Conflict De-Escalation Tactics During COVID-19 Restrictions

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and more businesses are reopening, masks and other restrictions may still be enforced.

The employees are often in charge of enforcing such mandates which, unfortunately, is not always easy. While certain individuals will comply, others may fight back, resulting in a verbal or physical confrontation.

Consider these conflict prevention strategies to de-escalate the situation, while keeping your employees and customers safe.

Basics for Conflict De-Escalation

The foundation for all conflict prevention strategies is as follows:

  1. Identify when a customer is in a state of crisis, through verbal and non-verbal signals
  2. Understand how to prevent the crisis from escalating
  3. Ensure other customers and employees remain safe
  4. Seek help when the conflict cannot be controlled

Whether in a retail store, restaurant or airport, listening and communication can decrease violent incidents and lessen the use of force to control a situation. To get started, be mindful of the following.

What Does Escalation Look Like?

Not everyone who’s angry shouts or gets physically violent. Instead, a conflict may arise when a customer displays a combination of the following body language signals:

  • A clenched jaw
  • Tightened fists
  • A sharp change of verbal tone and eye contact
  • Pacing or obvious fidgeting
  • Sticking one’s chest out
  • Using their arms to gesture wildly

In general, customers who are becoming increasingly frustrated have a higher likelihood of defying authority, will yell or attempt to intimidate others.

How to Approach an Aggressive or Noncompliant Customer

Whether you notice these body language signs or the customer has started to yell:

  • Never approach an aggressive customer when you’re hot-headed yourself. Remain calm as you address their behavior, rather than escalating the situation further.
  • Take a deep breath before interacting with the individual.
  • Speak in a deeper, more steady tone of voice.
  • Try to remain neutral and stoic, even if the customer begins to insult you.
  • Remain aware of your surroundings, including objects in the room and others nearby. Avoid making the customer feel trapped.
  • Maintain a neutral facial expression and keep your hands in front of your body.
  • Watch your arms. Keep them at your side and avoid pointing and fidgeting.
  • Throughout the interaction, remain at least 12 feet away from the customer.

Along with body language, employ a degree of empathy about the stressful time we’re all living in. Attempt to create a connection with the customer to dissipate feelings of fear or annoyance. In this vein, you can:

  • Ask the customer questions, especially open-ended ones
  • Actively listen to their concerns, even if you don’t agree
  • Acknowledge their feelings without implying judgement
  • Provide clarification regarding any questions
  • Get them talking about their feelings and ask for their ideas

Especially in today’s climate, you may run into more specific scenarios:

  • A customer claims to have a medical exemption to the mask mandate. Your business policy and response should start from your municipality or state’s guidance and include a clear plan of action within your organization. Make sure all staff are informed about these requirements and know how to respond in these situations.
  • Customers don’t or refuse to read in-store signage. Listen to feedback from your customers. If you notice a consistent theme, you may need to update your signage strategy. Think about clarity, consistency and how frequently you reiterate that message. The same message should be used in-store and online to avoid confusion.
  • What if de-escalation tactics don’t have the desired effect? If a guest refuses to calm down and won’t leave the premises, make sure your staff members know to call security or the local police, depending on the customer’s behavior.

Have an Internal Plan for Addressing Customers

Communication is key for effective customer de-escalation. To carry out these tactics in an efficient manner:

  • Make sure your employees understand the importance of wearing a mask and all other COVID-19 safety protocols for your organization and state or town. Employees who refuse to follow such policies need to be given a warning or sent home.
  • Be sure to train all staff on customer de-escalation techniques and continue to reinforce these methods on the job. Reassure them that in such a situation, their supervisor or management will offer assistance.
  • Make sure your mask and COVID-19 safety policies align with your premises. For instance, if you’re emphasizing outdoor seating or limited indoor capacity, have a clear explanation for customers and prepare your employees to enforce these rules.
  • Have a working relationship with law enforcement, emergency responders and a clear plan of action for calling internal security or the police, should you not be able to manage the situation.

For more tips, watch HUB International’s recorded webinar “Creating a Safe Space for Customers and Employees: Conflict De-escalation Amid COVID-19 Restrictions”.

Should a conflict get out of hand, make sure your business has adequate insurance for the aftermath. To discuss commercial coverage, contact a HUB/Ion Insurance agent today.