Dealing With Customer Service Interactions When There’s An Audience (Book Excerpt)

The following is a brief excerpt taken from The Defusing Hostile Customers Workbook For The Public Sector. It addresses situations where there is an audience  — other people either watching the interaction, or people accompanying the prime customer. In both cases an audience can increase the difficulty in addressing customer concerns.

Introduction To Audience Effects and Customer Service

Most of this book has focused on dealing one to one with the difficult customer, since the majority of government employees work on that basis. However, government staff also do work more extensively with audiences and groups than do people who work in the private sector. Not only are group contexts more common, but they often involve working with groups that are hostile or have pre-existing biases to reject the messages the employee has been sent to deliver.
There are two different but challenging situations that involve communicating to an audience. The first applies to almost all government employees, while the second applies only to employees who give presentations or meet with community groups. Both require finesse, grace and patience.

Group Dynamics Change Behavior

Before we talk about these two contexts and what you can do to counter hostility, and “be heard”, it’s important to realize that people in a group (a group being more than one person) act differently as a result of being in a group, than if they were alone. The mere fact that a person is with another person who can hear and participate in a conversation with you changes things. It almost always makes it more difficult to communicate a difficult messages, or work with hostile people. It’s also possible to use group dynamics to your benefit, so we’ll cover that in the section on presentations.

Accidental and Incidental Audiences

Let’s deal with a situation that faces most government workers who deal with customers. What happens when an angry person interacts and is in public view of other customers?
This occurs often. We call it the affect of accidental audiences, since the audience is there, not by intent of the angry customer or the employee, but is just “in attendence” for their own reasons.
How does this affect your decision making when dealing with an irate customer? One problem is that the addition of other strangers to the angry discussion can have unpredictable effects. For example, on one hand the hostile individual may be acting so badly that observers support you, either via their body language, or less commonly, through their own comments. On the other hand, the onlookers may share their own frustrations with your department, and try to pile on, joining the verbal attack on you. The latter creates a kind of group momentum and while the use of the term “mob” is a little over the top, the subsequent behavior of a group of angry frustrated people joining in can certainly have mob-like characteristics.
Although the effects of the accidental audience are somewhat unpredictable, we know that most of the outcomes are not what you want, and often are not what the angry customer wants either. People who come to government offices generally expect some modicum of privacy for their discussions, and do not want to “perform” in front of a crowd. Usually. Then there are the people who will PLAY to the crowd for support, real or imagined, but certainly hoped for and enjoy the attention and the pressure it might apply to you.
Even if observers take your “side”, that creates problems if they vocalize, since it opens the door for disputes between and among customers, and those can turn violent very quickly.

Tactic 81: Observe Customer For Signs of Playing To Accidental Audience

If you deal with customers and members of the public in a public environment (e.g. a counter, or where there is a waiting area), you can’t serve every customer in private or out of earshot of the rest of the waiting people. For the most part you don’t have to anyway. However, you may need to take control of a situation where the angry customer is playing to the audience while he or she is being unpleasant or abusive to you. When you see the signs that this is occurring then you need to make every attempt to remove the audience, and/or isolate the customer. Here’s what to look for:


  • Occasional glancing at/back at the audience while she interacts with you.
  • Raised voice in a way that suggests he wants everyone to hear what he has to say (the tone is different • when the person wants an audience as opposed to just being angry).
  • Obvious directing of comments to the audience (e.g. “Hey, you’re with me, right?”

Be alert for these signs. When you see them, take action to remove the audience-customer contact. (see tactic X). If you don’t the interaction may go on much longer than otherwise, and you run the risk of encouraging the mob mentality.

Tactic 82: Check The Bystander Emotional Temperature

Even if the hostile customer is NOT playing to the crowd, you need to monitor what they are doing, and their emotional states. Imagine that a customer comes in with what seems to be a reasonable request, but that for some bureaucratic reason, you are not permitted to give him what he wants. It happens. You’d like to help. It makes sense to do it. You just can’t. The customer gets angry and raises his voice, but isn’t playing to the audience.
However, the audience, waiting with not much to do during the wait, watches and listens. How do you think this is going to affect how THEY behave once it’s their turn to talk to you and your colleagues?
Of course, they are going to be affected by seeing “another government employee” act “heartlessly”, and while many won’t say anything, they will still be more likely to be hostile if their conversations go badly. Some will say something, and it’s not going to be pleasant
By checking on the bystander emotional states you will have a better idea if you need to remove the audience from the equation and prepare yourself mentally for negative comments from those waiting..
Look for hostile body language, out of the ordinary tensing, whispering among the strangers. There will always be some of this. If you monitor, look for CHANGES. Of course, if the audience is making overt remarks to you, whether they be in support of you, or in support of the customer, it’s probably time to change the venue.

Tactic 83: Smile, They ARE Watching

It makes sense that ou would prefer the bystanders be on your side, not on the side of the angry customer. In actuality you’d should prefer that they stay quiet and neutral so as not to increase the possibility of conflict and violence among customers.
Believe it or not, there are things you can do to keep bystanders neutral, or on your side. First, realize they ARE watching and listening, and specifically they are watching and listening to YOU and how you behave. They don’t much care about the angry customer, except how his behavior affects them (longer wait), but they DO care about you. They will judge whether you are being fair, and professional.
One thing about most groups is that there is a tendency for group members to step in when they perceive one person being unfair and mean to another person. Out of line is the catchphrase. If you maintain your cool, act professionally and calmly in the face of provocation, people waiting will often congratulate you when it’s their turns to talk to you. At minimum, they won’t jump in to support the hostile person. Being likeable and reasonable provides some protection from mob-like behavior.
On the other hand, the best way to mobilize people in a group is to act unprofessionally, or in a cold bureaucratic way. You lose any sympathy you might have had, and even if the “other guy” is worse, onlookers will take his side because you are the government employee.

Tactic 84: Control the Waiting Area Atmosphere Through Communication

This is a preventative step to try to reduce hostility generally by connecting with waiting customers, and in particular, when there is a delay, particularly as a result of a disruption from a single hostile customer or one who acts out. When possible connect with customers waiting through both eye contacts and announcements to the waiting group. Indicate how long the wait is, on average, and any shortcuts they might take to accomplish their tasks without waiting in line further. Let them know what they will need when they get to the “window” and are served so they can speed up their visit.
Do all of this in a non-bureaucratic and friendly voice, not the voice of an army drill sergeant. Yes, you want to offer help to make things more efficient, but you are also creating an image. A positive image will help you when you deal with a customer who tries to play to that audience, if the audience already likes you and appreciates your effort.

,,,there are lots more tips and suggestions in the workbook. You can purchase  Defusing Hostile Customers Workbook (Third Edition2010): A Self-Instructional Workbook For Public Sector Employees from amazon.com by clicking here.


  1. MaryAnne Grayson says:

    Where I work, it’s kind of a public space, so there’s almost always an audience watching what we do with customers. Since a lot of the time, people watching aren’t so happy at having to be dealing with us, it’s tough, because it does seem like one angry customer can set off others. Nobody likes property taxes and everyone has a gripe.

  2. rbacal says:

    Audiences aren’t always bad, since there is a tendency for observers of conflict to feel sympathetic when one of the people is acting ridiculously unfairly, as is the case with an abusive customer. All in all, though, because government has more privacy concerns, whenever possible, it’s better to try to move angry exchanges away from audiences, and to stop customers from “playing to the audience”.

    Thanks for the comment, MaryAnne.

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