Managing retail complaints & conflict and Covid 19

Published: 28th May 2020

In this article on managing retail complaints and other issues, we will look the things that you as a retailer or retail employee might do to prepare for, avoid and if necessary more safely manage challenging behaviour in your shop or outlet.

These issues could be almost anything.  For example, a customer returning faulty or unwanted goods; a group of people being disruptive or anti social or someone who isn’t following social distancing or queuing rules.

As conflict management specialists, we will look at a range of things you can do to based on our knowledge and expertise to; limit the impact they might have; manage the situation as it develops and, what you should do afterwards.

The topics we discuss are in line with Government covid 19 guidance.  This guidance could change and, our articles will probably develop and to reflect that

Our earlier articles, ‘preparing to work with Covid as a retailer‘ and, ‘Managing retail crime and Covid 19‘ give specific advice relevant to those topics.  Please click on those titles to go to the article if you need to.  We don’t intend to repeat the advice given in those earlier articles in this one.  It follows therefore that those articles should be read in conjunction with this one if they are relevant to you.

So, what’s new?

Any of us who have worked in retail know that we will face complaints and angry customers.  Customers may have unrealistic expectations however; they may have been let down at some point in our service.  Some of us also have to deal with unruly, difficult people and, some of us have to ask customers to leave.

Nothing new there except….now we have to concern ourselves with people who may have, or threaten that they have covid 19.  What do we do to more safely manage them, the area they are in, those who are around them and, any goods that they want to return?  Equally importantly, what do we do to manage ourselves and our staff following such an incident?

Assuming that you have read our article on preparing to work with Covid as a retailer‘, you will in all likelihood have safety screens, hand-washing and sanitising facilities in place and enhanced cleaning processes – great!  so now, you need to consider how to respond if you are faced with an angry customer.

Be prepared!  Plan responses so you don’t ‘react’ when managing retail complaints and conflict

  • Don’t wait until it happens – by then its too late! If you don’t prepare, you, or your staff are likely to do or say the wrong thing at the wrong time when managing retail complaints.  This could easily escalate a situation.Consider:
    • You will need to review your risk assessment on customer complaints?
    • If you have unruly or disruptive individuals in your outlet, what is your policy – do you expect staff to ask them to leave?
    • If you have someone overstaying their welcome, what is your policy on this?
    • You have the right to ask anyone on your premises to leave if you want to – do you know how to do this professionally and appropriately and, do your staff?
    • How would you get help if you needed it?
    • Do you want your staff dealing with this or should you?
    • Do they, or you need training to better prepare yourselves?  You can access high quality, practical conflict management training from reputable training providers.  Training can be delivered both online and, face to face.  Also remember that we are always available to give you free advice.

The approach to managing workplace conflict

    • How you approach the customer or allow them to approach you when managing retail complaints and conflict is important.  Show confidence, be open and approachable!
        • If the customer is referred to you, where will you see them?  On the shop floor but to one side perhaps?  Give some privacy but don’t take the person somewhere they are a risk
        • Remember social distancing and add extra distance if possible.  An angry customer may raise their voice and use more energy.  So droplets from their mouth are likely to go further
        • Should you already be wearing PPE?  If this is normal for your environment, wear it.  Shaking hands is a norm to defuse a situation before covid arrived.  This may still be appropriate if you are wearing gloves but the customer may not want to – don’t force it and, discard the gloves safely afterwards if they do.
        • What is your returns policy ?  You have to comply with the law of course so, if you are going to take the goods back, where are you going to store them – they can’t go straight back on display because of the risk of contamination.
        • When dealing with groups – stay to one side, don’t get drawn into the middle, if you feel intimidated, you will be.  Try to identify the ‘influencer’.  This may not be the leader of the group but will be someone they will listen to.  Try to draw that person into a discussion a little away from the group so that you are not ‘playing to the crowd’.  Really listen to that person and explain your position clearly and confidently.  Try to get this person to feel that they are an important part of solving the issue you are concerned about

Managing retail complaints and workplace conflict

  • Be polite but remember your safety.  If they step towards you, raise a hand politely and ask them to give you both some space ‘for everyone’s safety’
  • Stand slightly to one side, not directly in front of them.  Standing directly in front may be confrontational and could be a challenge they are prepared to meet
  • Don’t box the person in.  Don’t stand between them and exit, equally, allow yourself an exit as well
  • Engage and signal you are not a threat by being in a good position, with space between you, making good eye contact, and listening to them.
  • Use calming strategies, empathise, really try to see their point of view.  Let them know if you can
  • Try to find a resolution you are both happy with.  This might be giving them what they want or if could be a simple explanation as to why you cannot.
  • If they are not satisfied, explain that they have the right to make a complaint.  Take their details and explain that their complaint will be looked into – don’t make promises you are not going to keep!
  • Consider alternative solutions.  When managing workplace conflict, little gifts work wonders.  Do you work in an environment where you can offer a complimentary gift ‘free coffee’ or ‘free sandwich’ as compensation?  Only offer what your policy allows of course!
  • Consider an exit strategy – some pre-prepared reason to leave a difficult situation if you need to summon help or give yourself thinking time.  For example, ‘Let me check with my manager’ or ‘hang on I’ll get a pen and paper so I can write it all down’.
  • Don’t be afraid to say ‘No’ if you are in the right.  Explain why, in calm reasoning tones.

Removing someone from your outlet

This is a difficult call to make on many occasions.  If they are a customer who you want to retain for the future you might not want to do this.  In any case, you should ask yourself ‘is this necessary’.  Clearly if you have a person or group who is/are disruptive of adversely affecting business you might need to act.  Plan your approach and pick your time.  You don’t want an audience if possible.  You should have a back up plan.  What are you going to do if this doesn’t work?  You certainly don’t want to be using physical force.  If you think that this might be necessary, you should be calling the police to assist before you do anything else.

By following a few simple rules, you could achieve a positive outcome.  Consider;

  • You approach, to one side
  • Be positive, confident and open
  • Engage with the individual or group – remember try to get an ‘influencer’ off to one side with a group
  • Introduce yourself
  • Let them know what it is that you find unacceptable – tackle their behaviour and not the person.  In other words, don’t make it personal.  With a noisy group you might consider saying ‘I am really sorry but the noise coming from the group is disturbing the other customers’ rather than ‘You are making too much noise’
  • Then, if the behaviour continues, give the consequence….’that the behaviour is causing problems and if it doesn’t stop you will have to ask the person/group to leave which you don’t want to do’
  • If it continues, you have to act.  tell them that they must leave.  If this doesn’t work then you have to have your back up plan in place.


  • Personal hygiene – so, if you’ve taken the goods back, what about hand sanitising and washing – is it easily accessed?
  • Where are you going to put the return – is it wrapped safely and isolated?
  • Reporting and recording.  You must report and record workplace conflict and challenging situations you deal with.  Your employer has a responsibility to ensure that these are reviewed so that lessons can be learned and, the opportunity for future incidents is reduced.


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