Can store associates do anything about rude customers?

Photo: RetailWire
Jul 27, 2018
Tom Ryan

From blog entries to queries on AskReddit, the internet is packed with stories from store associates detailing how boorish customers can make their working lives miserable.

Business Insider recently interviewed 34 Target floor associates and found 14, or about 40 percent, citing rude guests as the worst part of their job.

Many customers feel overly entitled and pack unreasonable expectations, according to a number of online posts from associates.

“I despise treating adults as children,” one Target associate told Business Insider. “We’re told to do whatever it takes to make people happy, including allowing them to steal. Seeing a middle-aged person throw a tantrum because they changed their mind on an air mattress and can’t return it makes me sick.”

A common complaint is being reprimanded or insulted by shoppers for things beyond their control, such as store policies for returns or coupons, out-of-stock situations and not being able to change an item’s price.

Wrote Kami Marie Funk on, “You are essentially yelling at an empty register when you demand changes that neither the sales associate nor the manager can make, except the register you’re yelling at has feelings.”

Beyond the irrational demands, shoppers can behave in ways they wouldn’t outside the store. These include letting their kids run wild, leaving a dressing room a mess and putting items they don’t want on the wrong shelf.

A newer common complaint is being unable to engage with customers at checkout who are taking calls on their mobile phones. An older one is customers arriving just before closing to browse.

For many, feeling ignored can be particularly frustrating. These include not answering cashiers when they ask questions, not acknowledging a greeting from an associate and walking off while being helped.

Wrote Alex Claycomb on Odyssey, a crowd-sourced website of self-published works, “We are here to help serve the customers, but at least treat us like human beings.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice do you have for store associates and managers on dealing with shoppers’ social infractions? Has the behavior of shoppers toward store associates worsened over the years? If so, who/what is to blame for the degradation in behavior?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Every employee has the right to dignity, even as every customer does. "
"It’s all about training, and inspiring associates to adopt an air of dignity and quiet authority."
"Of course training for store associates is key to dealing with shoppers. However, isn’t it time to come up with some new tactics?"

Join the Discussion!

18 Comments on "Can store associates do anything about rude customers?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ray Riley

There are two sides to the coin. In an ideal world, customers will be respectful consistently. However in the case of the sales associate, have they been properly trained to handle conflict and given techniques to diffuse heated situations? Most conflict that individuals of all ages handle today are attempted through text messaging or email. Most lack the interpersonal skills to effectively navigate these issues with friends, let alone customers. It is an employer responsibility to provide these valuable skills. Other customers are watching these interactions!

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Associates deserve to be protected from nasty customers with training, the ability to escalate a problem to management or even available security. Every employee has the right to dignity, even as every customer does. As commerce policies become more complex and rigorous on the part of the retailer, the frustrations of customers will naturally increase. I have always thought that human interaction should be elevated in all we do and that over time we would all become more gracious, grateful and respectful. Too bad that it is always the other person who shows their failure to evolve.

Bob Phibbs

Oh please. Those mean shoppers are making my job hard. You know why associates complain? Because a.) they were probably never trained 2.) lax hiring standards 3.) low wages making employees feel inferior to begin with.

I’ve been the target of a lot of employee gripe sites from some of my posts that essentially say if you don’t like it, don’t work retail. That said, the opportunity is to hire better, train better and find ways to make the associates who don’t come to work with a chip on the shoulder to feel able to treat people right no matter their race, religion, sexual identification or the rest.

Anne Howe

Basic training in human behavior and a playbook that depicts various ways to handle common customer interactions can go a long way to make these interactions less stressful for both customers and associates. It’s a shame retailers haven’t been consistent in this type of training. And frankly, customers that are deliberately rude should be gently but firmly asked to find another store. My response would be something like this: “Since it’s clear that you’re not at all satisfied with our sincere attempts to resolve your issue, I’m going to suggest that another store might be a better long-term choice for you.”

Denis Kelly
1 year 3 months ago

Basically, this sounds like just part of the job description. Having started in retail more than 25 years ago in NYC I can tell you that there always was and always will be a percentage of customers who are unreasonable. Part of the problem (or solution) now is that we just hear about it more due to social media and the fact that everyone involved can record the transaction. However, I think it does speak to a slow decline across many aspects of our culture that we can now see and basically experience these rather detestable displays. I just saw the McDonald’s milkshake brawl yesterday and it made my stomach turn. Agreed that better training always helps but dealing with people is part of the job.

Neil Saunders

It’s a great pity that some people lack basic manners. However, the fact is that a lack of courtesy will always exist and anyone in a public facing profession will occasionally encounter it.

Being trained to handle difficult people, being stable and well grounded, and having a good team and management support structure and a generally positive attitude all help get associates through hard situations.

Ultimately, we can control how we respond to things and people we can’t control.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

While I understand some of the legitimate complaints of associates, I am reminded that even the thinnest pancake has two sides. If companies want to diminish such incidents they need to FIRE UP their associates. FIND those with talents that fit the demands of the position (outgoing, empathetic, etc.). INVOLVE these associates in understanding the culture of retail and prepare them properly on potential interactions. REWARD them commensurate with the expected behavior. How about some recognition (money or another reward) for the fewest number of customer complaints? EMPOWER them by engaging them in scenarios of rude customer behavior, seeking their suggestions on how to defuse such situations. You will be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

Ralph Jacobson

The key is not to fuel the fire. Train your staff to “kill ’em with kindness” and never let the shopper get the best of their patience. Staff can commiserate after their shift and blow off steam.

