Effective Customer Service Program
Drawing the Line on Rude Customers

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I know, I know . . . the customer is always right . . . or at least should be treated as if they're always right. But, when and where do you draw the line in your customer service program?

The question comes up after talking to a frontline sales person, Ted. A few days ago, he had trouble with a customer. The customer was being vague and Ted simply asked for clarification. From then on the customer was rude and kept sniping at Ted. She even had a telephone call on her cellular phone and proceeded to talk about Ted and how "rude" HE was to the caller. Then when Ted had to interrupt her conversation for payment, he was even worse than rude, according to her. When he asked the customer to sign her credit card, a company requirement, he became a "jerk" and an *&^%. Ted says, "I don't know what her problem was, but I certainly didn't enjoy being called names. I couldn't think of anything I could do to make the situation better. I felt so helpless."

There are two elements of this scenario. First of all, cellular phones: what are sales and service personnel doing about cellular phone calls? I was buying stamps the other day at the post office and the person directly in front of me was carrying on a conversation while the clerk behind the counter was trying to help her with a purchase. He didn't say anything to her, but he did apologize to me after she left because it took more time to assist her than it should have.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has signs posted at its information desk stating: "Please, turn off your cell phone so we may better serve you." I asked a clerk about the need for the sign and she said, "People were just driving us crazy." When people are on the phone they seem to be in their own little world. "It wasn't just people at the counter on the phone that was the problem. The phones also cause a rise in general noise which makes it more difficult to carry on meaningful conversations at the counter."

Let's hang-up on cellular phones for awhile and go back to rude customers. Personally, I think once a customer moves into abusive behavior, they no longer deserve service. I don't like to be called names (even when it is told to a third party and not directly done like with Ted) and I would not subject any employee to this treatment, either.

I do think Ted handled the situation nicely. He kept his cool and got through the transaction. His next step should be to discuss the situation with his manager and let the manager draw the line and provide alternatives in dealing with rude customers. That way Ted is protected.

For rude cell phone users, I really like the simple touch of the sign. The sign says it all. It's polite with a "please." It tells the customer that we do want to serve them. It's non-threatening . . . and it draws the line . . . someone has to.

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