When is enough, enough?

With customers becoming more abusive towards front-line staff, organisations need to know where to draw the line between what employees should and should not have to put up with. Simon Kent reports


“The customer isn’t always right – but they are always the customer,” says Aidan Harris. In his role as workplace violence champion for London Underground, he works with diverse parts of the company, and external organisations who work alongside the Tube, to reduce the occurrence and impact of abuse towards all staff.


“This issue is no longer confined to health and safety,” he explains. “We are trying to take a holistic approach to the problem, because if we tackle this correctly, we impact on staff morale and motivation. That in turn affects customer service levels.”


He adds: “Rather than seeing the two issues – violence at work and customer service – as separate, we’re bringing them together in an integrated initiative.”


Jo Rick, a researcher with the Institute of Employment Studies (IES), says: “A lot of organisations are getting better at telling their customers what is unacceptable behaviour. There are notices on buses and in locations where employees meet the public face-to-face.


“It’s a good thing, because what one person finds aggressive behaviour may not be what another considers aggressive. It should therefore be obvious that if a customer behaves in a certain way, service will be withdrawn,” she says.


The IES has carried out a number of research programmes for the Health and Safety Executive into the way in which trauma management is handled within organisations. While focusing on health and emergency organisations where trauma is arguably a part of the job, their findings are useful for any organisation where employees are in direct contact with members of the public.


“Organisations need to put something in place before the event,” says Rick. “That might mean training to recognise body language, perhaps thinking about how you position yourself in a confined space with someone else, or how to use your voice to keep the situation calm.”


Secondly, she says, organisations must have a clear policy on how to handle the aftermath of an incident.


“The line manager needs to know what to do – whether that means the abused employee is allowed to go back to work immediately, or whether they are given time to recover,” says Rick. “If the incident means third parties are involved – perhaps the police need to take statements – then staff should be prepared to do that.”


Aggressive behaviour


Any policy in this area should consider the position of the line manager who, even if they were not directly involved, could still be emotionally affected by the event.


Just as the interpretation of what constitutes aggressive behaviour differs from individual to individual, the actual risks facing employees differ from organisation to organisation.


One personnel director (who wished to remain anonymous because they felt it was wrong to do anything that might ‘hype up’ the infrequent occurrence of abuse at their workplace) says: “Your training, policies and procedures should be driven by actual data and knowledge about the issue. You should only take precautions appropriate to the real level of risk.”


The issue of dealing with difficult and abusive customers takes on a whole different meaning within the health service. Medical staff must deliver emergency treatment even when their patient is being abusive.


Whittington Hospital NHS Trust has a dedicated security team on call to deal with particularly difficult incidents.


According to security manager Natasha Young, the team is mainly called out to the accident and emergency department, as well as to the maternity ward.


“The security team undergoes a five-day training course that includes physical skills as well as the use of communication skills to de-escalate a situation,” she says. “They receive refresher courses every six months, which is essential to maintain their own confidence whenever they are called to deal with a situation.”


All front-line staff – from nurses to receptionists – have received some training, so that they understand and can respond to the types of risks they face. But it is the security team alone that has the skills and the right to use physical control and restraint. As such, they tend to be called in as a last resort. If front-line staff find a situation is out of their control, they know they have expert back-up on hand.


While there are no formal procedures in place to help the security team unwind after a particularly difficult incident, Young says arrangements are made according to the impact a situation has on an individual, whether that means sitting down with a cup of tea, or paying for the team member to take a taxi home.


“They will share their experiences as a team,” she says. “This means they can offload to each other, and that’s very important. Teamwork is essential throughout the department, and has a significant impact on how effective the department can be.”


As head of people development at TNT Express, Ruth James sees far fewer incidents of abusive customers than she did when working for a county council. However, all TNT’s employees are given soft skills to deliver good customer service and deal with potentially difficult situations as they arise. Training consists of a two-day induction programme, which includes skills to help them manage customer-facing situations, whether on the phone or face-to-face.


