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Conflict Resolution Tips for Handling Difficult Customers During COVID-19

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley

Learn the best ways to handle customers who refuse to follow health and safety policies.

Consumers are experiencing caution fatigue, confusion and frustration regarding new health and safety regulations, and have differing beliefs and opinions about them. Many small businesses are encountering issues with customers not wanting to adhere to the new health and safety standards – especially in brick-and-mortar stores. 

To help you resolve these disagreements, we spoke with experts to get their tips on how to best handle difficult customers and mitigate conflict during COVID-19.

Health and safety guidelines for businesses during COVID-19

As new information about the coronavirus is discovered, health and safety guidelines have been modified accordingly. Although the specific laws and regulations governing each city and state vary, the business guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are recognized as the standard that can help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

For example, many businesses conduct employee health checks, routinely clean and disinfect surfaces, and limit the number of customers that come into their establishment. Additionally, they have implemented measures to reduce contact, like contactless payment and curbside pickup. However, perhaps the most controversial guidelines are enforcing social distancing and requiring customers and employees to wear masks.

"For some customers, masks have been something that they are not willing to comply with," said Trisha A. Barita, managing attorney of the Barita Law Firm. "Although not necessarily required but recommended, social distancing also appears to be something that customers are either refusing to comply with or are just not educated on the purpose and circumstances where social distancing is recommended under CDC or OSHA guidelines." 

Since the legal requirements vary by state, city and even county, many people feel confused and frustrated, and have different beliefs about what is "right" or what is "best." This can cause conflict between your customers and team members, so it is important that your staff understands the proper way to handle each situation. 

What is customer retention management?

Customer retention is the ability to keep your current customers coming back to your business. Customer loyalty is key, as repeat customers tend to spend more money than new customers, and converting an existing customer to make a sale is far easier than acquiring a new one. This makes customer retention management extremely important for the long-term success of your company. 

As spending habits have recently changed, retaining customers is more important (and difficult) than in years prior. It is essential that your entire team is informed of the role they play in satisfying your customers and increasing customer retention. 

Everyone – marketing, sales, your product team – has an impact on how customers view your business. As tension runs high with the new health and safety guidelines, your support team on the frontlines will play an integral role in maintaining customer health and safety – which may include mitigating conflict. 

How to handle customers who don't follow new health and safety rules

In business, you are bound to have a few run-ins with disgruntled customers. Although standard conflict management techniques still apply today, we spoke with experts to learn the best practices for handling customers who won't comply with COVID-19 policies and rules specifically. 

1. Be proactive about your new policies and expectations.  

Clarity is key. You can't expect anyone to follow your policies if they don't know what they are. First and foremost, establish your new policies and expectations, and then inform your customers and staff about them. 

Create clear signage around your brick-and-mortar establishment, send out updated emails to current customers, and post your new guidelines on your website and social media accounts. In addition to stating what your new policies are, explain the reasoning behind them; maybe you have at-risk employees, maybe it's a legal requirement, etc. 

"The first step to take is to make sure that your business has posted clear signage regarding the expectations of customers upon entering," said Doug Babcock, president of Cygnus Security Consulting. "Clearly stating the requirements of the jurisdiction (local, county, state) that are in effect can help decrease issues. Including language about concern for others (in general or specific) may help, as in some cases can humor, depending on the type of business." 

To enforce your new policies, consider placing a trained employee near the front door to educate incoming customers who may be unaware of your new policies and to enforce appropriate behavior for those unwilling to comply. Also, consider providing free or at-cost disposable masks for customers who forgot to bring one with them or don't otherwise have one. 

2. Practice transparent and empathetic communication.

Clear, empathetic communication is perhaps one of the best ways to mitigate conflict and appease a customer. Understand that, for many, this may be the first time they have come back to your establishment since the quarantine began.

Although some customers simply don't want to follow new rules, many are just uninformed or have a specific reason why they can't follow your policy (e.g., they have a breathing disorder or other health-related condition and cannot wear a mask). 

Be transparent and mindful of your tone when approaching a customer who isn't following your guidelines. Listen to what they have to say, without assuming you already know their response. 

"People very often become defensive when they feel attacked," said Babcock. "The first approach on a person may determine how the whole interaction goes. Remember that each person has their own story and their own reasons for what they do. Start from a position of believing that this person has a reason for the choices they have made and approach the conversation from a place of inquiry, rather than from a place of presumption." 

Address questions or concerns the customer has, and accommodate any extenuating circumstances that apply to them. The safety of every employee and consumer is of utmost importance, but appreciate the power of saying "yes" when it applies (e.g., the customer has a disability). However, if a customer does not have a valid reason for noncompliance and simply doesn't want to follow the policy, you can tailor your response by considering their motive.  

For example, Karen Tibbals, author of Persuade, Don't Preach: Restoring Civility Across the Political Divide and founder of Ethical Frames, shared a video about the current debate of mask-wearing. To better empathize with a customer who doesn't want to wear a mask, start by understanding their underlying morals and the reasoning behind their choice. If the customer's reasoning is a matter of liberty, Tibbals recommends respectfully countering with liberty. 

