How do I deal with a difficult customer?
August 21, 2010 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Help me work with a difficult customer.

For the past ten months I've been working for a small store in an urban area. One of our regular customers is a woman I will call "Hortense", who has been beset throughout her life with serious problems, including eating disorders, estrangement from her family, and involvement with very extreme fundamentalist Christianity.

In our interactions, Hortense has made several comments to me that have put me on edge. She's repeatedly complimented the "lucky bump" in my nose, which I got in an accident when I was three and which has subsequently caused me some self-consciousness. She has also advised me that I have dandruff and should switch to a no-dandruff shampoo, and has spoken loudly of my alleged weight loss. (Additionally, she has made comments about weight loss and physical fitness to one of my coworkers.)

In recent months, my boss has worked from home more and Hortense has crossed several lines of appropriate workplace discussion. After my boss's son (who has been working at the store for the summer) got large gauges in his ears, she has warned him that "evil spirits" will enter through his ears, and called him "low class" and "the bad seed of the family." (He opted not to tell his mother out of fear that Hortense would be banned from the store and would come back to harm him.) She also attempted to engage me in a conversation about menopause which veered into inappropriate anatomical areas. (The store where I work is not a drugstore or a minute clinic.) After hearing about Hortense's "vajayjay", I have found other places to be in the store when she comes in. Unfortunately, she complained to the store manager (who is sympathetic to me) that I "don't like" her, and she can sense this from how I look at her.

Hortense has a fixation on my boss and her family, and has crossed some conversational lines in discussing my boss's relationship with her husband. (She hasn't asked about my boss's sex life, but HAS repeatedly talked about how my boss and her husband are "made for each other". When my boss went on vacation alone, Hortense told her that my boss's husband "will fall back in love with you".) For her part, my boss -- who believes the phrase "the customer is always right" -- hasn't done enough to create boundaries with Hortense. On those occasions when I've mentioned in passing that Hortense's inappropriate behavior and topics of conversation have made me uncomfortable, my boss has told me that "this is just the way she is" and that she's "harmless", and has implied that she would rather I not say anything to Hortense that would explicitly set a boundary, lest she become upset.

With my boss coming back from a monthlong vacation, I am concerned that Hortense will complain that I have been rude to her. (I have behaved acceptably, but when I see her coming I tend to restock the shelves or not be as prominent on the floor.) I would like to find a way to address with my boss the extent to which Hortense's behavior upsets me, and find a way to set boundaries with her without upsetting her too much.

What is the best way of dealing with this uncomfortable situation?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ignore her.

She sounds mentally ill; her illness is not your responsibility.

Further it sounds like your co-workers and your boss are also aware of her tendencies. So I don't see what you have to lose by ignoring her.

Eventually if everyone ignores her she will go to another store to sling her bullshit.
posted by dfriedman at 11:27 AM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah I am with dfriedman. Ignore her or at the least treat her like a customer and then don't give her a second thought.
posted by mmascolino at 11:44 AM on August 21, 2010

I've had this kind of customer too. I saw what was coming as soon as you had so much backstory on her problems - the woman doesn't know her boundaries and that never ends well.
Be polite, and keep conversation to work topics. If this causes a problem with your boss, say that you are not required to engage a customer into the bounds of the personal; when she is telling you about her eating disorder, she's not being a customer.
Also, if she is drawing you into involved conversations then that dissuades other customers from approaching you for help, and keeps you from your other duties like restocking etc., so you can put this to your boss as you'd rather be doing your job than socializing.

Your boss won't like it - mine didn't - but it's a rational argument and they can't really argue against it.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:51 AM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would like to find a way to address with my boss the extent to which Hortense's behavior upsets me, and find a way to set boundaries with her without upsetting her too much.

"[Boss], can I get your advice on how to deal with customers like Hortense, who make inappropriate comments to me and other staff? I want to strike a balance between setting boundaries and giving good customer service, can you help me?" or something more specifically about this customer, like, "[Boss], lately Hortense has been coming in and making comments that I think are really inappropriate, such as telling me I have dandruff or calling your son low class. Can you give me some advice on how to deal with those situations?

Unless your boss is as unstable as Hortense, this will win you points AND get the issue out in the open.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:53 AM on August 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

I think you should follow Meg_Murry's advice. Your boss is not just making you put up with an annoying customer, she is subjecting you to an unfriendly work environment.
posted by elpea at 12:51 PM on August 21, 2010

Hortense is one of those outliers you need to deal with in the course of most retail jobs, I think. She may be discomfiting, but she's probably not your real problem unless she escalates the crazy. Your boss is your real problem.

I would not try to pre-emptively deal with this situation. If Hortense complains to your boss that you don't like her or whatever, your boss can probably keep that in context. If your boss comes to you about the complaint, you can say "it's true that she puts me on edge, and I try to minimize my interactions with her, but I believe that I'm completely professional when I do interact with her. If there's something you'd like me to be doing differently, I'll give it my best shot."

I especially like l'Estrange Fruit's point that although the customer may always be right, when the customer starts trying to chat about their eating disorder, they stop being a customer.

I would take comfort in the knowledge that at some point, someone where you work will grievously offend Hortense—completely unintentionally—such that she will never return.
posted by adamrice at 12:57 PM on August 21, 2010

My advice would be that if you change tactics and so reduce the interaction she has enjoyed (as she sees it) then her behaviour will worsen. If you can be prepared for that then any subsequent events may happen sooner rather than later,
posted by markx2 at 1:38 PM on August 21, 2010

I also agree with Meg_Murry's advice. I wonder if part of the reason your boss hasn't done anything is that she doesn't know how to handle the situation either. Perhaps if your boss seems at a loss, you could be the person to suggest a solution.