TNT drivers, however, receive an extra day’s training, and learn more about handling difficult situations through the ‘buddy’ programme, which pairs them with established delivery personnel. Regular driving assessments keep their skills up-to-date and reduce the possibility of incidents occurring in transit.


“It’s a lot about image and how you present yourself to your customer,” says James. “If you drive safely and are polite and reflect the company image, it can prevent a lot of trouble.”


Indeed, some organisations have entirely integrated the management of difficult customers with the delivery of good customer service. “In our training, we cover ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’,” says Paul Robinson, head of Npower contact centres. “This means we talk through how the advisers should act with every type of customer – not just those who are abusive or irate.”


Awkward customers


And even when it comes to customers who may simply start wasting time with a never-ending, pointless call, the emphasis remains on good customer service above all else. “There is no policy on how long a customer or adviser should be on one call,” says Robinson. “However, when the training techniques are applied, the average call time is reduced.”


According to a spokesperson at Asda, customer service is so important there that if an awkward customer takes up an hour of a colleague’s time, then that’s how long it takes: they are employed to satisfy every customer.


The implications for HR are clear – recruit for temperament, train for the skills required and implement appropriate support systems. However, to be truly effective, HR must work with marketing and operations to influence customer expectations and realistically meet those expectations.


“Even if the customer is right in their point of fact,” says Jo Rick, “[for example] – the train was two hours late or they didn’t get what they ordered – there’s no reason why that situation should lead to abuse.”


Beverley Shears, Guest editor
Why I chose this topic


‘I wanted to explore this area because of my growing concern that society is becoming more violent, and that people in front-line customer jobs are dealing with an unprecedented level of pressure and abuse.


‘The dilemma is that if you have equipped your people to be brilliant at customer service, how then do you get them to disengage from situations for their own good – both physical and mental?


‘Companies are becoming more experienced in disengaging with abusive customers, and we do a lot of work to equip our staff to handle conflict and disengage effectively if required. But it would be interesting to see some other companies that have managed to get this balance right.


‘I find it worrying that companies aren’t prepared to talk about it, and others clearly deal with it effectively, but don’t publicise the fact they deal with it. This is one area where as a profession we could share good practice as corporate social responsibility.’


Case study London Underground


A five-day training course gives new staff the soft skills they need to diffuse difficult situations and understand when it’s best to walk away from an abusive customer (without turning their back to them). These skills are effectively refreshed every year as part of the employee’s annual test of rules.


More importantly, however, staff have been given the responsibility to react to potentially difficult situations in a way they see fit, rather than in accordance with a strict and inflexible rulebook. If someone goes through a turnstile without paying, for example, they are not obliged to chase them.


“We have our own squad of revenue control staff who are far better equipped to deal with those issues,” says Adrian Harris, workplace violence champion for London Underground.


One of the main reasons for conflict at the turnstile is the incorrect use of travelcards. A traveller from Liverpool to Brighton may be able to cross London between mainline stations using their ticket on the Tube. If they break that journey before reaching their connecting service, however, the ticket will not re-admit the traveller to the Tube.


“By talking to the marketing department of that train company, we can make sure the customers know exactly what is included in their journey, and therefore we don’t have to face the problem down here,” says Harris.


Through extensive research, the company has identified diverse situations that can lead to abuse of staff. This can range from ticket touts and drunks to over-excited youths.


“It’s a multifaceted problem, and it demands multifaceted answers,” says Harris. “There’s no single cause of abuse, so we have to address each problem in the most appropriate way.”


How to diffuse difficult situations




  • Understand body language

  • Control your tone of voice

  • Always give a reason for what has happened

  • Be empathetic

  • Explain to the customer that their behaviour is unacceptable and service will be withdrawn if it continues

  • Give the customer a fair chance to alter their behaviour

  • If the abuse continues, end the conversation

  • Refer any problems to a senior manager

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