Conflict resolution strategies to retain your staff and win back angry customers

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

When you gather a group of people together, two things are guaranteed:

  1. Those people will have opinions.

  2. Those opinions will not all align.

So it’s no surprise that we deal with workplace conflict throughout our lives. Sometimes it’s easily brushed off, like a small disagreement with a co-worker or a poorly timed critique from a manager. But that’s not always the case.

The pandemic has eaten away at the patience of the nation…and we have the news stories to prove it. Clips of aggressive customers laying into waiters, bartenders and retail associates circulate the internet regularly.

Combine that with the recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing that 4.4 million workers left their positions in February, and service industries have a sticky employee and customer retention problem to solve.

In this blog, we’ll equip you with practical de-escalation tips to efficiently guide difficult customer interactions from boiling point to positive resolution.

Road to Resolution
Bad customer Service

Acknowledge the reality (it’s tough out here)

First, let’s address the obvious. You aren’t imagining the increase in tightened jaws and heated tones from the buying public.

In a New York Times article, author Sarah Lyall reports that in a study of 1,000 American adults during the pandemic, only 39% of respondents said they believed that America’s tone was civil.

The study also found that people who didn’t have to work with customers were happier than those who did.

The need for good customer service skills isn’t new. So you and your staff may already have a strong understanding of the basics of managing a customer’s complaint: active listening, thoughtful body language and seeking the root cause to bring things to a close.

And while that’s all great in theory, it can be incredibly challenging to practice these when you’re confronted with an irate customer in person or over the phone. It’s also impossible to ignore the impact angry customers have on employee experience and productivity.

While the link between employee satisfaction and productivity has often been discussed, a University of Oxford Saïd Business School study found that happy workers are 13% more productive. So while it’s critical to address customer concerns when they arise, your best bet is to find methods that don’t lead to increased employee churn.

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Fix processes and policies that cause trouble in advance

There will be plenty of difficult customer conversations you can’t prevent. But if you’re looking for a way to be proactive, review your business for the kinds of things that could unravel already frayed nerves.

Companies large and small pay lip service to valuing the customer experience and feedback on making it better. (Not surprising, since we know that type of messaging can increase customer loyalty.)

But when those promises aren’t fulfilled or they run into an issue, it can make the experience particularly jarring for customers.

For instance: whether it’s realistic or not, 79% of customers expect a response to their social media posts within 24 hours according to a Sprout Social report. And even though 63% of social media complaints are responded to within 24 hours, only 32% of people are happy with their response time.

When it comes to customer expectations and problem resolution, really step into your customer’s shoes and take a hard look.

  • How empowered is your in-store staff to make the situation right? Are they experts on store policy and aware of what actions they can take with and without manager approval? (Ex. refunds, discounts, other incentives)

  • How clear are expectations for customers up front? Are policies listed online and displayed prominently in store? Have they been updated to account for difficulties with supply chain, staffing, etcetera?

  • Is your staff being trained to escalate customer complaints to the appropriate person in a timely manner? If the interaction occurs virtually or the manager is offsite, are they sending customers to an actively monitored phone number or email address.

Frustrating experiences stick. When customers feel like they're being shuffled off from one unhelpful person to another, they're more likely to ramp up their emotions about the problem. If you can manage it, it’s well worth your time to revamp rough operations now instead of waiting for tensions to rise


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Choose what you say, and how you say it to customers carefully

In some cases, complaints from angry clients or upset customers will be about your store or service and nothing else. Other times, the customer’s agitation may actually stem from something else happening in their life – unrelated to their experience with your business.

Whatever the case may be, your starting place should be the same.

Always begin by taking a deep breath and acknowledging the problem.

Even if you can’t solve the situation immediately — like an out-of-stock item or a long wait for a table — ignoring the problem just makes things worse.

Apologizing is wise. But it only has the desired effect if you do it thoughtfully. Consider the following multi-step approach for best results:

  • Mirror the customer’s tone of voice. Shouting back is never an option, but meeting the customer’s formal or casual language is always smart.

  • Acknowledge the problem directly — no hedging or excuses. Then apologize for their experience and the feelings it may be causing.

  • Move beyond emotions at the surface to understand the root cause. Is it the wait time, or that they tried to speak to the hostess and were brushed off?

  • Provide resolution option(s) and timelines. Tell them what you can do, who else has to sign off and how long it will take to make it all happen.

  • Clarify their desired outcome. If applicable, immediately follow through on their selection and thank them for their time.

Download the cheat sheet.

Customers care about solutions more than apologies. There’s a place for both, but keep in mind that an apology full of empty, generic phrases with no clear path to resolution won’t win the day or turn a one-star Yelp review into a ringing endorsement.

…and before we move on, here’s the disclaimer you may have seen coming: We’re not so naive as to think that every situation will be simple to address. Situations will arise where you can’t make it right, because doing what the customer asks would mean jeopardizing safety, federal or state mandates or another firm boundary. We’ll discuss what to do in these cases a little later in this piece.


