Here are strategies for diffusing tension when dealing with difficult customers
By Robert Marinelli
Encounters with difficult residents – whether a stressful, one-time encounter or repeated incidents over time – can have a negative impact on the physical, emotional and mental health of municipal employees.
During this past winter, in the midst of record-setting snowfall, public works drivers at times encountered angry residents creating disturbances while they tried to plow and salt roads. At town hall, irate callers complained about weather-related difficulties and made unreasonable demands.
On a year-round basis, city and town officials working in the field – including building inspectors, health inspectors and animal control officers – are at risk of facing aggressive customers and contentious situations. Aggressive customers also visit frontline city and town hall employees who handle tax questions and compliance issues, as well as those working in libraries, schools and even senior centers.
An aggressive resident can create physical safety concerns as well as potentially serious emotional and mental health effects, according to Will Brown of AllOne Health, MIIA’s Employee Assistance Program provider.
“Obviously there is a safety issue when a person stands in front of their driveway to block a snow plow or gets physically aggressive,” Brown said. “But employees in town buildings and offices can also feel like they’re under attack or even feel like they’re being held hostage and can’t escape. In addition to safety concerns, there are psychological concerns – both immediate and long-term.”
In a recent webinar on the topic for municipal officials, Cally Ritter, also of AllOne Health, described the physical effects employees can feel when they’re under attack – such as tension, headache, fatigue and insomnia – in addition to emotional fatigue and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
“This can all take a cumulative toll over time,” Brown said.
When there are budget cuts, or when population growth increases demand for services, municipal employees can already feel like they are under pressure, said Marianne Fleckner, human resources director for the town of Acton.
“Employees feel a piling on of responsibility,” Fleckner said. “Our employees at times have felt like they are at wit’s end, and when do we say, ‘Enough is enough?’”
Workplace physical violence is not tolerated in any community, she said, but verbal abuse sometimes crosses the line and needs to be addressed.
Fleckner also pointed out that when a verbal altercation is taking place, it can intimidate innocent bystanders and cause discomfort for co-workers and anyone else in the room – in addition to the employee directly under fire. Having to spend extra time with a difficult customer also affects work efficiency and the bottom line.
When an employee is spending an hour each week on one particular resident, or five hours a week on several different situations, consider the employees’ hourly rate and how much that can cost the municipality, Fleckner said.
There are often repeat offenders, Brown said.
“It’s the ‘90-10’ rule, where employees are often spending 90 percent of their time on less than 10 percent of their customer base,” he said.
Creating awareness in the workplace and providing employees with tools to help them handle difficult customers “can go a long way toward preventing issues down the road, including employee stress and depression,” Brown said.
Municipalities can provide customized training that addresses the unique issues related to working with tough customers. Brown also suggests working with employees to develop key phrases they can use to diffuse a situation – and to help them better understand interpersonal skills so that they can prevent an event from escalating.
Management support is key, and employees should know that a supervisor can be called in to help, he said.
Municipalities can access their own employee assistance program for support and counseling.
AllOne provides the following list of tips for employees to remember when dealing with a particularly difficult person:
• Show respect and courtesy, no matter what your customer’s attitude.
• Remember that your customer is upset with a situation, not with you.
• Listen with patience. Try to understand their situation.
• Apologize for the problem and empathize with their feelings.
• Remain calm and avoid arguing.
• Ask for details to steer them away from emotions.
• Use inclusive language to promote cooperation: “Let’s see what we can do.”
• Involve the customer in the solution: “What do you think would work?”
• If you find you’re getting frustrated or upset, take a deep breath and commit to resolving the customer’s situation.
• Establish trust by keeping your word and following through on what you said you would do.
If you can’t de-escalate the situation with verbal strategies, and there is a potential threat of physical violence, then determine how to exit the area immediately, Brown said. Use a phrase such as “let me check on this” or “I’ll be right back,” then vacate and seek help.
Code of conduct
The town of Acton implemented a “Visitor Code of Conduct” that is now posted in all municipal buildings. The code states that the town “supports a workplace conducive to personal safety and security and is free from intimidation, threats or violent acts.” It requires common courtesy as well as respect for others and the town’s facilities, and forbids lewd, offensive or violent behavior. If visitors do not comply with the code of conduct, they may be asked to leave the premises.
“The message being sent to town employees is organizational self-esteem,” Fleckner said. “When they know that the Select Board and everyone is rallying around it, they can feel empowered. We want to ensure that there’s an environment where everyone feels safe, and we want to give them a verbal back-up from management.”
A “Tough Customers Tip Sheet” and related webinars can be found in the MIIA EAP library at www.allonehealth.com/MIIAEAP under the Educational Materials tab.
Robert Marinelli is MIIA’s Risk Control Manager.