How frontline workers can defuse customer meltdowns : The Indicator from Planet Money As if they don't have enough to worry about, restaurant, retail, and airline employees are still facing customer meltdowns over COVID-19 precautions. We ask a 'customer whisperer' if these explosive customers can be defused.

Rage against the customer service worker

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Stacey Vanek Smith.


Adrian Ma.

MA: What do servers, sales clerks and flight attendants have in common?

VANEK SMITH: This is a rhetorical question.


MA: This is true.

VANEK SMITH: I don't know. What? Tell me.

MA: They are all jobs that, day in and day out, require interacting with strangers.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And not even just interacting - right? - but serving them, making them feel welcome, like, that's their job.

MA: Yeah. And in the last few months, we've talked a lot about the rise of the remote worker and the changing workplace. But for the people who work in customer service, their workplace has changed too.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting) No more masks. No more - you know what the funny thing is?

VANEK SMITH: So this was a - should we say, like, a dissatisfied Costco customer?

MA: That's - yeah, gently putting it.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And he was upset about Costco's policy of requiring customers to wear masks.

MA: Every day, it seems a new video of a customer flipping out goes viral.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Take off your mask.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Take it off, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We're not going to take it anymore.

MA: And yeah, a lot of that is over COVID protocols and masks. But there's also a worker shortage and especially in the service industry, which means some customers are not being very patient and taking their anger out on frontline employees.

VANEK SMITH: And that, of course, is really hard on employees, and it can even push people to quit their jobs. Of course, there have been a record number of people quitting their jobs in the last few months, and that can put companies in this really difficult bind. I mean, they're supposed to serve customers. It's why they exist. It's how they make money, but rising hostility from those customers might be scaring away the workers that they need to serve their customers.

MA: Yeah, and this has become a huge problem in retail and restaurants and even airlines. Like, here's a rage indicator for you. The Federal Aviation Administration says so far this year, they've recorded nearly 5,000 incidents of unruly passengers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The second he said something, I pulled it over my nose. [Expletive].



MA: And I'm Adrian Ma. Is there a way to diffuse these customers before they explode?

VANEK SMITH: Or is this just the new normal for service workers? Is this their new workplace? Today on the show, we ask a customer whisperer.


VANEK SMITH: OK, time to meet the customer whisperer.

MA: If you're meeting a group of strangers at a party, like, how would you introduce yourself?

DAVID BROWNLEE: Yeah. David - well, if I was at a party, I'd be like, what up? Call me D. No (laughter), David Brownlee, CEO of the Brownlee Group.

VANEK SMITH: So David's business is helping other businesses train employees in customer service.

MA: How long have you been in the customer service industry?

BROWNLEE: Oh, my God, my whole life, man. I started at Lupe's Restaurant (ph) dishwashing and bussing and, you know, dealing with customers. And that's really where the journey began.

VANEK SMITH: From Lupe's, David says he went to work at a yogurt shop and a retail store selling knickknacks. At one point, he was selling copiers. So dealing with people face-to-face - this is where David is in his element. And yet...

MA: Has anything in your experience prepared you for, I guess, the kind of environment that we're seeing now?

BROWNLEE: I don't think anybody was prepared for what happened, you know? People are more aggressive than they've been in the past, which leads to more violence and more confrontations. You know, for example, hey, I believe that we don't need to wear masks, or I strongly believe that you do need to wear a mask, right? When that conflict happens, that's explosive.

VANEK SMITH: David says he's seen a big increase in demand for his services in the past couple of years as companies are seeing more and more abusive customers, many angry about COVID-related rules. And so David has a special protocol that he's developed for them.

MA: Right. And to ground his advice a little, he says imagine this scenario. You're a flight attendant. You're on a plane, and you see a customer not wearing their mask.

BROWNLEE: Hey, I don't want to wear the mask, not going to wear the mask. Where do you go from there?

MA: Hard as it may be, David's first piece of advice - listen with empathy.

