Dealing with Difficult People in a Retail/Sales Environment

For the last seven months I’ve been working as a sales associate specializing in consumer electronics. My job involves talking to people all day long: I greet them, find out what they’re looking for, show them products that meet their criteria, and give them a good deal if they’re ready to buy.

With the amount of people I meet in a day, however, I inevitably encounter a few who are surly, rude or just generally troublesome. Whether they act that way all the time or are just having an unusually bad day is anyone’s guess, but it can only take one unpleasant encounter to put a damper on MY day, too.

I’ll be hard pressed to forget the older gentleman who walked into the store one day and exclaimed “COMBS!” When I told him I didn’t understand what he was talking about, he stared me down in a challenging manner and said “Are you deaf? I’m looking for COMBS!” He then told me I needed to wake up and stormed out of the store. I was baffled, and remained so until I found out that one of the storefronts next door used to be a barber shop. I guess the guy was just frustrated that he couldn’t find his old hangout!

Another unpleasant character I’ll always remember from my time as a trainee was the guy who freaked out when I told him that earbud headphones are final sale only, and cannot be returned after the packaging has been opened. Even after I explained to the man that it would be unhygienic to resell a product that has been in someone’s ears, he still thought he would get his way by yelling “YOU CAN’T TELL ME I CAN’T BRING THESE BACK FOR A REFUND IF I CHANGE MY MIND!” All this needless anger and melodrama, and he hadn’t even purchased the headphones yet! My boss ended up stepping in and helping to calm the guy down.

Another type of difficult person you are bound to encounter when working in customer service or sales (albeit far less frequently than rude people) is the intoxicated individual. I’ve seen three types at work over the last few months: there’s the person who acts more or less normal, but has a strong aroma of liquor hanging around them; next is the person who has bloodshot eyes, is prone to spacing out, and doesn’t seem to fully register everything that is said to them; at the farthest end of the spectrum is the flat-out drunken person who stumbles around and doesn’t even deny being drunk when asked (yes, I’ve had run-ins with this type of person as well).

With the first two groups of people listed above, be as polite as you’d be with anyone else, while at the same time keeping a close eye on them to make sure they don’t steal anything or cause trouble in other ways. In the case of the third category, however, alert your boss as soon as possible—the drunken person will almost definitely be asked to leave the premises.

In customer service jobs, where meeting and greeting dozens or (in some cases) hundreds of people in a day is just part of the daily grind, you’re bound to run into a few people whose company is less than enjoyable. It’s best to be ready for anything, and I suggest asking your boss about the company’s policy for dealing with difficult customers as soon as you’ve started a new job.

Based on the experiences I’ve had so far, I can say with confidence that it gets progressively easier to remain cool and calm in uncomfortable interactions with the public; the idea of “practice makes perfect” applies to nullifying potentially explosive situations as much as it does elsewhere. But if a conversation ever gets more than a little bit heated, don’t hesitate to get your manager or supervisor involved.

On the bright side, it’s important to remember that not everyone is a difficult customer—the majority of the people you’ll encounter throughout the course of a day will be perfectly amiable.

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