also great for senior staff as refreshers to keep their skills sharp and the training front-of-mind.

Don’t berate them for “doing badly” 

As painfully expressed by a supermarket employee we interviewed, berating frontline staff for mishandling conflict is like rubbing salt to the wound. Not only have they been abused by a customer, a supervisor has now also told them off for “saying or doing the wrong thing”, i.e. their actions made the situation worse. 

In that particular case, and in fact as in most cases, the staff member was not taught how to manage conflict in the first place. The messaging then becomes, “This is what you should have done,” instead of, “This is what you should do.” 

While most of us would assume that telling our staff off after-the-fact will help them become more competent in future, it actually creates the opposite effect. Telling them they failed while their nerves are still raw does not make a great foundation for competence, confidence, or resilience. It doesn’t empower them, nor does it foster confidence that they’ll do better next time. 

Staff far better appreciate, and benefit from, a proactive approach. 

Remind them that their safety is their priority 

The phrase “the customer is always right" originally ended in the phrase “in matters of taste”, which meant catering to demand for a product to stay competitive. However, over time, it evolved into complying with dissatisfied customers no matter the nature of their complaint, exhorting service staff to give a high priority to customer satisfaction over their own wellbeing. 

While it’s certainly important to cater to customer requests and complaints, staff wellbeing and safety should top them. Why? Staff will feel more supported, confident, and empowered knowing that supervisors and managers care for them and have their back, resulting in better job performance overall.

Moreover, when provided with effective conflict management training, a staff member is able to prioritize their safety, successfully de-escalate a disgruntled customer, and complete the transaction. Now that’s what we call a win-win situation – for all parties involved! 

Make sure help is readily available

Staff will feel more comfortable dealing with an upset customer knowing that assistance is at arm’s reach should things turn south, whether that’s a speed dial for immediate support or security personnel waiting in the wings.

Implementing an “I need help” signal is also proven to work in the heat of a risky or dangerous situation. It could be a covert hand signal or a safe word like “grapes” or “red pen”. For frontline staff, these easily and quickly signal danger or discomfort without resorting to explicit cries for help that draw unwanted attention. 

Provide post-conflict care 

If your staff has just contended with a rude or abusive customer, make sure to give them time and space to recover, especially if their safety has been threatened or compromised.

Depending on the person and the situation, some might need as little as half an hour to transition back into a more neutral state to carry on their duties, while some might be so shaken they need to take the rest of the day off. It’s best to use a tailored and respectful approach here where possible. 

Workplace conflict is inevitable, and it’s our duty to prepare staff for this inevitability as much as we can. Staff who are competent, confident, and resilient are great assets to any organization, resulting in better customer service, improved productivity, and overall good morale. 

We’d love the opportunity to empower your organization and your staff to be better equipped to handle any conflict situation. If you’re curious about VR Conflict Management Training, make sure to get in touch with the SkillsVR team for a quick conversation or a demo!

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