July 13, 2024

Five expert tips for dealing with confrontational customers


A recent report by IronmongeryDirect looking at mental health in the construction industry found that abuse from customers was one of the leading causes of stress.

To investigate this a little further, the specialist ironmongery supplier launched a new study asking tradespeople about their experiences with abusive and confrontational customers, and the shocking results revealed that nearly nine in ten (86%) tradies have suffered abuse from customers during their careers.

Additionally, one in five (20%) said they were abused at work every day. Verbal abuse, like swearing and insults, was the most common form of aggression (34%), and sadly one in ten (10%) have been physically attacked, while 7% have been sexually harassed.

To help tradespeople deal with abuse from customers, IronmongeryDirect has worked with experts Dr Giuseppe Aragona, GP and Online Doctor for Prescription Doctor, and Michael Padraig Acton, Psychological Therapist and Counsellor, to reveal their top tips.

1. Stay calm

Dr Aragona says: “When you are dealing with a confrontational customer it’s important to remain professional and try to stay calm. Remember you are at work and that this is not a personal matter, so stay collected and understand how to communicate with the person to ensure you are taking control of what’s happening and not putting your own role at risk.”

Michael adds: “Make sure you stay calm and do not raise your voice or antagonise. That’s the worst mistake you can make because you will escalate the situation to a point where it will overflow and could even cause legal issues. Sometimes when a person is shouting and you don’t throw the ball back this will diffuse the situation. They will calm down once they’ve had their say.”

2. Attempt to diffuse the situation

Dr Aragona says: “Understanding how to diffuse a situation is really important as the last thing you want is to cause a scene, so knowing how to keep calm and how to calm the customer is important. Try to use simple and polite language without sounding patronising and ask them to lower their voice and reassure them that you will do your best to understand what the problem is, so you can move forward.”

Michael adds: “The number one thing to do is to listen. Make sure the person complaining is heard. Repeat back to them to understand what their sense of the problem is and make note of it. Be genuine. If their concern is legitimate this may help to calm them down. People in a flap or having a difficult time will most definitely tell if you are being obnoxious or facetious because their anxiety is very high at that time.”

3. Keep yourself safe

Dr Aragona says: “If a customer continues to be abusive then you have a right to remove yourself from the situation. This is also to safeguard your own mental health and wellbeing as any sort of verbal abuse could lead to PTSD or mental health complications.”

Michael adds: “If the situation keeps on escalating, then there may be a health problem, or the person could be inebriated. Keep yourself safe. Try to leave the situation when it becomes clear that there is no possibility of talking the person down, but if it continues to escalate then consider calling the emergency services.”

4. Report the customer

Dr Aragona says: “If the situation escalates too far then you might find that you will have to report the customer who is being confrontational. If you work for a company that has a HR or customer services department, then report their behaviour to ensure that none of your colleagues experience the same treatment.”

Michael adds: “When you’re reporting to your company or colleagues about your experience, you may feel like you could have handled the situation differently. Ask your company for specific training or support in managing patterns of behaviour or ask your peers for advice.”

5. Coping with the criticism

Dr Aragona says: “When a customer is criticising your work or telling you are not good at something this is always going to be hard to take, however, you must try to remember that this is a professional setting, and this is not a personal issue. In many cases the customer may be going through their own personal struggles and taking these out on you because they feel they can – it is very rarely personal.”

Michael adds: “Always triple check your involvement in any confrontation, even if you initially think you’re not at fault. It is always helpful to reflect and consider how we did or did not manage something and learn from our experiences in the future.”

For more information, visit: https://www.ironmongerydirect.co.uk/blog/confrontational-customers

[1] Survey of 500 UK tradespeople conducted by The Leadership Factor on behalf of IronmongeryDirect in July 2021.

[2] Mental Health in the Trades: 2021 report – https://www.ironmongerydirect.co.uk/research/mental-health-in-the-trades/

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