Take their request seriously, not personally

This may seem like a given — but it can be very helpful guidance for employees new to handling tense situations.

Instead of taking feedback or criticism personally, try to think of it as a learning opportunity. Complaints can be full of insights that help customer service teams improve.

Another tucked in benefit is the possibility that the one customer who spoke up is giving a voice to a number of other unhappy but silent customers. Finding a long-term solution to their complaint could mean winning the hearts of many customers.

The harsh reality is that every situation won’t be fixable — like a zipper on dress from your boutique that broke at her sister’s wedding, or catered food for his parents’ 50th anniversary party showing up late and cold.

But you should always respond. Even if you can’t truly make it right. Showing customers some empathy goes a long way. Through it all, make sure you focus on their goal and what you can do.

Try these sample responses on for size:


“It’s not acceptable that your food didn’t arrive on time. That must have been incredibly disappointing on a special day, and I’m so sorry it happened. I’d like to refund your order total and give you a 15% off coupon for your next visit. Does that help set things right?”


“I know you shop here for quality clothing, and this dress is not in line with those standards. I’m so sorry the zipper broke, particularly during a big event that’s already stressful. It is outside of our return window, but I’d like to offer you a store voucher for the same amount you purchased it for — $60. Is there anything else I can do to address your concerns?”


Handling with care when it all goes wrong

Despite your best efforts, you can’t always make an upset customer feel better. An unreasonable customer experiencing an overblown reaction probably won’t be open to a calm conversation. Contrary to the popular saying, the customer isn’t always right, after all. A time may come when an irate customer acts out in a way that makes staff feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In these situations it is crucial to respond appropriately to protect your employee.

So how do you know when to shift gears from customer satisfaction to prioritize safety and ultimately employee retention? First, take the temperature of the situation.

What kind of behavior is the customer displaying? If they’re frustrated and being a little extra curt, that’s not necessarily a cause for concern. However, if they start shouting, making a scene or creating a safety issue — or you anticipate they will, be ready to enact a de-escalation and safety plan.

For starters, try to be there with your employee during negative customer confrontations, and create a buddy system for workers to support one another in your absence. Sometimes just having the physical backup of another person in a tense situation can help keep your employee calm.

Make sure your employees know when it’s okay to ask an unruly customer to leave. Make sure they know how to call for backup or contact the police if the situation escalates beyond their comfort level or becomes a safety risk for themselves or other customers.

Since you can’t predict an unfortunate customer interaction, it’s a good idea to continuously empower and prepare your employees to weather the occasional customer storm.

Building a positive working relationship goes a long way toward making employees feel like you have their back and can help stem turnover after unpleasant interactions.

According to an article from Intercom, DDI’s Frontline Leader’s Project found that 57% of people have left a job to escape a bad manager. Even more telling, Gallup found that 70% of the fluctuation in employee engagement is dependent on the manager. A manager who doesn’t protect their employees from abusive customers won’t be making the “best manager” list anytime soon.

If you’re wondering how to tell whether you’ve earned employees’ trust, consider how many of the following statements your staff would agree with:

  1. My employer doesn’t tolerate abusive behavior directed at me, and will intervene to stop or prevent it.

  2. My employer doesn’t allow me or my co-workers to be sexually harassed by customers or other staff.

  3. My employer supports me before, during and after I’m responsible for managing an unpleasant customer situation.

  4. My employer doesn’t blame me for situations outside of my control, and is present for difficult conversations whenever possible.

Having clear policies and procedures on descalating these types of situations that are accessible and frequently reviewed is vital. Not just so your staff are able to react quickly and appropriately, but also for the safety of your other customers.

Happy Customers

Set reasonable expectations and follow up

For disgruntled customers who are not aggressive or unreasonable, it’s important to make good on your promises to make it right and follow up with them later to ensure their satisfaction. This is easily the most important step in the process. You can do the rest beautifully, but if you don’t follow through with what you said, when you said you’d do it, the whole thing falls apart.

Part of nailing this step is knowing when to be precise and when to leave yourself with some wiggle room. Offering them a store voucher that you can generate on the spot? Tell them it’ll be taken care of immediately.

Need time to fulfill an usual request? Give yourself some space. Instead of promising “right away”, set a time they’ll hear from you. “I’ll let you know” feels a lot less definitive than “I’ll call you tomorrow between 11 and 12 with an update.”

And following up isn’t just a short-term strategy. To really win back an angry or disappointed customer, you need to give them proof that you’re in it for the long haul and that any changes you promised are long-lasting.

Set a reminder to email them in a month and check in. Consider inviting them to come see some new merchandise from a brand known for outstanding quality, or mention an upcoming dinner promotion that fits their taste. The more you can do to show that you are invested in the customer relationship, the better.

We won’t just ask you to take our word for it. Bill Gates is known for saying,

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Whether you’re a growing restaurant chain or one small luxury boutique, following through on these steps are your best bet for creating a loyal customer base that lasts.