Conflict Management: Navigating Stressful Customer-Facing Situations

shoplifting, conflict management in customer-facing roles security guard and customers

The world of customer service can be pressured and employees are increasingly finding themselves in the midst of conflict situations. Whether you have teams working in shops, railway stations, or any other customer-facing role, understanding conflict and conflict management is crucial for handling stressful and aggressive scenarios successfully. 

In this article we explore some of the reasons why some people become aggressive quickly as well as the importance of self-awareness and emotional intelligence when managing conflict situations.  Maintaining an assertive, professional stance in conflict management is the key to ensuring a positive and safer experience for both you and the customer.

Understanding what makes some people more prone to being aggressive

We all have a maximum stress load that we can tolerate.  This may vary from day to day, depending upon what is going on in our personal lives, but most of us can cope with a fair amount of stress.  Very often early childhood experiences will shape the way we respond to situations.  Negative experiences in early life can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), vulnerability to grooming by gangs or other criminals, alcohol or drug dependency and other mental health difficulties.  All of these can affect the way we respond to situations.

Some conditions make people more likely to have increased levels of anxiety, for example Autism can make everyday tasks, such as using public transport, very challenging for those individuals and they may be quick to react to changing situations.

Someone who is already at breaking point in their personal stress load is likely to respond with a “fight or flight” reaction to the next stressful event that happens.  This means that the person trying to manage the potential conflict situation needs to be aware of this and to remain calm, reassuring and assertive.

Self-awareness and emotional intelligence

Before you can manage the emotions and behaviour of another person, you have to be aware of yourself at any one time.  Who am I today?  Am I feeling calm and confident or is my life in a mess?  How am I likely to respond to a difficult customer who is becoming aggressive?  How good are you at reading situations?  Can you recognise the signs when a person is becoming anxious/emotional/aggressive?  These are key skills that are crucial to managing conflict.

Conflict Management Styles

A conflict management style is the way an individual tends to respond to and manage conflicts. In customer-facing roles, where emotions can run high, adopting the best approach will make a significant difference.

The main conflict management styles are:

  • Passive

People who adopt a passive approach tend to shy away from conflicts and confrontation. They may ignore or side-step issues, hoping they will go away on their own. In a customer-facing situation, this approach can lead to unresolved problems and unsatisfied customers.  Colleagues also need to know that they will be supported by their fellow workers in difficult situations.

  • Aggressive

An aggressive approach is basically a bullying approach:  trying to exert one’s will over another using intimidatory tactics. Aggression may be physical, verbal or implied – think “passive-aggressive.”  An aggressive approach is unprofessional and can damage the reputation of a company. As well as putting the aggressor at risk – an aggressive approach might cause the other person to respond with more aggression, thus escalating the situation to a potentially violent incident.

  • Assertive

An assertive approach is always best.  An assertive person displays a quiet air of authority, inspires confidence and remains calm in the face of adversity.  An assertive approach means that you stand your ground and reinforce the rules/policies etc, without resorting to bullying tactics. 

Managing your own behaviour

Never display anger yourself!  However, manage the abuse you receive – often pointing it out will stop someone in their tracks.  Maintain a positive attitude.

Understanding yourself enables you to communicate more effectively with customers. If you are naturally passive, you can work on addressing issues instead of brushing them aside. If you tend to become aggressive, you can work on some anger management strategies and ways of keeping yourself calm in difficult situations.

Maintaining a positive, assertive approach will help you find a resolution.  Listen to the customer – even if they are obviously in the wrong – as they will have a viewpoint which they will want you to listen to.  We all like to feel that we have been listened to and they are more likely to co-operate if they feel they have been heard.  

By being quietly assertive, you can ensure that you are not inadvertently causing more distress to customers. Give them personal space and be reassuring if they are becoming distressed.

Empathise with the customer:  let them know that you understand their frustration while maintaining your own position.  Do your best to de-escalate the situation rather than adding to the problem.

Remember:  my attitude affects my behaviour which will affect the attitude and behaviour of the person I am dealing with!  I can try to calm and de-escalate a situation or I can make it ten times worse!!

There is no “silver bullet” to managing conflict.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts to de-escalate a situation, a person may still become violent.  It is important to recognise the signs that someone is becoming aggressive.  In this case, if you cannot get to a place of safety, knowledge of the law around self-defence is crucial.

In the world of customer-facing roles, conflict is inevitable. However, how you handle conflict can significantly improve customer satisfaction and just as importantly, reduce the personal emotional fall-out after having to deal with an aggressive situation with a customer at work. 

Knowing yourself and what might affect others will help you manage stress by giving you more personal control as you will be able to tailor your approach to different situations and customers, ultimately leading to more positive outcomes. 

So, the next time you or a team member finds themselves in a tense customer interaction, remember to take a moment to reflect on how you are feeling and adapt accordingly. And finally… remember to breathe and keep yourself safe!

Further information:

Top 2% is a leading provider of conflict management, security and face-to-face customer training in the UK. To find out more about conflict management courses for customer-facing roles in the private and public sectors, click below or call us today on:  +44 (0)1227 202 244

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