Practical Application: Dealing with Abusive Customers

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Abusive customers present a unique challenge since they essentially put two important concepts at odds with each other. There's a fine line to walk when employees must be protected and customers must be satisfied.

Abusive or Assertive?

Abusive customers pose a unique challenge to the organizations that serve them because it puts the company's desire to provide great service against its responsibility to provide employees a safe, secure, and professional workplace. In many cases, an organization has a legal obligation to do both of these tasks simultaneously and without prioritizing one over the other. Another layer of complexity is added when a customer's behavior is not obviously abusive. In other words, organizations are obligated to protect their employees, vendors, and customers from verbal and emotional abuse.

  • When does a customer transition from being assertive about their desires to being abusive to those around them?
  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • What are some organizations that you can identify as being particularly prone to abusive customers?
  • Is your business or industry one that you identified earlier?

Let's look at some scenarios that relate to different degrees of abusive customers. Then you'll have an opportunity to apply what you learned in the lesson Managing Abusive Customers: Techniques, Safety & Stress Management.

Scenario 1: The Man Who Wouldn't Get Off the Plane

Flights get oversold, and customers get stranded. Although most of the time a customer can be enticed to give up their seat in exchange for an incentive, there are a few times when a customer may be involuntarily delayed or removed from a flight because of overbooking. When this happens, customers can become irate and abusive. That's what happened to Omar, a flight attendant on XYZ Airlines, when he tried to inform a gentleman that he had no choice but to give up his seat.

At first, the customer was assertive, but not abusive. He calmly explained to Omar that he was an 'important businessman' with a big deal to negotiate later that afternoon. Over the PA system, Omar addressed the passengers (for the fourth time) requesting a volunteer so that the salesman could reach his destination. For the fourth time, no one volunteered.

Omar returned to the salesman and informed him that there was, in fact, no way to change the situation. The man needed to disembark immediately so that the door could be closed and the plane could begin its taxi. The salesman, however, had no intention of going quietly. As Omar calmly informed the gentleman that he must disembark or the police would be called, the gentleman gave Omar a sneering smile. He then uttered a loud racial slur, made a lewd gesture, and buckled his seat-belt as if to say, ''I'm not getting off this plane.''

The police were called. After failing to respond to their instructions, he was forcibly removed from the aircraft, screaming and struggling the whole way.

  • Was this customer verbally abusive, emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or some combination of the three?
  • For each type of possible abuse, what specific statement or action ''crossed the line''?
  • Was the intervention of the police necessary, or was it overkill?
  • Are there any conditions at all in which Omar should have tried to physically remove the man from the plane himself? Explain.

Scenario 2: Movie Theater Madness

Sarah, a fifteen-year-old student, really enjoyed her first job working at the local movie theater as a ticket-taker. One Saturday afternoon, she punched the ticket for a middle-aged man who proceeded down the hall and watched his movie. Four hours later, Sarah observed the man leaving a movie (for which he had no ticket) and entering a third movie (also without a ticket).

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