Outside Business Journal

A New Training Program for Dealing with Belligerent Customers

Mask requirements and other coronavirus rules have caused some distressing confrontations between retail employees and customers recently. A new training tool can help.


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It started with a simple request—a routine safety measure.

Last month, a customer tried to enter Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont, to do some shopping. A few minutes later, he was grabbing the OGE employee’s throat and wrestling him to the ground. The police were called to pull him off.

As reported by the Burlington Free Press, the incident that took place on September 13 was the result of a COVID screening request by a door greeter. The customer in question, Burlington resident Bill Atkinson, refused to comply with OGE’s policy for screening shoppers before they enter the store.

“This man wanted to come in and was told he couldn’t because he wouldn’t answer our screening questions appropriately,” OGE owner Marc Sherman told OBJ. “When he tried to go in the store anyway, our staff member got in the way. He put his hands around the employee’s neck, and they ended up on the ground. The customer ended up getting charged with assault.”

Since the pandemic began, retailers across the country have seen a spike in incidents like this one. So much so, in fact, that the Crisis Prevention Institute in Milwaukee, which has trained professionals in workplace violence prevention since 1980, launched a specific set of tools last week for dealing with coronavirus-related confrontations in retail settings. Created in partnership with the National Retail Federation Foundation, the trainings are designed specifically for some of the common challenges retailers face, like mask requirements and occupancy limits.

“COVID-19 anxiety continues to rise in businesses and elsewhere across the United States,” said Susan Driscoll, president of CPI. “Overall tensions are a frequent concern for essential workers who are faced with activating and managing mask mandates, while also trying to keep the peace among customers.”

CPI’s new program, available to retailers for $15, focuses on “identifying the stages of someone in crisis, strategies to prevent a crisis, verbal de-escalation skills, and other techniques to keep employees and customers safe,” the organization said.

“We train retail workers how to recognize the stages of the crisis, because there are always distinct stages,” said Driscoll. “The ultimate goal is to engage your rational brain over your emotional brain.”

The landscape for retailers continue to change rapidly, Driscoll says, with new challenges cropping up every day. The best way to ensure employee and customer safety across the board is to prevent confrontations before they happen. This new tool is one way to make sure everyone is prepared, should a dangerous situation arise.

“In a year that has been full of uncertainty, customers and employees want to feel safe shopping at stores,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. “Retailers are doing everything in their power to ensure safety in their stores, and this training will equip employees with the tools to confidently mitigate conflicts.”

The training, presented as a self-paced, 70-minute online course, is available through the National Retail Federation Foundation’s website.