BROWNLEE: I know there's going to be these upset customers, and how I react to that customer is going to determine whether it escalates or whether it deescalates.

VANEK SMITH: And David recommends that workers then ask the angry customer a question.

BROWNLEE: So what seems to be the problem with the mask? And they're going to tell you, and they might say it's health or it might be what I believe or I don't think I need to wear the mask.

VANEK SMITH: And David says, you know, whatever the customer says, he recommends that workers try to hear them out and try to show that they understand where the person is coming from.

BROWNLEE: And how do you show that you understand? Say it. Listen; I understand where you're coming from. And again, you're not admitting or saying you believe it or it's OK or anything. Sometimes, customers just want to vent.

MA: So let them vent a little and explain where they're coming from. And then, he says, try to turn the conversation in a positive direction.

BROWNLEE: This is, like, the ninja line. If you're working on the front lines in anywhere and you can't accommodate the customer, you say this simple line. I wish I could. What I can do for you is...

VANEK SMITH: I wish I could. It's like a modern-day Jedi mind trick.

MA: (Laughter) Right. So for example, I wish we didn't have to wear the masks during the flight. I know it can be a little uncomfortable, but what I can do is find you another seat or get you another pillow, some extra snacks, whatever. David says this approach often works because it's not a total shutdown. You're still offering care to the customer.

VANEK SMITH: Still, David says a lot of this stuff, especially if it's around COVID or COVID protocol, might result in the customer accusing the worker of being political or politically motivated. And David says in that case, he recommends to workers to not take the bait.

BROWNLEE: Two things that you always avoid - right? - regardless if there's a pandemic or not, it's politics and religion because conversations can go downhill very quickly from there. One thing I would say is, you know what? I'll consider that this week, but is there anything else I can help you with, right? Or if somebody, you know, keeps pushing, the second thing I would say is - I'd say, you know what? I'm not at liberty to discuss that here at work, but is there anything else I can do for you? So you're not making a big deal, but you are not engaging in those political conversations.

VANEK SMITH: And David says the vast majority of the time, these tactics work. They will diffuse a situation but not always. Sometimes, situations will just escalate. People can start yelling or even get physical. And David says when that happens, he advises companies and employees to just hit the eject button.

BROWNLEE: You want to walk away. You want to grab a manager or grab security. Now, you don't know what that customer is capable of doing. You've got to get out of that situation to get out of there safely. And it's crazy that we're talking about that in a customer service position, but this is the reality that we live in right now.

MA: You know, I used to work in a restaurant, and I never had to think about this much stuff, right? I just wanted to do my job.

VANEK SMITH: Which was probably enough work as it was, right?

MA: Yes. I mean, I just wanted to show up and get a paycheck.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And David says, you know, work has changed for a lot of service workers. And he recommends that businesses kind of know that and help to support their employees and make sure they have training and support to deal with angry customers because this is just increasingly becoming a problem.

BROWNLEE: It's like a battlefield out there, and they're on the front lines. And you want to give them everything they can to be successful in this battle.

VANEK SMITH: David says for companies, though, prevention is always much easier than damage control, so he is recommending that businesses be really proactive. They put signs outside saying, masks required. They announce things on social media so that customers aren't surprised. And he even recommends that in certain cases, companies ban problem customers.

MA: Yeah. I mean, that's what airlines have been doing. So far during the pandemic, they've banned a few thousand unruly customers. And Delta Airlines - they even proposed that carriers share those lists with each other. David thinks this could be effective because it's also a deterrent. It shows that there's a consequence for customers who behave inappropriately, which - you know what? - actually makes me think that, I think, David forgot one piece of advice, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. What?

MA: That is to make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes.

VANEK SMITH: Wait. Comfortable shoes - why?

MA: Because you're going to have to take the high road a lot.


MA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: That's so bad, Adrian.

MA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my God (laughter).

MA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Our senior producer is Viet Le. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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