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Simple Tips to Survive Difficult Customers

Kathleen Kohler

"I don't know, but I'll find out for you," I said to the women standing at the counter.

"Well, why don't you know?" She snapped in return. "After all, you are the one behind the counter."

Stunned, I didn't know how to respond, so I stood there, as she continued her attack.

While I enjoyed my job and most of my customers were pleasant, there were those few I secretly wished would shop somewhere else. After eight years in Christian retail I've learned a few simple techniques that have helped me survive difficult customers.

Tip #1: Retail is all about the customer.

Keep in mind when you work with the public and a customer is rude and snaps at you for no obvious reason, it's not about you. Maybe they've just lost a parent, or perhaps they're reeling from the news of marital infidelity, a child's drug addiction, a bad report from the doctor or any number of bends on life's highway.

If I provide quality service with a smile and a customer berates me I should not take it personally. That's easy to say but often difficult to do when I'm the target at which the upset person is aiming. This leads me to:

Tip #2: Close my mouth and take a deep breath.

This will take some practice if it's not your natural tendency. Closing my mouth prevents the temptation to spew forth an attack in return. This keeps me from damaging my reputation and that of the business I represent.

As for a deep breath, it is a medically proven fact that taking a few deep breaths sends endorphins to the brain, lowers blood pressure, and relieves stress.

Tip #3: Pray (not out loud, of course).

The Lord sees our situation and he knows our thoughts. Often this small pause allows me time to give a gracious response.

Tip #4: Step back mentally.

Just as you would back away from an unstable box of dynamite, I take a mental step backwards. This helps me gain perspective and to realize I'm facing a person experiencing pain.

Tip #5: Be kind, put a smile on my face, and lighten the tension.

One Christmas I had a line of customers at the register. While I waited on an older woman, the third person in line proceeded to push past the person in front of her. Unsure of how to handle things, I gave a lighthearted laugh, and said, "Well, I guess we all need an extra dose of patience this time of year." Everyone agreed and my customer, now aware of her attitude, relaxed and waited her turn.

It's good to have a few simple phrases to help defuse a potential outburst. Sometimes I'll say, "I'm sorry it's taking me so long, I know you're in a hurry" or, "I'm almost done here." In reality it might be taking no longer than normal, but if the customer is under stress they may feel frustrated. By acknowledging they are waiting it tells them their time is important to me. This is helpful when the customer waits until the last minute to buy a gift for the party that started 10 minutes ago and they need it wrapped in a hurry.

Tip #6: Remember the Golden Rule. Treat people how I want others to treat me, regardless of their behavior.

One day I had a very unkempt customer approach the register to make his purchase. As he walked up to the counter he picked his nose and wiped his finger on his clothing, then stuck his hand up his shirt and vigorously scratched his chest all the while exposing his hairy stomach. I could hardly contain my shock, but I know God does not play favorites. I veiled my reaction, put on a smile, and greeted the man. While he stood opposite me, he ran his hand all over the counter touching the displays. The Lord whispered to my heart that we are all made in God's image and he loves his entire creation. God doesn't love me more because I took a shower and put on deodorant before I came to work.

I politely handed the man his change and thanked him for shopping in our store. I chose to treat him the same as someone who is well-dressed and well-mannered.

Whether you're new to retail sales or a seasoned pro, by practicing these simple tips when you encounter difficult people, you're choosing a response that honors Christ and the business you represent.

© 2008 Kathleen Kohler