“Focus group feedback illustrated that the training also helped our teams to provide better customer service and deliver a best-practice response from our management team to serious traumatic events.”
Developed by iCare, the Respect and Resilience program included a series of intervention workshops, which focused on how to minimise bad customer behaviour through a deeper understanding of human aggression. The workshops also addressed how to improve the capacity of team members to cope with customer abuse and minimise the adverse personal, team and organisational impacts.
A wide range of topics were covered such as human aggression, social perception and cognitive processing, social and emotional support, staff empowerment and customer-oriented control.
“The workshops went beyond just identifying the verbal cues and covered things like understanding body language and noticing when a customer is getting agitated or isn’t meeting his or her expectations. It went quite deep into teaching these frontline workers how to really identify and manage that situation accordingly,” explained Sara Kahlau, iCare’s group executive of customer and community.
“Another big piece was on how to build their resilience so they feel like they’re confident enough to take on a situation and manage it successfully, but if something does go wrong, to have the resilience levels needed to debrief and work through it afterwards.”
iCare also released the Respect and Resilience report, specifically aimed at customer abuse and the impact of it on retail workers. It revealed more than 88 per cent of staff working in retail and fast food outlets are experiencing up to five incidents of customer abuse a week.
Similarly, in 2018, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) ran a survey of more than 1000 fast food workers and the results were alarming.
According to the report, 87 per cent of respondents had experienced verbal abuse or aggressive behaviour; 32 per cent said incidents of customer abuse or violence that involved behaviour that was sexual in nature; 28 per cent had experienced physical abuse such as pushing, hitting and pushing (or threats of physical abuse including death threats and threats with a weapon) by a customer. Seventy-one per cent of respondents were women and 51 per cent were 17 years of age or under.
No-one deserves a serve
Customer abuse has recently been in the spotlight and for the last two years, the SDA has hosted a roundtable with industry executives from major retailers and peak bodies to tackle the issue. Last year, the organisation also ran a campaign to highlight the issue called No-one Deserves a Serve, which was backed by the National Retailers Association (NRA).
In the past, there has been very little training across the industry around improving frontline workers’ soft skills. Retail is also the largest employer of youth in Australia, many of whom are particularly vulnerable, in their first job and don’t have the experience or skills to successfully manage confronting situations in the workplace.
“The industry now accepts across the board that it is a major issue and we have to devote more resources to development and training,” said SDA national secretary Gerard Dwyer.
According to Dwyer, retailers need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on abuse and all management and staff need to be aware of legislation, particularly trespass laws, and how to effectively enforce them within their businesses.
“Everyone agrees the customer is the lifeblood of our industry, but when they cross a line, there needs to be consequences,” he said. “The law does provide that backup, but we’re trying to raise community awareness and train people to deal better with these situations.”
The customer isn’t always right
Traditionally, businesses have upheld the mantra that the customer is always right and it is their role to always deliver on those expectations, but retailers are now starting to challenge that old-school mentality.
According to NRA CEO Dominique Lamb, fast food retailers often suffer the brunt of the worst customer behaviour, given the nature of the work. This is further heightened for retailers with 24-hour locations in the inner-city.
“Fast food typically is an industry that works very early mornings and very late in the evening and unfortunately, it’s sometimes in those hours, certainly when we’re talking about violent crimes, when people could be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. Unfortunately, those workers are exposed to some of those outside influences,” Lamb pointed out.
According to Kahlau, in the increasingly busy world we live in, customers are accustomed to receiving any kind of product or service anywhere in the world at any given time, whenever they want.
“We want things instantly, so there’s a high level of expectation around speed and accuracy and that it’s going to absolutely fulfil my needs. So I think customers walk into stores with those expectations and it’s hard to meet that benchmark,” she explained.
“Then we’re also very busy with stressful lives, so it takes little to trigger us. You can see that as almost being a perfect storm and it means that any trigger, no matter how small, might set off certain behaviours.”
However, Dwyer pointed out that society as a whole needs to learn how to interact more respectfully with retail workers and “treat them with dignity”.
“At the end of the day, they’re someone’s sister or brother or mother or father,” he said. “They’re humans who are trying to do their job and abuse shouldn’t be part of it. We as a community have to be better when we’re interacting with people.”