Managing Disruptive Behaviors in Retail in Response to COVID-19

De-escalation tips for retail professionals in light of the high tensions that come with the current pandemic

In today’s volatile environment, retail customers are being asked to balance uncertainty, concern, safety, and common sense with the need to secure the products we need and provide for our families. All of us are facing the inevitability of a nation in transition and the unsettling reality of an unknown outcome. Short-term anxieties and long-term consequences are top of mind across a worldwide audience as we manage through the current pandemic. We now live in a world that is truly interactive, and the poor habits and foolish decisions made halfway around the world in Wuhan, China are directly impacting the way we live and work today—and right now.

This is a time for all of us to be sensible and smart in our decision making. Leaders must stand tall, and all of us must move forward with open minds and balanced actions. Veiled by the questions that come with COVID-19 and the potential risk that’s implied, there remains an unease that all of us share, and that unavoidably spills into the retail setting. While there remains an expectation of service and selection, frustrations can mount when that unease is coupled with product shortages, customer competition, and other outside influences. It’s during these times that we must act with composure, reason, and responsibility, working together with a positive attitude and a common mission.

However, in these situations there are those that can mistake the virtues of caution with the trappings of urgency, making poor decisions or acting out of character under the duress that comes with these uncertain times. Tensions can mount, with customers fighting over ordinary staples like cleansing wipes and toilet paper, or voicing their frustration over long lines and products in short supply. Reason gives way to agitation and anger, ending with outcomes that none of us wants, needs, or expects.

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Addressing disruptive customer behavior and de-escalation training efforts have become a topic of great interest to retailers amidst growing concern over the challenges and opportunities for safety in retail stores. This is especially true today in light of our current global circumstances.

While customer service may be the prominent message for every retail business, when working in retail there is always the potential to deal with angry, hostile, or other non-compliant behavior on any given day. Learning effective de-escalation techniques that can help us better deal with such disruptive behaviors—learning to effectively organize our thoughts, and responding with composure—therefore becomes essential to safe and successful resolutions.

Disruptive behaviors are any behaviors intended to cause harm to others, whether it’s trying to hurt someone, trying to assert one’s will through comments or actions, trying to make others feel inferior, or even something like trying to damage another’s reputation.

This may begin with demeaning or rude language, which can include things like insults, name-calling, and accusations of wrong-doing and can be very common in the retail environment where we spend a lot of time working with people. However, it can also quickly escalate to behaviors like intimidation and threats, and in some cases violence.

Learning How to Respond

In such situations, 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 behavior. A professional learns to place the behavior in the proper context, maintaining an unbiased and positive attitude at all times. De-escalation is the reduction in the size, scope, or intensity of a conflict. This may involve directing behavior away from intense animosity, or toward increased cooperation.

While de-escalation training concepts are far from new, they have taken on greater meaning in today’s retail environment. Whether pertaining to a customer return at the store service desk or a shoplifter apprehension by a loss prevention/asset protection team member, business disruptions from angry customers, in-store confrontations, violence, and even active shooter incidents and deadly force have become much too common in our stores, and companies are taking the steps to respond.

The key then becomes finding the best and most appropriate ways to respond; raising awareness and providing de-escalation training strategies, information, and training opportunities that best serve our needs and support a safe environment.

De-escalation Tips

Having an effective strategy in place 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:

Listen. Listening is a powerful tool, and sometimes all that is needed is to allow an angry person to vent their anger and frustration to someone who is actually listening to what they are saying.

Give them your undivided attention. When we pay attention, people feel validated and important. By really listening we can take away the person’s reason for escalating the situation.

Avoid overreacting. Remain calm, confident, rational, and professional. While you can’t control the person’s behavior, how you respond to their behavior will have a direct impact on whether the situation escalates or defuses.

Show empathy. Empathy needs to be shown during conflict situations. Even if you do not agree with the person’s position, expressing an understanding why that person feels a particular way will help resolve the conflict.

Control your tone and body language. Be mindful of your gestures, facial expressions, movements, and tone of voice. Respect personal space. Allowing personal space tends to decrease a person’s anxiety.

Apologize when appropriate. Accepting responsibility and sincerely apologizing for anything in the situation that is believed to be unjust can make a significant difference.

Don’t use clichés. The worst of these being, “Calm down.” If you have ever said those words during a verbal conflict, you will quickly realize that the typical response will not meet your desired intent.

Consistency in courtesy. Remember that we are providing an impression of the company, and as such we must maintain the position of a positive brand ambassador and consummate professional.

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.

Recognize and accept personal limits. Understand that it’s not always easy to solve problems alone. Sometimes the most professional decision is to ask for help or let someone else take over, if that’s an option.

Keep yourself and others safe. This should always remain our primary objective.

Nothing is more important than the safety of our associates, our management teams, and every retail customer. Understanding basic de-escalation techniques that can help us better deal with such disruptive behaviors—having the ability to effectively organize our thoughts and respond from a position of strength—is essential to safer and more successful interactions, improves customer service, promotes safety, and strengthens brands.


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