Ask The Expert

Ask the Expert: Customers are getting more aggressive. What can you do?

By Daniel Young | March 3, 2022 | 4 min read
Aggressive franchise customers

On February 12, an Iowa woman went on a violent rampage at a gas station convenience store, destroying property, and then hitting, kicking and biting the cashier. A few days later, on February 15th, an Illinois man allegedly fired a gun through a glass door into a Wendy’s. The reason for the attack? He was “not happy with the service” he received at the drive-thru. On February 20, a video was posted to Twitter of a barefoot customer climbing barefoot through a drive-thru window to confront employees because they’d forgotten to include ranch dressing with her order.

Customer violence has been on the rise over the last year, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A report from 2021 shows that 39% of all restaurant workers are considering leaving their jobs due to customer hostility, while information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that restaurant workers suffered 390 injuries as a result of intentional violence in 2020, the latest year on record. Retail workers suffered 1,000 injuries as a result of intentional violence. Fast food workers in franchise establishments seem to be on the receiving end of that violence often.

What does that mean for franchisees who may be reopening their dining rooms or who have stores in states with contentious or confusing mask mandates?

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1. First, focus on customer service

Poor customer service has been the excuse many of the violent customers have used to justify their attacks on franchise employees. While missing ranch dressing or poor customer service is no reason to attack another person, it’s best to make sure your staff members are well trained and don’t give an aggressive customer any reason to attack. The key is to manage the aggression through effective techniques you can control.

Because customer service might seem like an odd topic for a security blog to address, especially in a post about violence, let’s break this down a little.

  • Mental health problems are on the rise: Currently, 20% of U.S. adults are suffering from a mental illness, and 5% are suffering with severe mental illness. More than 27 million people with mental illness are not receiving treatment.

  • “The customer is always right”: When Harry Gordon Selfridge said that customers are always right in 1909, he probably didn’t envision a world where customers attacked employees for an error in a fast food order. However, Selfridge’s saying has informed almost a century of U.S. businesses. Customers believe they’re entitled to what they want, and paired with the growing mental health crisis, this means that mistakes aren’t seen as mistakes, but personal attacks - so affronted customers attack back.

  • Social media rewards bad behavior: When people get attention for poor behavior, it makes others more likely to engage in similar behavior. Take the woman who climbed in through the drive-thru window for ranch dressing: knowing she was being filmed, she twerked for the camera on the way out.

With all that in mind, professionalism and good customer service is the first line of defense against already-angry customers who feel attacked by mistakes. By ensuring that you have a strong manager on store at each site, you can make sure that your workers are consistently doing their jobs well and providing aggressive customer service — making sure to update a customer who has been impatiently waiting on an order, for example, or checking in with customers to make sure they have everything they need.

2. Find a good management training course

Good customer service isn’t necessarily going to deter a customer who is already at the boiling point. Consider the woman who attacked the gas station cashier without reading. To help mitigate these problems, franchisees should consider investing in aggressive management training for all employees, not just managers.

A strong management training course will teach employees to read body language and warning signs and deescalate a situation before it gets worse by intervening to soothe someone who has been pacing, sighing or rolling their eyes.

You will probably have to seek out a consultant to provide such a course, however; often corporations don't provide aggressive management training because they don’t want to frighten incoming employees. A good course will focus on scenarios like robberies, active shooters, and violent customers, discussing the specific action employees need to take to keep themselves and the other customers safe.

3. Have a plan

If a person is truly seeking to do violence, de-escalation isn’t going to work. In this case, it’s important to have a plan in place — employees should know exactly what to do and where to do in case of an emergency, whether that’s retreating to the back with other customers, fighting back, filming the incident, or calling 911 immediately.

Your locations should also have countermeasures, such as cameras, sturdy counters that people can hide behind, and other measures that will keep employees and customers safe. If you aren’t sure how to set up safety countermeasures, it’s time to assess the security of your site by calling a trained assessor.

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