"If the person focuses on liberty, the business can say, 'We are having a conflict about liberty – your liberty to wear a mask and my liberty to decide who can enter my premises. Because I know you respect my liberty as well as yours, I am sure that you will support my decision to require a mask from people who choose to enter my premises," said Tibbals. 

3. De-escalate the situation.

Although every situation is unique and will garner a tailored response, your employees should be trained on how to de-escalate a conflict with a customer. Do not point fingers or place blame on a customer who won't comply with your new policy. Stay calm, take them seriously, and identify their reason for noncompliance. Be friendly and personal in your approach; people are more apt to listen to someone they like. 

If a customer still won't comply, apologize for the inconvenience and refer to the company policy as your reason behind your request. You may be frustrated from repeatedly educating noncompliant customers, but it is important to remember that de-escalating a conflict is always a top priority. 

4. Suggest alternative solutions for the customer.

Arming your staff with several possible solutions is a great way to achieve conflict resolution. When you encounter a customer who doesn't want to follow the new COVID-19 safety regulations, respectfully engage them to learn their reason for noncompliance. If they have a valid reason for not adhering to your policy, you can make the appropriate modifications to best serve them. If they don't fall under an exception and still refuse to comply, suggest an alternative purchasing solution.     

"If they do not fall under an exception, then the business may consider politely informing them that this is a required policy for the safety of employees and other customers to enter the establishment and offer other ways to serve those customers such as curbside pickup or home delivery so that those individuals have alternative ways to obtain service," said Barita.   

Always be thinking of the next step to improve your customer experience process. Propose an alternative solution to your customers' needs instead of simply refusing service and sending away a valued customer. 

5. Know your limits.   

Although you may have the best intentions of supporting your customers and providing exceptional customer service, you won't please everyone. 

Acknowledge your limits, and know when to request additional help or backup. Every employee should be aware of the hierarchy with handling customer conflicts and know whom to turn to (e.g., a manager or law enforcement) for further assistance with unhappy customers. 

Most businesses can have refusal policies, as long as they truly apply to everyone, but the right to refuse service depends on your specific jurisdiction. Although it is probably possible for you to refuse service to noncompliant customers, businesses are advised to seek out other solutions beforehand. 

"In locations where an enforceable order (local ordinance, governor's executive order, etc.) is in place, calling officials, such as the police, may be an option," said Babcock. "However, businesses must be conscious of the use of the optics and realities of calling authorities, and ensure that the policy or regulation is worth enforcing through those means." 

Businesses should first invest in de-escalation training for employees, to equip them with the skills to handle and resolve confrontations without involvement from authorities. 

How to train your staff to handle customer conflict resolution

Each employee must be properly educated and trained on your new policies and guidelines, in addition to conflict resolution strategies. Ensure your whole team understands and consistently follows the same messaging and rule enforcement, to avoid further confusing and frustrating customers. Customer stress levels are higher than previous years, and conflicting guidance and policies can leave them disgruntled. 

Customer conflicts have been around long before the pandemic, but as we move through this challenging time, it is important that your team members understand the gravity of the situation. If a customer is complaining, then the company should respectfully and empathetically respond with their clear message and purpose. To train your team on conflict resolution in the era of COVID-19, start by clearly communicating your new and current policies. 

"Training for support teams should include an understanding of the message, highlighting safety and protections for employees of the business and other customers as the key purpose behind the policies and procedures," said Barita.   

You can hire a customer support training professional, seek online conflict resolution training, or practice and review in-person scenarios. When someone on your team encounters a conflict with a customer, use that as a training method too. Note how the interaction went and review it afterward to see what went well and what could have been done differently.  

Train your employees on the proper de-escalation techniques and the hierarchy of handling a problem. Although nobody wants to be involved with any type of physical interaction, businesses should be prepared and trained on how to handle a heated situation.  

"If a customer refuses to leave the premises, then your business needs to have a plan and provide training on how to diffuse the situation, including providing an avenue for the individual to express their discontent with the business policies to management," said Barita. "As with any other situation, the training should involve when it is important to involve security or law enforcement if the situation cannot be diffused and appears to escalate."    

It is important for every business to implement conflict management policies and train their employees on how to properly handle difficult or disagreeable customers. Although it may be easier to "let it slide" when customers don't want to comply with your policies, it can have grave repercussions.   

"It is key that even with the economic challenges a business faces, including upset or angry customers refusing to follow new safety regulations, they continue to remember that a safe workplace for the employees and safe premises for customers has always been a part of running a business," said Barita.  

Image Credit: a-lesa / Getty Images
Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley,
business.com Writer
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Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. She received a business communication degree from Arizona State University and spent a few years traveling internationally, before finally settling down in the greater New York City area. She currently writes for business.com and Business News Daily, primarily contributing articles about business technology and the workplace, and reviewing categories such as remote PC access software, collection agencies, background check services, web hosting, reputation management services, cloud storage, and website design software and services.