When the customer is wrong

Image by mcmurryjulie from Pixabay

By Michelle van Schouwen

Have you seen the signs outside retail establishments asking customers to “please be nice?” They are there for good reason. Many customer-facing establishments are dealing with staff shortages, delivery slowdowns, and, worst of all, an overabundance of angry, pandemic-weary customers who are sometimes (contrary to the adage that the customer is always right) just plain wrong.

According to the Boston Globe, one Cape Cod restaurant recently provided a food order free, as take-out, to customers who had waited too long. The customers drove away, but then returned 15 minutes later and hurled the free food out the car window onto the parking lot. Another restaurant in New Jersey on social media asked customers to stop giving (largely teenage) staff the finger and throwing garbage at them.

As an article in The Atlantic recounts, some conflicts over the apparently endless mask issue have become violent or even deadly. Retailers are now coping with the question of whether to reinstate mask mandates during the spread of the Delta COVID variant. Understandably, many of them are  dreading customer response to whatever decision they make. Unfortunately, in extreme cases, such responses have included threats, violence, or destruction of product (for example, intentional coughing or spitting on produce to render it unsellable).

The stories from airlines are equally unnerving. According to The Guardian, “In the first six months of 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has investigated more than 600 incidents involving unruly passengers, nearly double the number in the previous two years combined.” A plane in flight is a bad place to deal with enraged, drunk, or out-of-line customers. Airlines have gotten to the point where they have adopted a “zero-tolerance policy”  and are urging the federal government to firm up relevant regulations. Delta says it may ban SkyMiles customers for personal threats, insults or slurs toward Delta employees; intentional destruction of Delta property; and other egregious acts.

How to respond

Whatever factors are behind this rise in terrible customer behavior (and we could discuss these all day) business owners are left to cope. But how?

-The first, important step is to recognize that the customer is not only NOT always right, but sometimes so wrong that they must be halted in their behavior, perhaps removed from the premises, and possibly never allowed to return. We are talking here about the really, really abusive customers.

-Taking a step back, customer service is important, and employees should make every effort to de-escalate potential conflicts. But most workers simply lack the skills to defuse a truly furious or vengeful customer. The owner or manager must then step in and decide how best to handle the situation.

-Remember that stress and conflict can cost you good employees. Some restaurants and retail stores have taken “mental health days” to protect staff who have been through a lot themselves and don’t need to add customer abuse to the pile-up. Business owners should support employees in coping with the stress caused by beyond-the-pale customer behavior.

-As mentioned above, some businesses have posted signs reminding customers to be courteous and patient, and perhaps also reminding them that staff shortages or supply chain slowdowns are causing problems. (I rather liked one sign that said simply, “Be nice or go home.”)

-Business owners can make controversial policies clear outside the front door. For example, if masks are required, let customers who oppose this policy turn away before even entering the premises.

-In rare cases, abusive or violent “patrons” may require police or other legal intervention. This may sound extreme, but keeping other customers, employees, and your property safe must outweigh your aversion to such action.

While we all hope that times get easier, customers ease off, and life gets back to some type of normal, the fact that some people have gotten used to behaving poorly in places of business may mean that this issue is with us for good. In which case, business owners will have to step up their policies to promote and preserve civility on their premises and beyond.


Michelle van Schouwen is principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 Analytics.org. For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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