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4 Ways to Help Employees Avoid Customer Conflicts

There’s a high level of stress associated with being a retail associate these days. Unlike many businesses that closed for several weeks during the pandemic’s first wave, hardware stores remained open. When the country shut-down in March, information about the transmission and treatment of COVID-19 were unclear and subject to change as updates became available. While business at hardware stores and home improvement centers is booming, store employees are also busy, ensuring that shoppers follow safety guidelines and store policies.

“Employees across the board are feeling fear, worry, uncertainty, and anxiety. They’re working in a whole new environment.” Says Jordan Friesen, national director of workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association. It’s all reasonably expected reactions to what’s going on in the world right now.”

Before the pandemic, customer service primarily focused on answering questions and helping customers select products for their projects. Now, there’s a possibility that employees have to deal with angry customers who refuse to wear masks or wait in specific lines to enter and exit the store. To help employees avoid and de-escalate customer conflicts, the National Retail Federation (NRF) Foundation has partnered with the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) to develop training for front-line, customer-facing retail workers.

RISE Up Training Program
The safety and well-being of employees and customers are of utmost importance. With focused training, employees can better manage tense situations involving customers in ways that avoid conflict.
The RISE Up program focuses on four stages of the CPI Crisis Development Model. Understanding how customers behave is the first step in averting unpleasant encounters.

Customers Who Seem Anxious
Whena shopper is exhibiting signs of anxiety (fidgeting, crossed arms, pacing), employees should respond by being supportive and nonjudgmental. According to the CPI model, early intervention is essential.Acknowledge the person’s concerns and allow them to express themselves before asking them to comply with a safety-measure they may not like.

Customers Who Become Defensive
There are times when being supportive and reasoning with a customer makes them defensive. If the person believes they are being challenged, the customer may yell or refuse to follow the associate’s request. This is the time to set limits by being direct, providing clear instructions, and making reasonable requests. The associate can then let the customer discuss their concerns with a manager. Although the situation is stressful, the associate should stay calm and be open to asking for help.

Customers Exhibiting Risk Behavior
If the situation seems out of control, and the customer poses a threat to themselves or others in the store, they are exhibiting risk behavior. This includes being aggressive and invading another person’s space or physically harming them. The associate should intervene by asking for help from a fellow associate, manager, or security. Redirect the customer to an area with less activity to prevent the situation from escalating further and keep others safe.

Reducing Tension After the Crisis
Now that the crisis is over, everyone will feel calmer since there are less tension and emotional energy. In this final stage of de-escalation, the associate will engage in therapeutic rapport. This time allows the associate to respond to the physical and emotional needs of everyone involved.  The expectation is they will offer support and demonstrate understanding without assigning blame.

Appropriate Responses are Key
The way associates respond to situations with customers can help prevent unpleasant encounters from escalating. The objective is to reduce tensions as quickly as possible. The behaviors listed here can happen at any point since customers may already be upset before they came into the store. With the proper training, associates will feel more in control when situations arise. Additional information about the RISE up program, which focuses on retail operation and customer conflict prevention, can be on the NRF COVID-19 training page

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