How To Handle An Abusive Client

The client is always right – right? Well, not always. And if a client’s behaviour becomes abusive, it’s integral to have a protocol in place, says Monique Richardson. This is what to do if a client crosses the line.

While every client has the right to be upset or frustrated when there has been a service issue or a treatment that has not met their expectations, there are certain behaviours that should not be tolerated from a client. Part of working in the service industry means having to deal with emotions that can often be diffused with the right techniques. There is a clear line, however, that clients must not cross and certain behaviours exhibited towards team members that should not be tolerated under any circumstances. Unacceptable client conduct includes:

  • Screaming or shouting
  • Verbal abuse and swearing
  • Racial abuse
  • Sexual harassment or advances
  • Threats
  • Violence
  • Aggression

Given the vulnerable position a therapist or receptionist may find themselves in working in such close proximity with clients, the safety, protection and wellbeing of the team must always remain the number one priority. Preventing and managing difficult client behaviour and protecting the team can be achieved in a number of ways.

1. Focus on providing a superior client experience

Creating a culture of excellence is essential for any spa or aesthetic clinic. Focusing on providing a superior experience throughout the entire client journey can assist in reducing complaints or issues arising.

Managing expectations and educating clients on important policies such as cancellation or no-show fees, arriving early to prepare for an appointment or advising of forms that need to be filled out prior to a treatment may assist in mitigating conflict situations

2. Have clear Service Recovery Processes in place

When something goes wrong for a client or if there is a genuine service failure, having a clear service recovery strategy can prevent escalations. It is essential the team are empowered to make a decision to turn the situation around, as this can assist in being able to provide an immediate solution or resolution. Any service failures should be used as an opportunity for learning and to avoid them happening again in the future.

3. The Heat Method

An immediate tool the team can use if they are dealing with an angry or upset client is to firstly focus on breathing when they feel the fight or flight response kick in and then employ a technique called the HEAT method. This is used to diffuse a complaining or angry client and involves:

H – Hear the client out. Let them vent their frustration and focus on active listening.

E – Empathise. Acknowledge their level of emotion with a genuine empathy statement.

A – Apologise and ask questions. Use a neutral apology such as “I am sorry that there has been a delay” and then ask questions to resolve their issue.

T – Take ownership. Work with the client to come to a resolution.

If at any time the client becomes abusive or aggressive, they should be asked to refrain from behaving in such a way and if the behaviour continues, asked to leave the premises. This should happen in accordance with documented guidelines on managing client escalations.

4. Provide training in managing client abuse and aggression

Managing difficult client behaviour is a skill and all team members and leaders must be provided with training. Deescalating an abusive or aggressive client is one of the most challenging areas of service and every person that interacts with clients needs to have clarity and confidence in how to manage such situations.

Having safety protocols in place as well as scripts the team can use when managing abuse or aggression is critical. Suggested wording and guidelines for responding to abuse whether that is directed through social media, written communication, telephone or face to face interactions ensures the team have confidence on what to say and do even in the most challenging of circumstances.

This information must be included in induction training so from the outset, the team are clear on what steps need to be taken should they find themselves faced with abuse or aggression from clients

5. Provide leadership support

Support from leadership and backing the team is integral to creating a safety culture and one where the team feels fully supported. The team must know if they are in a treatment room and at any time feel unsafe, they can excuse themselves and seek leadership support immediately. If a client exhibits extreme behaviour such as sexual harassment, abuse or aggression, the client needs to be advised they are not welcome to return and de-briefing should be made available. Having training, clear protocols and supportive leadership will ultimately make a significant difference to the team in managing abuse and aggression.

This article originally appeared in SPA + CLINIC Volume 84. Click here to subscribe to future issues and read the latest below: 

Monique Richardson is the author of ‘Managing Difficult Customer Behaviour – A Practical Guide For Confident Conversations’ and is one of Australia’s leading experts in Customer Service and Service Leadership.


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