They Did What? Coping With Customers Who Behave Badly

Your company will benefit when you carefully steer customers and clients toward actions that help you provide better service.

They Did What? Coping With Customers Who Behave Badly

Polite Notice: When it’s your turn, if you are talking on your cellphone, we will help the next customer.

If you make a mess on the kitchen counter, wipe it up. If you use a dish, clean it. If the dishwasher is full of clean dishes, empty it.

If you drink the last cup of coffee, make a new pot. Your mother doesn’t live here.

While somewhat funny, each of those notices is a cry for help from service staff exasperated by their customers’ impolite behavior.

If you pay attention, you can see breaches in etiquette everywhere you look. For example, anyone who has ever watched people at a hotel’s breakfast buffet load up their bags with enough calories to fuel a football team has witnessed a classic guest etiquette fail. While normal customers are enjoying a bowl of cereal or a pancake, those “other” people are squirreling away yogurt, bagels, bananas, sausage and anything else they can get their hands on.

No doubt, the hotel staff shake their heads in disbelief each and every morning they encounter such a scene, but short of a bag search at the buffet’s exit, is there anything that can be done to change customer behavior? Fortunately, yes.

As providers trying to deliver a great experience to customers, businesses need to identify what they want and don’t want their customers to do, and pinpoint what people and processes they can put in place to realize the desired results.


Step One – Audit

Experience your business from your customer’s vantage point. You need to understand what happens to them before you can encourage or discourage behaviors.


Step Two – Encourage What You Do Want

Next, identify the actions you want your customers and end users to take, and put people and processes in place to encourage those behaviors. For example, if you want clean aisles, look at your displays. Are they designed well, or are they precarious towers ready to topple and scatter when someone takes one item off the pile?

What about your employees? Do you train your staff to continually clean up displays — even if “housekeeper” isn’t part of their official title? Do you model good behavior yourself?


Step Three – Invite Customers to Participate in the Process

Like anyone else, most customers are more willing to help you reach your service goals if you remind them of the mutual benefit of lending a hand. Let folks know what they can do to aid the common cause and make it easy for them to do it. Consider those sloppy displays with product spilled all over. Is there a sign of some sort explaining the desired state and what customers should do if they encounter something different?

Something such as, “We make every effort to keep our aisles and displays clean and neat. If they or some other aspect of this store is in need of servicing, please tell any of our employees or call us so we can make it right. Many thanks!” could make a big difference.

Such a notice makes clear your commitment to customer service, and it suggests an easy way for customers to take action and help you make good on that commitment.


Step Four – Discourage What You Don’t Want

Beyond communicating your desired end (for example, tidy aisles and displays) and encouraging customers to participate in achieving it, you need to ensure that you and your staff are not working against yourselves by inadvertent enablement. Make it simple to keep displays tidy by arranging product in a way that it’s easily accessible, and don’t overcrowd the tables or shelf space such that customers have to move things around to get to what they want. That isn’t rocket science, but it might require close management and frequent correction for a couple of weeks until a new practice becomes a matter of routine. 


Step Five – Create Alternatives

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, customers continue to behave in ways you don’t like. While it’s not always possible to creatively accommodate these people, often it is.

Consider the problem of abandoned shopping carts in a big-box store’s parking lot. Those unmanned vehicles tie up spaces that would otherwise be available, they’re potentially dangerous, and they make the outside of the store look uncared for. To solve the problem, a business might first liberally place cart return areas throughout its lot and send an associate outside several times an hour to gather any strays. The company might also post signs asking people to bring carts to the store as they arrive for shopping.

If those actions don’t have the desired impact, the company might adopt a rental cart system where customers deposit a quarter to access a cart and get their quarter back upon the cart’s return. While some people will forgo the quarter for convenience, others will gladly police the lot to retrieve a free 25 cents.

Whatever the solution, it should never berate customers or accuse them. Instead, keep the message positive. Here’s an example in a hotel setting — “Due to the popularity of many of our room items, housekeeping now sells alarm clocks, sheets, towels, lamps and other merchandise found in your suite. If you wish to purchase something, please contact the front desk or simply take the item home with you. We’ll gladly charge the credit card we have on file. Enjoy your stay, and let us know if we can be of service to you.”

The message is clear. The hotel does not intend for guests to own the items they’re using, but if they want to do so, they can certainly be accommodated.

Left up to chance, you get what you get from customers, but with an understanding of your customers’ experience and deliberate choices, you can influence how people behave. 

Kate Zabriskie develops customer service strategies and training programs as president of Maryland-based Business Training Works. For more information, visit


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