We can all agree, I think, that running a business offers at least one new challenge daily. If you sat down and listed all the situations, conversations, and questions that you must handle in just one week, the list would be extensive indeed.
With all these challenges comes the necessity of managing emotions—your own, our associates, and our customers. Both our employees and customers operate at different levels of emotional control. When emotions like confusion, concern, or even anger are put into the mix, well, now we can have a difficult situation on our hands.
At American Eagle Outfitters, we found our employees were looking for a way to engage with upset or agitated customers and coworkers professionally. We knew there was a need based on the high number of calls we received through our Global Security Operations Center (GSOC). These calls had moved from low-level guest confusion to intense, escalated conflicts. As a result, we wanted to put together more formalized training that was rudimentary and easy to understand. As a department, we always try to connect our in-store training back to the sales culture, and with this thought process, we created our homegrown, store-based de-escalation training using our “Engage, Discover, Share” model.
Approach in a Supportive Posture
When solving a problem, whatever it may be, it is essential to remember that someone is upset. And whether rooted in fact or fiction, it is our job to find out precisely what is causing the concern—our approach to an individual is crucial in helping to de-escalate a situation.
One of the most significant disadvantages we have is that we cannot see our posture, so we have to be cognizant of our body language when approaching someone who is not pleased with the way things are going. Be aware of your pace of approach; we do not want to rush over in a manner that shows aggression, but we also don’t want to make it seem like we will arrive when it’s convenient for us. Are we approaching with intentionality, where this individual or group feels like we are coming to help and not argue or dispute? And what do our facial expressions or body language look like? Do we appear supportive and concerned, or do we look like it is a burden for us to assist?
Next, introduce yourself—it seems simple, but if this person does not know who you are, you should say, “Hi, my name is Errol, and I’m the manager on duty.” This is super simple, but highly effective.
Show support by letting your staff know that you are working with a guest or another employee. They will be given your full attention for a while, and questions or concerns should be directed to another staff member until you are finished. This action tells the individual that they now have your complete and undivided attention.
Ask for the person’s name and try to find a place in the store away from other guests or busy activities to provide a level of privacy. Places like the fitting room area or wrap desk are busy and could lead to an awkward exchange.
Don’t Be Defensive, Be Focused
One of the more difficult aspects of a conversation regarding how our stores run is that we take things personally. For example, if someone criticizes the speed with which we turn guests through the register, we may feel that we have a very efficient process, so how could someone possibly feel the opposite? It makes sense until we put ourselves in their shoes—they may have had a different experience at another business, and even though it operates differently from ours, they see it as the same.
Emotion drives so much of what we do—we need to take this out of the conversation (at least for the time being). Ask the person what it is that is upsetting them and then actively listen. At its core, active listening focuses entirely on the person speaking and shows them that we are engaged and invested in what they are saying. What is it they are trying to get across? People want to be heard and feel they are being understood.
Some businesses use headsets or radios to communicate with staff. One way to stay focused on the conversation and show active listening would be to turn the radio off, remove the earpiece, and put them aside for the time being. After hearing the concerns, it is essential to paraphrase back what it is that you heard. This mirroring ensures clarity in the conversation and reinforces that you have stayed engaged in the conversation and have a clear understanding of their concerns. Remember to be mindful of your tone of voice, as this can sway the outcome of the conversation.
Offer Solutions You Can Do
Once you have heard their concerns, actively listened, and reinstated what the circumstances are, you now have the opportunity to share some options. An upset customer doesn’t want to hear about your corporate policy or what you can’t do—they want to know what you can do.
In some situations, the outcome can be quickly handled in-store and at the time of the conversation. In other cases, a business partner may be needed to create viable options. There may be multiple solutions to the concern as well. Giving the individual the ability to choose or acknowledge their options puts the ball in their court and shows that you will let them be part of the outcome.
The assisting employee should see the process through to completion. For example, if it requires an additional POS transaction, they should cashier the transaction (if able) and not pass it off to another employee. If the concern requires reaching out to a district- or regional-level employee and the solution cannot be completed at that moment, that same employee should be the one to follow up and communicate with the guest.
When Solutions Provided Are Rejected
Unfortunately, sometimes our options will not satisfy our guests, and they respond with increased aggression, disruption, or even violent behavior. At this point, we empower our employees to involve whatever onsite support they would need, whether that’s a call to the district leader, the company security operations center, shopping center security, or in extreme cases, the local authorities.
Our training emphasizes that in no way should our employees be subject to threats or unacceptable behavior. Our employees are empowered to back out of the conversation and safely close the discussion when this happens. We want our associates to feel confident and act quickly and professionally when dealing with guest concerns. This training has proven to support that message.
The deployment of the material easily fits into our current service model of learning and development. We connect with store associates and field leaders through structured regional and district-wide workshops, corporate conferences, and web-based platforms. In addition, we continue to hindsight occurrences as they are reported and evaluate our model to provide the most up-to-date de-escalation training possible.
Errol Erkan is senior manager of commercial asset protection at American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He began his career at AEO in 2005 as a store manager before moving into loss prevention in 2007, where he has steadily earned increased responsibility in the asset protection organization.