I'm in nursing school, and we have been taught that it is perfectly acceptable to set boundaries with patients/clients who make us uncomfortable. Translating from the hospital setting to a retail store, it is not rude to say to someone, "I'm not comfortable discussing that subject. Is there anything else here in the store I can help you with?" Redirect her back to the kind of conversation she should be having with a store employee, namely help in locating items and completing purchases. It's not guaranteed to work, but if you are consistent (and especially if the other employees and your boss present a united front), you can enforce boundaries that are acceptable to you and the other workers there.

Good luck, I know this is an uncomfortable situation!
posted by vytae at 1:47 PM on August 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've had many and varied Horteneses as well in over a decade of retail work. I've found that the best way to think about the ones that really put me on edge is to try to make an exercise of trying to look at them from a perspective of pity and forbearance rather than irritation. It doesn't change the circumstances, but it cuts down on the teeth-grindingness of it a bit. She sounds like she's mentally ill and probably does not have a very happy life.

Changing your perspective in the way you look at her does not, however, mean engaging her in inappropriate conversation if you don't want to. If she makes a beeline for you and begins talking about vajayjays, you let the tides of nonsense roll over you while continuing with your work and occasionally giving her a slight though friendly smile. You also pretend to be slightly dumb, slightly deaf, or both. I vanquished a very determined Hortense once by pretending never to hear anything she said:
H: *crazy crazy crazy*
Me: ...I'm sorry, what was that?
H: *crazy crazy crazy*
Me: The...I apologize; I didn't hear what you said.
H: *crazy crazy crazy*
Me: ...Oh, yes. Of course. (Regardless of what has been said) (Confused smile while looking back at task).

She ended up thinking I was both deaf and profoundly stupid, and pretty much gave up. This pretense only works if you can really pull off looking totally sincere in not being able to understand what she is saying. It might take a few weeks, but I've found that it's rare that someone keeps up the craziness in the face of determined, bland non-understanding.

If that's too underhanded for you, I think vytae's advice about the staff presenting a firm face in not discussing private anatomy or religion would work well too; however it would work best if you have the support of the entire rest of the staff and the manager so she doesn't have an opening with anyone. Anything over the line is met with: "I'm sorry; I don't feel comfortable discussing that. Was there anything else you were looking for today?" without letting yourself be drawn into any explanation at all. Sounding like a broken record with the line "I'm sorry; I don't feel comfortable discussing that" is fine and not impolite.
posted by frobozz at 1:58 PM on August 21, 2010

Great advice above. I would just add that a good way to re-approach the subject with your boss is not to exclusively focus on your own comfort level in dealing with Hortense, but the potential that Hortense has to disturb and/or offend the other customers. It is completely feasible that if it hasn't happened already, someone else is going to hear something she says about "evil spirits" and whatnot, and that's going to make your place of business an uncomfortable environment for them, too. I know if I was, say, in a bookstore and I heard someone ranting about being possessed or something like that, I might be inclined to cut my browsing short, depending on the level of bat-shit-ness being displayed.

That being said, I agree with vytae that your boss probably doesn't know how to handle this situation either. As many others said, the best that all of you can do here is just refuse to be drawn in. As soon as the crazy starts, it's "Well, Hortense, it was nice to chat with you. I/we need to go get some work done in the back now. See you next time!"
posted by deep thought sunstar at 2:10 PM on August 21, 2010

Oh yeah, the crazy customer. Every store has one. Most store managers/owners aren't going to run off that one crazy customer unless they break the law or cost the store money. The devil you know, and all that.

In addition to frobozz's technique, which has worked for me in past retail jobs, you can get together with your co-workers and take turns dealing with her. Pass her around the staff and don't allow her to get fixated on one particular person. Your boss should be one of the people dealing with her as well, assuming she works the sales floor.
posted by zinfandel at 4:25 PM on August 21, 2010

My oft repeated reply (much like vytae above) to folks like hortense:

"Isn't that interesting? What can [your store] do for you today?"
posted by GPF at 6:42 PM on August 21, 2010

If everybody knows she's a nut, why do you worry about your boss listening to her for advice on your behavior?

Look, I work in a store, too where I and my fellows are 'bartenders to the world.' We hear ALL about peoples issues whether we want to or not. If I find I have a customer that I can't deal with here's my trick: (ready?)

"I am not the best person to help you with this. Let me get _________ to help you." OR "Please return when ________ is here to help you." Insert your boss' name.

Repeat as needed. She'll get the message, you won't be acting rude and your boss will get to deal with this hairy annoyance.

If she makes personal remarks not suited to the business and your boss refuses to do anything about it, it's HARASSMENT. Use this world liberally when speaking with your boss, so:

"Hortense is harassing me with her vagina stories."
"Hortense is harassing your son about his ears."
"What do you plan do do about Hortense's harassment of your employees?"

Believe me, no business owner likes to hear that word. It signals a lawsuit waiting to happen.

(As an aside: I once had an evil woman named Mrs. Mikals that harassed me. I worked at a clothing store where she felt free to comment on my sartorial choices to the point where I got permission from the DM to NOT wait on her any more. She was that rude.

Time passed, and I went to work at Flarnes & Woble. Mrs. Mikals had the nerve to go to my new boss and ask her how she could possible hire someone as rude as me. My boss laughed telling me this, it was so ridiculous, but I was steamed.

I bade my time. One day, I was parked in front of my dry cleaners, and who should appear in front of my car but Mrs. Mikals. I laid on the horn so hard & long, I'm sure I shortened her miserable life at least 2 years.

The last time I saw her, I was walking in town with my husband. She actually greeted me and asked after me. I replied, "It's nice to see you, too. Are you still trying to fit that size 12 ass into those size 8 jeans?" and walked away.

Opportunity knocks twice, sometimes.)
posted by kidelo at 8:45 PM on August 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

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