Physical Security

The Hostile Customer: Assessing the Risk to Your Organization

March 1, 2011
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When we think of security in the retail environment, we traditionally tend to picture shoplifting, credit card fraud, check fraud, identity theft and employee theft. But how often do you, as a security professional, or your retail team, consider the potential security and liability risk of hostile customers?

Any reasonably sized retail company should have a standardized procedure for reporting hostile customer incidents to its internal security departments. Prompt reporting of hostile customer events increases security awareness and safety among your employees as well as your patrons. Additionally, ongoing training of employees in effective customer service skills can potentially and proactively reduce a great number of hostile customers. But in situations of intolerable customers whose human nature is to be aggressive and disruptive, employees should be aware of what actions to take to mitigate any disruption to the business and maintain a safe environment for themselves as well as patrons.

 

What Is a Hostile Customer?

What constitutes a hostile customer? This is a broad question with a multitude of answers ranging from customers who call in a bomb threat to customers who engage in physical violence, yelling, cursing or stalking; vandalism and at times, even unwanted sexual advances toward an employee. Therefore, it is fair to say that each hostile customer case is different, deserving of differing levels of scrutiny by the management, security and/or legal team.

Imagine a situation in which a certain customer comes into the store and, after being dissatisfied with the service he receives, threatens a sales representative by pointing his finger forcefully at him and stating, “I’m gonna get you,” then leaving the store.

Is this situation over? Should there be a concern of any future potential retaliation?

To answer this, a number of factors and questions come into play. For instance, what did the customer mean when he made that threat? Did he simply mean that he would report the employee to the corporate office, or was the statement truly intended as a threat, in which the customer’s true intention was to commit a future act of physical violence? Does the customer have prior history of verbal attacks or threatening actions against employees? Does the customer have a violent criminal history? These are all questions that can be asked of this incident but will go unanswered unless properly investigated or scrutinized.

From a retail perspective, one might think that an incident such as this is commonplace and simply comes with the territory of being a retail employee. Quite the contrary because any and every incident such as this should be immediately reported to a manager. However, if a threat is made of physical violence or a strong implication of violence, then the matter should be escalated to the company’s security and/or legal department for additional screening and action. In truly serious incidents, there should never be any hesitation in contacting 911 and then following up with a security incident report.

Care should be taken prior to instituting any policy of reporting hostile incidents to prevent matters of incident over-reporting. Any corporate security or loss prevention department would not want an abundance of frivolous incidents in which employees begin to complain about every situation involving angry or just rude customers but without threats or potential acts of violence. Instead, outline specific indisputable guidelines as to how and when employees are required to report hostile incidents.

 

Handling Hostile Customers

When the appropriate hostile customer cases begin to be reported, here are the recommended steps or phases to take.

Step one. First, attempt to identify the customer. If that is successful, corporate security or the loss prevention (LP) team should then initially interview the employee who received the threat either by phone or in person. The victimized employee should also write a brief statement or e-mail statement about what transpired. Any other employees who may have witnessed or heard the threat should be interviewed as well.

If the customer cannot be identified, then other options may be employed, such as filing a police report, as well as advising and warning all employees in the store about the incident. By advising staff of the incident, you increase everyone’s awareness level if the customer returns. Consideration should also be afforded with providing escorts for the employee to his vehicle at the end of their shift. All of these options could and should be employed even when a customer has been identified.

Guard services. In more serious situations, consider employing and dispatching a uniformed security guard to the retail location on a temporary basis. Depending on the circumstances (such as high crime area, nature and severity of threat or the level of hostility displayed by the customer), contracting an armed guard should not be discounted.

Advantages to employing guard services include showing your employees that the company is concerned for their safety and welfare, providing a level of deterrence and mitigating liability faced from a potential lawsuit filed by either your employee or another patron for negligence. In other words, some level of action is far better than no action.

Be aware of possible resistance from some departments. In some parts of the country, an armed guard could be perceived as an unwanted level of awareness to your client base. This perception or concern is understood, yet a review of company priorities might solve that problem. Consider conducting a cost analysis of hiring an armed guard for your company versus the costs from the probability of a lawsuit. Then ask your management team if the act of inaction and the potential legal ramifications that come with it outweigh the perception that future business may be diverted from the presence of an armed guard.

If your company’s culture is indifferent to the concept of security, that should still not present a problem. As long as you undertake the necessary precautions for your own department and document your suggestions, you have acted properly.

Step two. During the course of the investigation and after interviewing any and all employees involved in the incident, if the customer is identified, he or she should be notified by phone by a security investigator or LP staff member. However, prior to doing so, conduct a preliminary review of the customer’s account remarks (if your organization maintains such computerized account remarks) to determine if any incidents occurred in the past. In addition, upon establishing the identity and address of the customer, a preliminary threat assessment can be conducted by checking websites such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Department of State Corrections and the registered state sex offenders website in the state where that customer resides.

When making contact with the customer, remember that the purpose is twofold. The initial message should be that contact is being made to determine the facts behind the case, which ultimately will lead to some type of disposition. The customer should also be aware that his or her actions have resulted in a company response that is designed to protect the employee as well as the customer and other patrons. At the same time, the caller should maintain an air of professionalism and civility. The line of questioning should be objective and conducted in a fact-finding manner, and the customer should be tactfully advised that his or her behavior was unacceptable.

Step three. The investigative findings, along with a brief investigative report, must by relayed to the customer service department or the legal department. A decision should be made by one or both departments to advise the customer in writing that he or she is formally warned about future acts of behavior that could have potential legal consequences, banned from that particular store, banned from any store your company operates or have an account terminated.

It is important that follow through with this step be initiated to send the customer a message that negative and disruptive behavior in a business environment will not be tolerated. This written notification is also for liability reasons—if another incident occurs, the company can show the appropriate actions that were taken.

 

Employee Training on Hostile Behaviors

Hostile customer relations must be proactively handled through more effective training of employees. Remember that customers as well as employees have bad days, and every situation has always two sides to each story. Therefore, there are times when customer hostility can be spurned or escalated by employee behavior.

It is important to coordinate with customer service and the management channel to provide training on how to diffuse a hostile situation. Employees should also be trained about how their own negative attitudes can further hostile and potentially violent actions. Not only is this good business practice, it reminds employees of the importance of treating customers in a professional and courteous manner at all times.

Although the old adage states, “the customer is always right,” when it comes to hostile behavior and the safety of employees and fellow patrons, the customer is not always right – safety is.  

 

About the Author:

Bruno Pavlicek is a senior corporate security investigator with Verizon Wireless, where he conducts investigations concerning theft, fraud, ethics and compliance violations. He was previously a municipal police officer and detective in New Jersey. Reach him at email bpcfe@yahoo.com.

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