Customers are the lifeblood of business—they are the reason we are able to post revenues and provide jobs for our employees. Without them we would be out of business. Keeping them happy and coming back is a priority. Many of us have been taught to always give the customer the benefit of the doubt when problems arise and to do whatever it takes to resolve the problem in the customer’s favor. 

But is the customer always right? Many of us have also observed customers whose dysfunctional, thoughtless or abusive behavior caused problems for our businesses. Misbehavior is typically defined as actions by customers who take advantage of the situation to violate accepted norms and practices. 

In my experience, jobs such as telephone customer service, customer support and specialized customer support such as tracking lost shipments, by their nature, present opportunities for customers to engage in negative conduct. There are five types of customers whose behavior is cause for concern. 

  • The verbal abuser behaves in an offensive and disrespectful manner toward employees, regardless of the situation or perceived slight. In layman’s terms, these customers might be regarded as ones who are just looking for a fight.
  • The blamer is an individual who will always put the blame on someone else—your business, for example—and will never accept responsibility for their role in the situation. 
  • The rule breaker is a customer who consistently ignores policies and procedures that they consider undesirable. For example, this customer does not recognize the additional information in a catalog or order acknowledgement. 
  • The opportunist is the one who takes advantage of the situational opportunity to engage in conduct such as stealing from a booth at a trade show. Their entire motivation is to exploit the situation for their own personal gain. 
  • The “returnaholic” is always looking for a discount to keep merchandise that they regard as defective. 

Regardless of the label, customer misbehavior costs every organization the two most valuable resources they have: time and money. Time must be spent dealing with these unprofitable customers, and in many cases businesses make the decision to refund their money in order to placate them and allow their employees to move on.

In general, misbehaving customers use five justifications for their behavior. They are: in denial of responsibility (“it’s not my fault”), denial of injury (“I didn’t do any harm”), denial of a victim (“nobody got hurt”), combination of the condemners (“you’ve done worse”) and appeal to higher loyalties (“your rules do not apply to me”). Customers who engage in these behaviors justify their actions both before and after they misbehave.

What Causes Customer Misbehavior?

There are a number of identified customer traits such as demographic characteristics, psychological characteristics and social/community elements that can be indicators of behavioral problems. One prominent psychological driver has been defined as customer retaliation, where the person is driven to “get even” because of dissatisfying customer service encounters. They have a perceived injustice state of mind and are looking to restore equity in their engagement with customer service personnel. 

Personal and environmental factors, while not obvious to management, can also trigger customer misbehavior. One internal motivator for stealing at a trade show is the concept of personal gain. This involves a rational choice between the economic gain and the perceived risk. This can be evaluated as a “risk versus reward” or “risk versus punishment” scenario in the mind of the customer. 

Last, customers who have an inflated belief in their own authority may assume they have control over all situations, and they can justify their actions with both their power presumption and the personal perception of their status in social and business environments.

A Few Strategies To Consider

Managers can use a number of strategies to reduce customer misbehavior. The first involves training front-line employees on possible triggers, what to look for when working with customers and engagement techniques to diffuse potential conflicts before they become problems. An additional part of this training might be to go beyond identifying customer traits to identify actual examples of customer misbehavior and how they were handled. 

Managers should also look at the extrinsic factors in trying to understand the motivation of difficult customers. Take an outside look at the company operation and organization. Do phones ring for an excessively long period of time before they are answered? How long is it before emails are answered? These are factors that can create discord in the mind of the customer, setting them up to engage in verbal abuse when they finally do get to a front-line employee.

If the situation is dire, a final option is to fire customers who engage in abusive or disruptive behavior. There are a number of analysis-based strategies you can use to determine which customers should be let go. On the qualitative side, keep count of the number of complaints and grievances filed by employees against a particular customer or group of customers. Upon analysis, you may determine that these customers disrupt the business and may be causing psychological harm to the employees. The antics from these customers may also be keeping employees from effectively serving other customers as well.

How Does This  Affect Your Business?

The issues facing businesses are two fold. The first is that accounting systems are not set up to track qualitative costs (impact on employees’ productivity and morale), but they can do a good job of  tracking quantitative costs, such as the cost of goods returned and costs due to losses (theft). Therefore, management must put policies and procedures in place that capture reporting from front-line customer service personnel and front-line managers. 

For example, you may implement a procedure where all complaints about customers are referred to a special group or department set up to review the customer, the associated complaint and the impact on the organization. This group can then make recommendations for future actions with that customer. Those actions could range from initiating a dialogue with the customer in the hopes of changing whatever internal or external stimuli are causing the customer to act out (such as arguing with customer service personnel every time they call) to firing the customer and not doing any more business with them. I have released undesirable customers who consume too much time and do not create a payoff by treating them with courtesy and professionalism but never initiating any efforts to sell to them.

The second issue is the cost to your employees. There is a direct relationship between customer conflict and physiological, emotional, cognitive and attitudinal effects such as stress and emotional distress. Employees can also feel frustration, anger, guilt, irritation, anxiety, sadness and even depression due to customer misbehavior. 

Customer conflict can also affect the motivation of your employees and their job satisfaction, and it can have the overall effect of reducing their trust in customer honesty and ethical behavior. It also creates a lack of faith in the organization to address the problem. When front-line employees are not confident that the organization will do anything to change the negative environment, it reflects poorly on the organization as a whole.

Front-line employees may also engage in patterns of negative reciprocity, where they begin to treat customers in a disrespectful manner, and they are able to justify it when dealing with disruptive customers.

In these situations, employees’ attitudes suffer, they build coping mechanisms that may not be in line with organizational values and they may ultimately take their valuable knowledge and skills away to another company so that they can move to a less stressful environment.

Organizations must create a culture of excellence that defines the service experience and eliminates the opportunity for a customer to engage in misbehavior. This culture should extend throughout the firm, and by extension, to every employee.

Five Tactics To Defuse Difficult Customers

1. To help manage difficult customers, behavioral researchers Kate L. Daunt and Lloyd C. Harris recommend a technique called L.E.S.T.E.R. This involves training front-line employees in six key areas: Listening, Echoing, Sympathizing, Thinking, Evaluating and Responding. The training involves role-playing for both customer service and line management to be able to recognize and understand situations where customer misbehavior, such as verbal or even physical misbehavior, might occur.

2. A second method is to identify front-line personnel who have the personality and disposition to work with customers who may be rude, unpleasant and sometimes deceitful. Managers who can handle situations that escalate beyond front-line personnel should also be evaluated and hired. These managers must have the authority to satisfy the customer and reduce the impact of customer misbehavior on
the organization. 

3. The third tactic organizations can take involves employee compensation. Employees who are in positions where customer misbehavior is common, such as customer service, can be more highly compensated to watch for and deal with customers exhibiting such behaviors. When additional compensation is not possible, other perks such as flex-time or shift rotation might benefit those employees.

4. A fourth technique is to design work teams that involve various types of personalities to work with misbehaving customers. This also has the added advantage of providing continual training to employees. 

5. The fifth tactic involves counseling employees. Training and compensation can only go so far. After an unpleasant encounter, employees may need the opportunity to talk about what happened and receive additional support and training. 

While these recommendations involve an investment of time and money, there is a return on investment to the organization in terms of employee health, increased productivity and fewer inventory losses.


D. Alan Christopher, MAS, is a multi-line rep in the Southwest. He is a PhD candidate in marketing and social media marketing at Northcentral University. A 30-year industry veteran, he has served on the PPAI Board of Directors and as chair of the PPEF Board of Trustees. Reach him at