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Sure, bad service exists, but customers can be pretty horrendous too.

ANALYSIS

True story. A server in a restaurant at breakfast time sees a family of seven – mother, father and children of various ages - sit down at one of his tables. As he goes over to greet them one of the younger children starts squawking at him for orange juice. The mother chimes in too, insisting that the juice be free of pulp. When he tells her that the juice already has pulp in it the father begins pounding his fist on the table and the kids quickly follow suit. After the breakfast is served the mother yells out that her bacon is too crisp and she wants another serving. While the server is listening to her complaint, one of the kids throws an almost full glass of water over him and is high-fived by his sister. The parents just watch them without saying anything.

Finally, in exasperation, the server asked the parents why they didn't take parenting classes. The kids begin to chant profanities and the whole restaurant goes silent as everyone tunes in to the calamity occurring at table number three. It ends with the server kicking the family out of the restaurant.

Bad service in Australian retail establishments is the stuff of legend, but what is often overlooked is that shopping, dining, travel and other recreational experiences are just as frequently ruined by one's fellow customers as they are by any employee. That's a real problem for retailers and other service providers since it has unwanted and undeserved negative effects on the reputation of the businesses in which the behaviour occurs.

If you have a bad experience in a place, you may never return regardless of whether or not it was the fault of the retailer, restaurant or airline.

Joel Anaya, a senior student in Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University, took the trouble to study 200 instances of adverse customer behaviour and classify them into seven categories.

These seven are:

1. The “badmouthers” who use bad language at clearly audible volume

2. The “paranoid shouters” who are inclined to become irate and out of control at the first sign of a problem

3. Customers with poor hygiene who smell, cough, wheeze and sneeze without bothering to protect others

4. Customers making outlandish requests that can't reasonably be satisfied

5. Rule breakers, such as people who cut into lines

6. Out-of-control kids

7. The “unaware customer” who regales staff with minor requests and peccadillos while others have to wait

These seven personality types can ruin the otherwise positive experience that other customers have with your business.

As a result they need to be identified and dealt with.

Unfortunately, dealing with problem customers is not always high on the agenda in retailer training programs, assuming the retailer actually has such a thing.

Clearly, it helps if a staff person dealing with a difficult situation has an outstanding sense of humour and a lot of empathy. Otherwise, you need to rely on other methods. Mr Anaya, above, doesn't venture into remedies for his seven personality types but here are a few suggestions of my own.

First, training the frontline staff in dealing with various types of problem situations is essential. The training should include role-playing to get employees more comfortable with how they might deal with the real thing.

Second, don't be over-dependent on scripting employees with off-the-shelf words and phrases intended to help them reassert control when confronting a challenging customer. Customers can usually spot pat phrases for what they are – insincere. This can make them even more fired up.

Third, absolutely do not reward obnoxious behaviour by according privileges to these people that normal politeness does not. That's a sure way of annoying your other customers who are doing the right thing, possibly causing them not to return to your establishment.

Fourth, explain to the problem customer that giving in to his wishes will have negative effects on other customers.

Fifth, in some situations it is possible to openly acknowledge to other customers that they may be feeling uncomfortable with the situation. Doing so will show them that you care about their experience and you're not trying to pretend something negative isn't happening.

Sixth, pull rank, and bring out the manager. Irate customers will often prefer to speak to the manager anyway.

As much as many of us bag on customer service in Australia, there's no denying that it's a really hard job sometimes. It's made tougher by the fact that as an occupation, customer service is largely unprofessionalised – almost half of all retail employees and more than half of all workers in hospitality and food service are classified as part-timers.

In the battle between e-commerce and physical stores for market share, the 360-degrees experience of a retailer is seen as a key competitive advantage. The service delivered by its sales associates is at the heart of the in-store experience and can either really give customers positive feelings about a brand or really turn them sour on it.

That has to include dealing with problem situations and obnoxious customers before the bad guys give your business a bad name.

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at michael@mbaker-retail.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.

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