Rude, righteous and unreasonable

Dealing with difficult customers is more challenging than ever, but with the right approach, you can keep your sanity.

When customers are angry, repeat back key phrases to show you are actively listening and trying to understand the issue at hand.

People who work in retail have all read the common advice about handling angry or uncooperative customers. It’s recommended that we stay calm, and show that we are truly listening to a client’s complaints. This is good advice, although it’s not always easy to do. Human nature is to mirror the attitude of others who are confronting us. It’s increasingly more challenging in the time of COVID-19, when people are feeling generally cranky and on edge. It’s also problematic when any customer, no matter how out-of-line or unreasonable, can post one-sided, scathing reviews online and on social platforms.

Recommendations to keep calm and listen still hold true, of course, as does the practice of repeating back to a customer the gist of what they’ve said. This response shows that you’re actively listening and trying to understand. Some IGCs hold preparation sessions during staff training days, where employees take turns being an irate customer while others practice smiling and responding with composure.

Yet, even after rehearsals for acting with restraint, some situations are especially difficult. IGC employees often benefit from suggestions of useful language for specific situations.

Customers without masks

Even with pending COVID vaccines, it’s estimated that we may need to wear masks in public places into the fall of 2021 or beyond. Retail establishments are becoming accustomed to asking some customers to get a mask or pull one up over their nose. One approach to lighten these situations is to have a box of colorful, disposable masks at the entry or service counter. These are now widely available and affordable in assorted designs that can be offered to an unmasked customer. “I see you’ve forgotten your mask. Well, I’ll save you the trip back to your car, and look! I’ve got one that’s tie-dyed, or are you more of a basic-black kind of guy?”

Repeating the same phase calmly, and making it personal, not political, can help. “My mask is for your protection, and yours is for my protection. We’d be happy to give you one, because it’s a requirement for shopping here.” Be sure that the signage about mask wearing is prominent in your store, so that your customers can point to it as they speak. One of our local stores has signage that reads, “In this store we wear masks over our noses.” Keep it simple and clear. Employees should know to call a manager for reinforcements if the client gets argumentative or refuses.

Gently remind customers that masks only work if they are worn correctly.


Sometimes, listening to a customer and lending an empathetic ear is enough to turn their day around.

When working in retail, it’s common to deal with people who are rude and unreasonable because something fairly small has pushed them over the edge. That dry and wilted hanging basket that the customer wants a refund for isn’t just an un-watered plant…it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is especially true as we enter nearly a year of dealing with pandemic fears and restrictions.

For these situations, phrases like, “This is such a difficult time,” “I know that a thirsty plant is the last thing you wanted to deal with today,” or “I’m so sorry you’re upset” can be useful. While sticking to your normal procedure and policies for resolving customer complaints and requests, sympathize with the complainer human-to-human.

Some years ago, I dealt with a rude customer whose tree had died. After commiserating with her she broke into tears well before we started to discuss why the plant might have failed. “I’m so sorry you had to come in about this today,” I said after she yelled at me for selling her a tree that “clearly came from a bad batch.” I knew nothing about her, but I continued by saying, “It sounds like this is the last thing you needed right now.” At that point she backed down and listed all the hardships that had come her way lately, from the recent death of her husband to a nasty neighbor who was mad at her garbage pails being put in the wrong place. We ended up giving this woman 50% off of a replacement tree, but more importantly, she was given an opportunity to be heard and somewhat consoled.

The world’s foremost authority

Even before the pandemic, garden center staff have dealt with self-appointed experts who are willing to argue about plants. I remember the day when a customer was shopping for summer squash seedlings at my IGC, and was unhappy at what he saw. We had flats of newly sprouted squash in three-packs, fresh from the grower, but some of the cells in these packs had only one seedling, while others had four or more. Clearly, the machine that the grower had used to plant the seeds had done an uneven job of it. The customer informed me that the latter was how normal, “healthy” squash should grow, convinced the one-seedling pack was defective. He wanted a three-pack where each cell had four stems, and he ended up yelling at me when I told him the singles were normal and the multiples were the result of too many seeds in one place. “I’m a Master Gardener, and I know how plants should grow!” he huffed.

As a master gardener (lowercase, since it’s not a title but a volunteer position) myself, I cringed, but I wasn’t about to argue with him. I’ve found that treating these foremost authorities with at least seeming respect is the percentage play, even when they’re wrong. “Since you’re an experienced gardener, I’m sure you can make any of these squash seedlings thrive. So pick the best three-pack you see, and I’m sure you’ll be sharing your excess zucchini with your neighbors very soon.” Try to show that argumentative expert that while you honor his or her expertise, you still need to stick with store policy. “I know you have a green thumb and more experience than I do, but it’s our policy that annuals can’t be returned three months after purchase.”

Can I fire a customer?

Even with a calm, sympathetic attitude and reaching out on a human-to-human basis, there are occasions when a customer just won’t be mollified or satisfied. For some people, even expressions of concern just make them more unhappy or angry. When a situation is escalating to that level, the first response is to remove yourself temporarily. “I’m going to get the store manager,” you might say, or “Excuse me for a second so I can have a word about this with John.” Your client doesn’t need to know who John is, or if he even exists. The point is for you to be able to break away from their emotional state and energy.

There are some people who, even when given sympathy, respect or time to calm down, remain bad-tempered and unreasoning. These are the times when we must weigh the potential damage that they can do online against the need to preserve our sanity, support the rest of our staff, and provide a pleasant shopping environment for other customers. A peace offering of a $25 gift card might just be worth it. “This is just a small apology for your trouble,” or “I know that we haven’t made you happy today, but I’m hoping that you’ll take this card and come back another time when things might be better,” are possible responses.

When all else fails, admit to your rude, righteous or unreasonable shopper that you’ve done your best but, “I just don’t think I can make you happy here,” or “Maybe we both have to admit that this isn’t the store for you right now.” Make a calm statement that says that you’re letting them go as a customer.

Then take a deep breath, and carry on.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at 

February 2021
Explore the February 2021 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.

Share This Content