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A customer whisperer has tips on how to defuse a patron before they explode


Some customers in restaurants and on planes are getting really unruly over COVID-19 precautions. Can these conflicts be defused before they spiral out of control? Stacey Vanek Smith and Adrian Ma from our Indicator podcast asked a customer whisperer.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Every day it seems a new video of a customer flipping out goes viral.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The second he said something, I pulled it over my nose. [Expletive].

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: And that, of course, is really hard on employees. And it can even push people to quit their jobs. Of course, there have been a record number of people quitting their jobs in the last few months. And that can put companies in this really difficult bind.

MA: Yeah. And this has become a huge problem in retail and restaurants and even airlines. And that's where customer whisperer David Brownlee comes in. Brownlee runs a company called the Brownlee Group, helping businesses train their employees in customer service. And he says few businesses were prepared to deal with the type of angry customers they're seeing now.

DAVID BROWNLEE: I don't think anybody was prepared for what happened, you know? People are more aggressive than they've been in the past, which leads to more violence and more confrontations.

VANEK SMITH: David says he's seen a big increase in demand for his services in the past couple years, as companies are seeing more and more abusive customers, many angry about COVID-related rules. And so David has a special protocol that he's developed for them.

MA: Right. And to ground his advice a little, he says, imagine this scenario. You're a flight attendant. You're on a plane. And you see a customer not wearing their mask.

BROWNLEE: Hey, I don't want to wear the mask. I'm not going to wear the mask. Where do you go from there?

MA: Hard as it may be, David's first piece of advice - listen with empathy.

VANEK SMITH: And David recommends that workers then ask the angry customer a question.

BROWNLEE: So what seems to be the problem with the mask? And they're going to tell you. And they might say it's health or it might be what I believe or I don't think I need to wear the mask.

MA: So let them vent a little and explain where they're coming from. And then, he says, try to turn the conversation in a positive direction.

BROWNLEE: This is, like, the ninja line. You say this simple line. I wish I could. What I can do for you is...

VANEK SMITH: And David says, the vast majority of the time, these tactics work. They will defuse a situation, but not always. Sometimes situations will just escalate. People can start yelling or even get physical. And David says, when that happens, he advises companies and employees to just hit the eject button.

BROWNLEE: You want to walk away. You want to grab a manager or grab security. And it's crazy that we're talking about that in a customer service position. But this is the reality that we live in right now.

VANEK SMITH: David says for companies, though, prevention is always much easier than damage control. So he is recommending that businesses be really proactive - they put signs outside saying masks required, they announce things on social media so that customers aren't surprised. And he even recommends that, in certain cases, companies ban problem customers.

MA: Yeah. I mean, that's what airlines have been doing, which, you know - what a shame - makes me think that - I think David forgot one piece of advice, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah? What?

MA: That is to make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes.

VANEK SMITH: Wait, comfortable shoes - why?

MA: 'Cause you're going to have to take the high road a lot.


MA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Oh, oh, that's so bad, Adrian.


MA: Adrian Ma.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOHKOV'S "SOLID STATE DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.