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The best lessons are not all learned in the classroom – the threat of the irate customer

As a workplace violence consultant and subject matter expert, I am well aware that irate customers pose a very real threat to front-line workers. It’s not very often that I am that irate customer.

The best lessons are not all learned in the classroom.

I am currently conducting training for the Government of Alberta in Edmonton and Calgary. This project involves some of my favourite things: hotels and airports. It never ceases to amaze me the bits of learning I pick up in my travels, and this series of trips has not disappointed me!

I hope you will enjoy sharing my experiences and perhaps learn something valuable along the way. Here goes . . .

Calgary for two weeks, back home to Toronto for one week and now Edmonton for two weeks: I am really looking forward to staying in one of my favourite hotels as I stroll into the lobby. The front desk clerk informs me that I have been “upgraded” to a “security floor”. She explains to me that I need to insert my key card into the slot in the elevator to access my floor.

“OK!” I say and off I go. With my luggage in tow I enter the elevator, insert my card and push the button for my floor.

To shorten the story, let’s just say the card doesn’t work and next thing I know I am back in the lobby with my heavy luggage. After having my card re-reprogrammed, I re-insert and hit the “20” button, said “hi” to the two other occupants of the elevator and closed my eyes briefly for a much needed rest while I rode to the 20th floor. Have you guessed yet?

Sure enough, the card didn’t work and I am back in the lobby. “My card doesn’t work”, I explained to the clerk. “Can you fix it for me, again?”

“If it rubs against a cellphone it cancels the magnetism in the card”, the clerk was educating me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I don’t have a cellphone. Perhaps my magnetic personality affected the card.

Back up in the elevator—are you counting how many times?—this time accompanied by five or six other hotel guests. I see the 21st floor button is already pushed and leave well enough alone. I get off on the 21st floor and walked down one floor, luggage in tow, and insert the card into the slot in my door. Have you guessed yet? You’re right. The card doesn’t work.

Do you suppose I am becoming a threat to the well-being of the unsuspecting staff of this hotel? Get the picture?

Upon my arrival at the front desk for the third time in ten minutes, have you guessed yet? Yes, guests are lined up, checking in and checking out! I barged past the waiting customers and caught the attention of the first employee I could find thus creating even more irate customers in my wake.

Enough of my misery on the road … what picture is emerging here?


  • Do your security systems cause more trouble than they are worth?
  • Are you providing security measures for your customers that create security problems for your employees?
  • Are your staff TRAINED in the proper uses of security systems and devices?
  • Are you managing the technology, or is the technology managing you?
  • Are your staff TRAINED in dealing with irate or angry customers or bad situations?

So, what could the desk clerk have done better? Let’s first accept the fact that bad things are going to happen to customers, that those customers are probably going to be our best customers, and that they’re going to get angry. If we start from there, we can start looking at some practical ways to diffuse anger.

Companies need to take a triage approach (the process of determining the priority of responses based on the severity of the situation) to angry customers, providing an initial assessment and acknowledgement of the problem (it’s important to let the customer know their anger is heard and acknowledged). Make them feel you’re their ally in getting this resolved (diffusing the anger rather than adding to it). If appropriate, apologize, but do it quickly and sincerely.

After the above steps have been taken, direct the person to the appropriate response channel. Anger left without a response will simply lead to more anger. Long waits on a hold line or in a lineup is not what you want to do.

In addition, make sure your staff knows that such situations can happen in the workplace and how to deal with such situations and an irate/angry customer. Provide staff with knowledge of what causes anger and how to respond quickly and appropriately.

Further, make sure any new process, technology or device is ready and works properly before making it available to your customers. In addition, train your employees on how to troubleshoot any problems with the new process, technology or device.

Andrew Lawson
Learn don’t Litigate

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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