LAS VEGAS—“The customer is always right.” This phrase has been drilled into the minds of both customers and retailers for decades. But what happens when the customer isn’t right? How do employees deal with those potentially dangerous and brand-damaging situations?

According to the FBI, convenience stores were the fourth most common location of violent crime and accounted for 3% of all violent crime in 2020. For c-store managers and employees, the answer to dealing with these situations comes down to training and awareness.

In Saturday’s education session, “De-escalate Customer Issues,” industry risk management experts shared some practical advice for handling confrontations.

Harjot Sahota is director of safety and asset protection for Otter CO-Op. Otter Co-Op is a network of retail co-operative associations across Western Canada that own and operate Co-op Agro Centres, Food Stores, Gas Bars/Convenience Stores, Home Centres, Pharmacies and more.

Travis Goff is the director of risk management at Maverik Inc., which has nearly 400 locations and growing across 12 Western states, making it the largest independent fuel marketer in the Intermountain West.

Sharon Cruz, field security manager for McDonald’s Corp., moderated the discussion.

The experts emphasized that training employees to respond to difficult situations is something that should be ongoing. It can’t be a one-time thing. It needs to be constant and reinforced, either in-person or through engaging short videos.

Teaching empathy is part of that training. Empathize with the customer, acknowledge their concern, then work toward a solution. The goal is to resolve the situation as quickly as possible without being dismissive of the guest.

Cruz said she finds following these simple, straightforward suggestions works best: 

  • Remain calm.
  • Listen to understand before responding.
  • Be conscious of negative body language.
  • Allow plenty of physical space between you and the customer.
  • Don’t ever touch the customer.
  • Try to expedite the customer service so the customer may leave. 

Cruz added that communication from the top down on an ongoing and consistent basis is important.

“You should have a debriefing with each shift in team huddles to convey any issues during the prior shift,” she said. “Identify the strongest communicator on each shift who can best handle a difficult situation. Employees should defer to managers, shift supervisors and shift leads to handle these situations and everyone must always remain professional.”

Even if you’ve done everything by the book, there are going to be times when a customer just doesn’t respond to those methods. In those instances, no matter what you must stay cool.

“Keep situational awareness in mind,” Cruz said. “Ask your employees to stay a safe distance away from the threatening customer and contact police immediately.”

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