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Stop the trash talk: Don’t let rude employees affect customer relations

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in Your Office Coach

Question: “I manage the gift shop at a beautiful, historic winery. Although this is a wonderful place to work, we do encounter customers with a variety of challenging personalities. I have several employees who complain about how stupid customers are and what dumb questions they ask. Since we don't work in a bubble, I'm sure customers sometimes overhear these comments. I’ve tried asking everyone to be more positive, but negativity spreads like a disease. How do I stop this catty chatter?” — Frustrated in Wisconsin

Marie’s Answer: It’s one thing to relieve job stress by sharing customer stories, but quite another to trash the very people who provide your livelihood. As a manager, you must help employees understand the difference. Here are a few suggestions:

•    Encourage empathy by having employees recall their own interactions with haughty salespeople and ask how it affected them. Emphasize that successful salespeople approach everyone with an attitude of respect and helpfulness.

•    Acknowledge that while it’s OK to share frustrations about difficult customers, they must not do so on the sales floor. Gripe sessions should be confined to the break room. 

•    When you hear negative remarks, immediately ask the offenders to step into the back, and then remind them of the rules. If some employees are unable or unwilling to change their behavior, then you need to let them go. People who insult customers have no business working in sales.

•    When you hire new employees, clearly communicate customer service standards on their first day of work. Establishing expectations up front will help to shape their behavior in the desired direction.

In a winery, less sophisticated shoppers often feel ill-at-ease. Unless employees make them feel
comfortable, they may quickly depart without buying anything.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Des October 21, 2009 at 9:07 pm

It really doesn’t matter how ignorant the sales reps thinks the CUSTOMERS are. They should be treated with respect. The sales reps who think their CUSTOMERS ask stupid questions should be made to attend training workshops and/or fired for their poor attitudes.


Susan Melvin June 17, 2009 at 2:12 pm

I work for a company (an architecture firm) where delivering great customer service–to clients, vendors, employees, all people with whom we come in contact–is a paramount value. It starts at the top and we hire people who can deliver it and coach people who can’t. If coaching doesn’t have the desired outcome, then the individual is fired.

I think this manager has tolerated such behavior and that is tantamount to saying it is ok. She needs to check her own attitude first, make sure that her behaviour is consistent with her words, provide training on how to deal with difficult people and institute a no eye-rolling, complaining environment. For employees to be allowed to take their complaints from the front of the house to the back room is self-defeating. Delivering great customer service in the face of irritating customers requires maturity, tact, creativity and commitment to the idea that they are the front line of company image–and that that is important. The company also needs to deliver great service to employees to keep them from looking hypocritical.


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