Taming the problem patron: the Customer Whisperer

November 16, 2021
Clyde Mooney

Hospitality businesses around Australia and around the world are reporting challenges dealing with pandemic-fatigued customers, and staff need to know what to do with them.

The environment of customer service has changed for a lot of workers since hospitality and retail reopened.

Many employees have been confronted with customers losing patience in stores and venues, putting additional pressure on what is often an already stressful job, which can drive some to leave.

Key to maintaining harmony and staff is diffusing customers before they explode.

David Brownlee – aka ‘The Customer Whisperer’ – is CEO of Brownlee Group, and having worked the issue his whole life is considered one of the world’s experts on training and management in customer service.

Brownlee says businesses, employers and workers were not prepared for the current onslaught of customer anxiety, which has led to more confrontations.

He has developed a special protocol to deal with customers – particularly in times of COVID restrictions.

1. Listen with empathy.

Difficult customers will always exist. How you deal with them determines whether it escalates or not. Start by asking “What’s the problem?”

2. The worker should hear the person out and show they understand.

Try saying “I understand where you’re coming from …” – this is neutral, not admitting they are right or what they are asking is ok, or that you believe it.

Brownlee suggests sometimes customers just want to vent, so let them vent a little.

3. Try to turn the conversation in a positive direction.

If you can’t accommodate their request, say “I wish I could … what I can do for you is …” – for example, offer them a new table or complimentary item, where applicable.

This approach often works because it is not a total shutdown, and demonstrates you care about the customer.

4. If the customer tries to make the matter political or about opinions (for example: a requirement to be vaccinated or wear a mask):

Workers must not take the bait. Always avoid politics and religion.

Instead of engaging, they could say “I’ll consider that this week, but is there anything else I can help you with?”

Should the customer keep pushing, say “I’m not at liberty to discuss that at work, but is there anything else I can do for you?”

Most important here is that the employee does not engage with what they are pushing.

5. If a customer is still objecting or gets physical, an employees should “hit eject” and excuse themselves, walk away and a grab manager or security.

Brownlee also suggests prevention is always better than damage control. To this end businesses should: 

  • Put signs outside specifying any regulations and requirements (vaccination, masks, capacity numbers etc) – even if they are government rules, not the venue’s own 
  • Also put the rules on social media, to avoid surprises at the door 
  • If a problem reoccurs with a specific person, it is often best to ban that customer for a period, to demonstrate there are consequences 

This article is adapted from an episode of Planet Money’s The Indicator: Rage against the customer service worker.


Brownlee Group, Customer service

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