News Article



COVID-19: Managing Hostile Behaviour in a Retail Environment

Thanks to Executive Committee Member Nick Karas for this article at this important time. Nick's company, Dominance Guardian Services provides security protections in retail and other industry sectors. His opinions and thoughts are worthy of contemplation.

As we all personally wrestle with the outbreak of COVID-19 as best possible, we are as retail customers being asked to balance our need to secure basic essentials for our loved ones, with common sense and the greater good of the community.  The growing fear of the unknown, alongside the spread of this virus, is directly impacting the way we live, work and shop.

The unknown, the implied risk and the unease we all share is unavoidably spilling into every retail environment.  Whilst the government calls for calm heads, balanced actions and a community spirit to push through these challenging times, in retail environments we are seeing that these calls for calm are all too often forgotten which then translates to product shortages, raised tempers and disruptive customers. 

These disruptive and sometimes hostile actions are often out of character, but with shortages for essentials such as toilet paper, cleaning products and medical supplies mounting, we are often seeing anger and agitation take over from a customer’s usual good nature.

While customer service is usually the primary focus for every retail business, when working in this current market there is also the potential to deal with hostile and disruptive behaviour. Therefore, developing effective de-escalation techniques to help us better deal with such behaviour, and the ability to respond with composure is vital to brokering safe and successful resolutions with these customers.

The need to address disruptive customer behaviour and de-escalation training have become a hot topic to retailers amidst growing concern over the challenges currently faced by staff in retail stores. This is especially true today with the growing anxiety linked with shutdowns and the looming possibility of “Stage Four” restrictions stirring up panic in some customers.

Anti-social behaviours are not usually intended to hurt others, but can often escalate to behaviours including threats, intimidation, hostility and violence if they are not approached in a proper manner. 

It is important for security staff to understand that our response is often the key to avoiding further escalation of the situation, or even a physical confrontation with someone who has lost control of their behaviour.  Professionalism, a positive attitude and empathy will greatly assist in de-escalating the tension.

Whilst Dealing with Difficult Customer training is far from new, it has taken on greater importance in the current retail environment.  Whether dealing with an angry customer, a shoplifter or fraudulent product return, in-store confrontations escalating to violence have become much too common in our retail stores.

Many retailers are taking steps to respond to these threats, implementing ways to approach these issues, raising awareness and providing de-escalation training.  Having appropriate procedures in place that all staff are aware of before a situation occurs is more likely to be productive than those decisions made when on the receiving end of emotional outbursts.

A few tips to help get through some stressful and even dangerous moments might include:

  • Make sure you pay attention. When we pay attention, people feel important and supported.  By giving your undivided attention you can take away the person’s reason for escalating the situation.
  • Remain calm and professional. While you can’t control the person’s behaviour, how you respond to their behaviour will have a direct impact on their levels of frustration.
  • Practice empathy, even if you don’t agree with the person’s point of view. Showing you understand why they are feeling that way will help resolve the conflict.
  • Respect personal space. Allowing personal space tends to decrease a person’s anxiety. Especially in our current environment.
  • Accept mistakes when made. Acknowledging, accepting and sincerely apologising for mistakes made will make a significant difference.
  • Don’t bully customers in what to do. Being told they are silly, or to calm down often ignites a defensive reaction.
  • Maintain your Customer Service standards. Your positive attitude and professionalism will help defuse the situation.  It’s hard to stay angry at a person who has kept their high standards with them throughout the encounter.   
  • Ask for Focus on the future.Shifting the conversation to the future, can engage all those involved in a problem-solving activity rather than fault-finding. This creates hope for a resolution and a positive outcome to the situation.
  • Escalate the discussion to a senior team member or manager. Sometimes the best option is to remove yourself from the situation if this is an option.  
  • Listening is a powerful tool, it’s sometimes all that is needed is to allow an angry person to vent their anger and frustration to someone who is listening to what they are saying.

Understanding basic de-escalation techniques will help us best deal with disruptive behaviours.   Having these techniques at our disposal will assist in your ability to autonomously organise your thoughts and respond from a position of assurance promoting confidence and safety to customer. 

Adapting to change is difficult at any point in time, but those who manage change with a view to achieving a better outcome for all will find great reward, both personal and professional.  Do your best to keep yourself and others safe in the months ahead, safety should always be your primary objective.