When Your Customer Is Difficult

We were hungry. We also knew it will be difficult to find a place to eat. After all, it was a warm Sunday afternoon, when many people will be out in droves finding a place to cool down and eat.

We found a table after some time. In this environment where safe distancing measures have decimated the number of tables in restaurants and coffee shops, finding a table during lunch time is fortunate. One can’t be picky too.

While trying to figure out what is on the menu, I noticed a woman walking into the cafe. She was middle aged. Likely in her 50s, and a little plump. She walked to the counter and stood there.

I thought she wanted to place an order so I didn’t pay attention, until she spoke out loud.

“Shirley, what are you standing there for? I am hungry.”

I looked up, surprised. It was the woman at the counter. Her object of focus was standing near the doorway, head down looking at her phone. (I learnt later on that ‘Shirley’ was her daughter.)

“Shirley, I don’t want to spend time waiting here to order you know. Not after we took a taxi just to come down here to eat. I am hungry!”

With each sentence spoken with an increase in volume, more patrons looked up to see what was happening. My family and I too. I don’t know who was more embarrassed – mother or daughter. But it seemed both weren’t.

Somehow, Shirley got round to her mother’s side, where she spoke softly to her, and both went to a table. I turned my attention back to the menu. It seemed as if peace had returned.

But not for long.

The mother went to the counter again. The waiter was serving some dishes. The mother called out to him in a loud voice, “Excuse me, I want to order some food. Can you tell me where the 1 for 1 dishes are? What is the promotion about?”

The waiter asked her to wait. Apparently, the mother wouldn’t and requested again. So the waiter quickly finished serving his dishes and walked over. She proceeded to unleash a barrage of questions. From the conversation, it was clear the mother was not ready to order, but wanted the waiter to guide her through the menu.

I queued behind the mother. Probably sensing that she will take quite a while, the waiter politely suggested to the mother to look at the menu on her own, while he served the customers behind. Which the mother did.

By the time I finished paying for my order, another lady had stood next to me, waiting to order. The mother was on my other side though. When the waiter politely informed the mother that the queue was on the other side, the mother in her loud voice said she was here first.

No mistake here. The mother was firm and insistent in her view. Thankfully, the lady told the waiter that she could wait. The mother got to order her dishes first.


Your Actions And Words Matter

One of my children asked what is wrong with the mother. I don’t know, but I suspect she may have some special needs. Either that, or she has mental illness.

My child’s question got me thinking. I am unsure what is not right. She may have a condition, or maybe that is her character. Regardless, her behavior is not perceived as a social norm.

What I was fascinated with is the behaviour and response from the waiter towards the mother. The waiter showed much skills in handling the mother. Listening and watching him, I drew a few lessons on how to handle such situations.

1. Exercise Patience.

This should be the golden rule for situations like this. If you lose your cool, expect the situation to deteriorate, and more extreme negative behaviour to emerge.

I know it is hard to exercise patience under such circumstances. Other patrons are watching you while the customer is exerting her overbearing behaviour on you. People expect you to mitigate and do something about it.

Patience is needed. How did he do it?

2. Speak Softly And Slowly.

His tone and volume say it all. The waiter spoke slowly, clearly and without raising his voice. He maintained his cool and was polite with the mother.

This helps to defuse the situation. The mother became less agitated when the waiter pointed to the menu and guided her on what she needed to know. He did not take the questions at face value. Instead, he used simple words and gestures to help her make sense what she wanted to know.

I don’t know if he experiences customers with such attitudes frequently. One thing is for sure: he must have gone through training or has some exposure to adopt such mannerisms in that encounter.

3. Enlist The Help Of Others.

Customers who focus on themselves only will disregard how others feel. Hence they perceive their rights as more important than others. No surprises then when the mother insisted that she must order first.

The waiter was smart to enlist the help of another customer to manage the mother. Rather than insist the mother join the queue, the waiter asked the lady if he could serve the mother first.

The lady could have refused. Fortunately, she didn’t. Yet I wonder how the waiter would respond if the lady refused. Maybe he would take down her order first and processed it quickly, after explaining to the mother. Or perhaps he could ask another waiter to attend to the lady.


Customer Service Is An Important Skill

Being customer-centric is important for businesses, for obvious reasons. If frontline staff do not pay hone their skills, you can be sure the company will have a poor reputation. The bottom line will be affected. Companies should consider investing in developing this skill in their staff.

Yet customer service as a skill must be accompanied by the right dispositions in the person. You cannot pass a set of dos and don’ts to a person and expect him or her to be relational all of a sudden. Consider people who have suitable personalities to relate and deal with people. Being slow to anger and knowing how to defuse potential explosive situations are two traits I will look for.

What are the attributes and qualities you would expect frontline staff to have? Have you encountered situations where frontline staff were able to defuse tense situations?

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