Dealing with a frustrated, annoyed or otherwise difficult customer is practically inevitable, no matter what the job. Ideally, your child’s workplace will cover its best practices and policies during training, to guide and protect its employees—but the training may also be rushed or incomplete. Learn why young people may face some particular challenges and discover some de-escalation techniques recommended by workplace health and safety professionals.

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Why young workers may struggle with difficult customers

Teens and young adults in their first jobs are often customer-facing, with lots of interaction with the public. While all kids are different of course, some young people may lack confidence (or be over-confident), speak quietly or hesitantly, or be reluctant about approaching a potentially difficult customer, which can all inadvertently make a situation more challenging. Or, they may not want to ask for help with a difficult customer. “One of the biggest things with teenagers is fear of losing their job or doing something ‘wrong,’” says Meron Samuel, a workplace health and safety professional. “They don’t want to get in trouble with their boss, or have the customer complain to the boss.”

Help your kid recognize early warning signs and know how to respond

One of the best ways to de-escalate a situation is to recognize it early on. Signs of a moderately upset customer include:

  • Fidgeting 
  • Tapping on a table or counter 
  • Pacing 
  • Crossed arms 
  • Rude language 

Some techniques to try in this situation: 

  • Be proactive: Go to the customer and ask how you can help, but maintain a safe distance.
  • Be respectful: Speak calmly.
  • Be empathetic: For example, say “I can see you’re upset.”
  • Let the customer speak: Listen more than you talk.
  • Acknowledge the problem: For example, say “I’m sorry this happened. We want to provide you with good service.”
  •  Ask for ideas to solve the problem.

Walking your teen through the situation

An unhappy customer is usually feeling frustrated, helpless, fearful, angry or overwhelmed. Remaining calm, avoiding a confrontational approach and focusing on what the customer really wants—to be heard, seen, recognized and acknowledged—will go a long way to remedying what’s wrong. To prepare for this, role playing can help, so your child has phrases and approaches to fall back on, rather than freezing in the moment. “Like anything else, you get better at it when you go over different situations and different ways that you can solve it beforehand,” says Meron. “You build empathy for the other person’s situation and potentially figure out what’s going on in their mind that would make them react that way.”

If your child isn’t a “theatre kid” and balks at the acting part, try a debate, she suggests, where they have to advocate from the customer’s point of view. “It gives them more of a chance to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, because now they are on their side, and they have to prove why they’re acting like that.”

Ensure your child knows their rights

By law, employers are required to have a safety plan to protect employees from violence and harassment. There are some essential elements your teen’s employer should include:

  • Management commitment. Accepting abuse is not part of the job, and employees need to know that employers support them.
  • Risk assessment. High-risk jobs, situations and tasks should be identified by the employer.
  • De-escalation training. Front-line workers should have de-escalation training, with opportunities to practice the skills so they’re ready for a real-life event.
  • Where to get immediate assistance. Assistance includes a manager or security staff. Your teen should have more than one contact in case someone is not available.
  • A safe room or area. This is a place where staff can quickly go to get away from a dangerous situation.
  • Procedures in place. There should be a way to report incidents and debrief.

Helping your child after an incident

If your child hasn’t often had, say, a cranky coach or an irritated older sibling yell at them or behave in a “mean” way, dealing with some lower-level hostility in the workplace may be pretty upsetting. Before they start their job, it may be useful to have a conversation where you tell your child that there may be customers who yell or behave in hostile ways, but that doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean that it’s your child’s fault, says Meron.

If your child comes home upset about an unsettling encounter, “the most important thing is listening and giving them that opportunity to talk about it,” she says. “Often, they don’t necessarily want you to solve what happened, but just to listen and to validate: ‘It sounds like you did the best that you could and it sounds like you really tried hard to navigate the situation.’ Point out the things that they did well to help build up their competence.