Back from my summer blog break, I want to address the recent JetBlue flight attendant incident. For those who may have tuned out while vacationing the week of August 9th, here’s the condensed version: Flight attendant Steve Slater snaps after dealing with uncooperative, unruly passenger; launches into an expletive-laced speech on the plane’s intercom; and then opens and slides down the emergency evacuation chute to head home where he’s later arrested. A rather unique display of “take-this-job-and-shove-it” that generated a media frenzy and had people weighing in: those who hailed the flight attendant as a workplace “hero” for standing up to customer abuse vs. those who faulted him for not doing a better job of maintaining his cool as a customer service professional. (There was another group somewhere in the middle. A friend of mine commented, “He shouldn’t have done it, but damn!, what a hoot that he did.”)
Many factors contribute to customer frustration and rage – economic pressures, customer-unfriendly policies (not limited to the airline industry), poor customer service, even weather – as this summer’s heat wave made people cranky. Employees aren’t immune to these same factors in addition to dealing with demanding customers and/or employers.
How do you cope with workplace stress?
The owner of a small service-based business told me about her experience dealing with difficult customers – sharing what she refers to as her “call of last resort.” A customer called about a service bill he received, complaining the price was too high; this was after the work was completed. The business owner calmly explained that the price was based on the materials and labor involved, and that the customer’s wife had been given an estimate of the work in advance and agreed to it. The customer repeatedly complained about the price and would not listen to the business owner. She finally ended the call by saying, “Sir, your time is valuable; so is mine. We’ve reached the end of this conversation, and there is nothing more to say. Have a good day. Goodbye.” While she says this respectfully and sincerely, she admits it’s satisfying to have the last word.
Customer interactions vary by industry and may call for different responses to difficult situations. But how can they be handled without reaching the breaking point?
JetBlue’s incident can serve as a springboard to review your organization’s approach to difficult and/or abusive customers. I suggest engaging employees in thoughtful discussions based on the following questions:
- What IS an acceptable way to handle difficult customers?
- How can we deal with such customers while preserving our brand’s integrity?
- What (if any) of our current policies contribute to customer frustration? What can be changed to minimize this frustration?
- What are our options when customers become abusive?
- What coping strategies or healthy ways can employees use to deal with this stress?
- Does the company have guidelines to help employees with this? If so, do they know what the guidelines are? And do employees have the necessary training and skills to apply them?
This discussion list is not exhaustive; additional questions are most welcome. I also invite you to share your experiences in helping employees deal with difficult customer situations before they exit the emergency chute.