Cathy Hotka

Everyone who’s worked in a service industry like retail has encountered customers who can be frustrating, outrageous, or just plain wrong. It’s all about training, and inspiring associates to adopt an air of dignity and quiet authority.

Ralph Jacobson

Well said, Cathy!

Mel Kleiman

Everyone on the post talks about training for associates and I agree that is necessary. but what else can retailers do?

Two things:

  1. Empower your employees to solve the customer problem if they feel it is legitimate. If tyou feel they have gone too far with a customer use it as a training experience.
  2. Stop giving employees dumb rules to enforce. Ask your employees, what are the dumbest rules when it come to dealing with customers? See if there are ways to either change the rules or explain to the employee why the rules exist.
Joan Treistman
Of course training for store associates is key to dealing with shoppers. However, isn’t it time to come up with some new tactics to support store associates? Maybe associates could have a postcard or handy app that they offer the shopper on the spot to document their complaint and send it off to management. My expectation would be that this could mollify the shopper and retail management would know staff is being pro-active. As for being messy and stealing, I think that those should not require direct interaction between a non-security store associate and the shopper. Cleaning up messy fitting rooms have to be part of someone’s job. But shoppers can be encouraged to be neat. Perhaps they can “take a picture” of their clean fitting room and enter it in a store contest. I think that’s crazy, but it could motivate the shopper to be neat. Anyway, there are creative people to come up with better ideas. I just believe it’s time to come up with some additional tactics to help staff, shoppers and… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum

We can write and discuss training until the cows come home. But the fact remains training someone to accept abuse with a smile is not that easy. The sales associates have feelings too. And while many may not be trained the way we would prefer; the feelings remain. Nothing gives a customer the right to verbally abuse and talk disrespectfully to anyone. Not their money. Not their status. Nothing. But that does not seem to stop many abusive customers from taking their belittled feelings out on someone they know is making barely minimum wage. My advice to you is similar to what others have written. Make it difficult for them to maintain their anger by smiling and doing everything you can to turn their anger into satisfaction. Make it a game. Play “I win and, in this case, you lose.” Yes, go in the break room after shift, or on break, and laugh about it with your peers. Make work fun again.

William Hogben

To quote Marcus Aurelius:

“Tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness.”

Shep Hyken

There are two levels of rudeness. 1. Customers who just aren’t nice. Maybe it’s just who they are, or maybe they are just having a bad day. They can be tolerated and employees can be trained to deal with them. 2. Customers who cross the line. These customers could be potentially “fired.”

Train the people on how to deal with difficult customers. When these people cross over from rude to offensive and mean, a manager can intervene, and even “fire” the customer if the behavior is unacceptable.

Unless the customer’s behavior is so unacceptable, always try and leave the door open for the future — and a change of attitude.

Ricardo Belmar
Unfortunately, you can’t control rude people. The only thing you can control is how you react to them, and this requires the right kind of training. The fact is, being a sales associate in a retail store isn’t as easy a job as some people think. You’re really in a public facing position and odds are you will run into rude people at some point whether you like it or not, and the truth is you can only do so much to deal with them. Besides knowing how to respond, retailers also need to look at the causes of these rude behaviors. As others have stated here, often times these behaviors are a reflection of bad customer policies. Other times, they are reflective of just plain “bad” customers who only want to abuse the retailer. For the first type, training is only one part of the solution. You have to look at the policies themselves and the entire brand culture and evaluate if they make sense in light of customer behavior and responses. Sadly, for… Read more »
James Tenser

Customer-facing jobs in retail come with a high dose of frustration. Some of this originates with rude or thoughtless shoppers, but management can mitigate to a degree.

Employers try to institute simple and strict policies on how to respond to certain known situations, but the rules can backfire if they communicate mistrust in the employee. Workers who feel respected and empowered by management will tend to show more pride, respect and patience with customers.

So, my number one counsel to retail employers is “back your people.” Equip them with training, practice, guidelines and trust so they are mentally prepared to handle customers who are just plain difficult. Assure them that they may step away from shoppers who cross the line into abusive or criminal behavior.

Ananda Chakravarty
The basic consensus advice on this thread is training, but more valuable will be increasing the value of the associate to the shopper. Shopper behavior has worsened towards store associates — not in terms of manners, but in terms of engagement. Shoppers spend more time with self-service than in the past, and expectations for the store associate has diminished to the point where the perception of associate value doesn’t go beyond directions to the restroom or finding a product aisle. Rude customers are rare because customers who are connecting and engaging associates are rare. With less frequency of engagement, the associate is not treated as a valuable resource. The real change that needs to be made is more frequent shopper experiences where associates add value. Rudeness will overlap this, but if customers respect associates for what they know and can do for them, it will change any rudeness dynamic. Would the average person be rude to a fireman, doctor, boss or minister? The respect levels are ingrained, and may even be proportional to the potential… Read more »
"Every employee has the right to dignity, even as every customer does. "
"It’s all about training, and inspiring associates to adopt an air of dignity and quiet authority."
"Of course training for store associates is key to dealing with shoppers. However, isn’t it time to come up with some new tactics?"

Take Our Instant Poll

Are store associates treated better or worse by shoppers today compared to 10 or 20 years ago?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...