Putting the spotlight on customer aggression

customer aggression

Penny Wolff of Wolff Coffee Roasters discusses rising customer aggression during COVID-19 and how to address it.

The old adage goes ‘the customer is always right’ but most people in the service industry will tell you that’s often not the case.

Following two years of lockdowns, restrictions, and mandates, cafés are trying to get back in the swing of things, but many are facing another problem: customer aggression.

Penny Wolff is the Co-founder of Wolff Coffee Roasters.
Penny Wolff is the Co-founder of Wolff Coffee Roasters.

Working in the foodservice industry, customer aggression is something you expect to sometimes deal with. However, it seems that COVID-19 has escalated the number and seriousness of incidents that café workers are experiencing.

We’ve been lucky at Wolff Coffee Roasters to have not seen too many instances of customer aggression over COVID-19, but speaking with many other business owners, it’s become clear it’s a growing problem.

Despite it never being acceptable behaviour, there may be a few reasons for this aggression towards foodservice staff. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened emotions across the community, people are more stressed and on edge than usual. 

Some customers don’t understand or aren’t happy about following mandates we haven’t chosen to put in place but must enforce.

Many businesses across Australia are also struggling to find experienced workers, putting additional pressure on existing employees or having to rely on unexperienced workers. This means longer wait times and less comprehensive service for customers.

But something was telling me there was something deeper influencing customers behaviour. I spoke to a friend of mine Professor Gary Mortimer, an academic at the Queensland University of Technology, he has recently conducted research in consumer behaviour, and he suggested another possible psychological cause for customer aggression during COVID.

Typically, the customer and the service worker take a master-servant relationship. The customer tells the worker what they want, and the worker gets it. Now, when the customer walks in the door, the first thing that happens is the worker telling them to put a mask on or scan a QR code and show proof of vaccination or they won’t be allowed in or given service. This changes the dynamic, putting the worker in the ‘master’ position giving commands, which some customers are struggling to accept, even if they don’t realise that’s why.

So perhaps the notion that ‘the customer is always right’ is something we as a community need to change. If a customer’s food or order is wrong, and they are respectful of the staff they complain to, of course we should try to rectify the situation. But if they are getting aggressive or abusive because they need to check in before they order or the wait times are a little long, we need to call out that behaviour and make it clear it’s unacceptable.

As business owners, we have a responsibility to be proactive about customer aggression. We need to be aware it can occur and take steps to mitigate it. Communication is key. Make sure your employees are aware of what can happen and teach them what to do in that situation. Maybe even think about messaging in your business directed at customers, communicating that aggressive behaviour is not OK.

Earlier in the pandemic we saw some interesting campaigns and actions taken by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) and Woolworth’s to curb customer aggression against retail and fast food workers.

SDA launched its No One Deserves a Serve campaign even before COVID-19 first hit. But it’s a clear message that no one deserves to be abused in the workplace became particularly resonant when people started losing their minds and panic buying toilet paper and anything else they could get their hands on.

A few months into the pandemic, working with No One Deserves a Serve, Woolworths employees started wearing a second tag under their name badge reading phrases like “I’m a mother”, “I’m a daughter”, “I’m a father”, and “I’m a son”. These were to remind customers that the people they are dealing with are just humans like them, trying to do their job.

It’s unfortunate that some customers need to be reminded of that, but perhaps we should try the same thing in our cafés. Even if we’re not literally wearing a second tag, we need to find a way to communicate that we are in fact people that deserve respect and to feel safe in the workplace.

We are fortunate as we run two distinctly different customer-facing businesses. At Wolff Coffee Roasters it’s takeaway focused ‘cellar door’ style coffee shop as you enter the roastery and down the road the sit-down-table service-oriented Dandelion & Driftwood. We get a diverse mix of customers across the two despite being on the same road, and it seems to us that the takeaway focused sees more instances of customer aggression.

Pre-COVID, many café owners and workers could connect with their repeat customers, forming bonds and even friendships that helped cement this idea in customers. Perhaps this is something that has been lost with customers coming and going for takeaway.

For staff either experiencing customer aggression or witnessing it towards a team member, the most important thing is to not escalate the situation – you just don’t know what some people are capable of. 

As difficult as it can be when someone is screaming at you, try to empathise with them, show them you understand their situation and want to make it better. If you’re witnessing abuse against a co-worker, try not to be a bystander. Intervene unless you think it will escalate the problem. Another idea I discussed with Gary is called the spotlight effect. Essentially, people tend to behave themselves more if they feel like they’re being watched or recorded. If a customer is becoming too aggressive, an overt reminder that other people in the café can see how they’re behaving or that a security camera overhead (that may or may not be there) is recording them can take the heat out of the moment. We’ve all seen videos online of people’s unacceptable behaviour, whether it be to service workers or complete strangers in the park or on public transport. Most people wouldn’t want videos of them acting that way going viral.

Another staff member pulling out a phone and recording an abusive customer might escalate the situation, but if you are in the café as a customer and want to intervene, letting the aggressor see you are recording the incident could be an option without putting yourself in danger. This is especially true if multiple customers join in.

For our business Dandelion & Driftwood, we have also used social media to send messages to our following asking them to treat our team with kindness, which at the very least can alert customer to the fact this is a problem that they won’t want to contribute to.

Unfortunately, the internet can also be a tool for customer aggression. Recently, I filmed a short segment with Nine News and the Today Show at Dandelion & Driftwood discussing new COVID-19 mandates in Queensland. An anti-vaxxer saw this segment and posted horrible reviews on Google claiming they were discriminated against and that we’re causing ‘segregation’ – for government mandates we’re forced to abide by. There is little you can do about this form of online aggression and bullying, except try to address it and hope other customers will see through it and request to have it removed.

COVID-19 has been called a reset button, a chance to do over or improve many things we do and tolerate as a society.

As café owners, workers, and customers, we need to collectively agree that the customer is not always right, and make it clear that aggression towards the people behind our wonderful coffee industry will not be tolerated. Kindness in every cup please.

For more information, visit wolffcoffeeroasters.com.au

This article appears in the February 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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