From builders frantically pursuing supply to Covid Karen and her tribe of camera-wielding friends, it’s been a tough year for sales teams.

Salespeople have one hell of a job. I know many love it, are brilliant at it and enjoy working with the vast majority of their customers, but not being able to say that some customers are absolute wankers would tax the patience of a saint.

This year, the wankers have come in a few distinct flavours. First up there’s the Bullying Builder. Yes, he’s heard there’s a global supply shortage, but he wants his LVL and he wants it now and if your gates are open, he’s going to drive in and take the lot! Next up there’s the Scheduling Shocker. He’s not adjusted to the changed timeframes on materials and it’s going to cost him, so while he’s very polite, he’s also frantically ringing and ringing and you’re almost missing that rude bugger who just barges in. Finally, there’s old mate Covid Karen. She’s got a few things to say about QR Codes, masks and Magna Carta and you’re going to hear them, whether you like it or not.

It’s easy to label these people, but the problem is it’s not easy to deal with them. Bullying causes real problems for staff and can have a lasting impact on people and businesses. As management, you are responsible for anti-bullying policies existing and being implemented in your business.

Ask your industry association if they have anti-bullying policies and other resources that apply to customers as well as workplaces and which you can adopt directly to your workplace. In general, there are four steps that work together to help:

Step 1: Assess Is this person a serious threat? Some of the Covid Karens are working in league with far-right political groups and some Bullying Builders get a bit physical. If you even suspect any of your staff are in danger, call the police, unless it’s an obvious mental health episode, in which case call an ambulance as paramedics are better trained in de-escalation.

Step 2: Isolate Bullies are a management issue. Step in early. They want to speak to the manager? Great. You want to speak to them (or empower a senior staff member to act in your place if you’re not always available). If they’re there in person, do it in your office, or another quiet place away from the audience that often emboldens them.

Step 3: Listen Often the bully just wants to have their say, so let them. They’re talking with the manager now, and if you can fix their problem, you’ll be able to say so and do it directly. Just don’t expect any thanks, as many of these people have already decided that social mores aren’t for them this year.

In a good case, you’ll have someone who’s just lost the plot a bit and you listening patiently is exactly what they need to guide them back to reality. In a bad case, you’ll have someone so obnoxious it can help you clarify who you want to work with in future, which is also a win.

Step 4: Inform Share the information you have that is directly relevant to their problem. NB don’t argue: that doesn’t work. Instead, clearly communicate the situation at your business, whether that means handing them a sheet of paper that describes your current ordering processes and time frames (eg limits on packs of timber, established clients only, no drive in…) or explaining your legal reason for refusal of service (see here for a good breakdown of the rules – note that being a conspiracy theorist is not protected under anti-discrimination law.)

Once you’ve fixed or established that you can’t fix their problem and you’ve informed them of your situation with respect to processes and who you are able to sell to, end the call or offer them a cup of tea if they’re in your office. Because usually they want an argument and a polite goodbye or cup of tea makes it obvious you’re not going to give them that.

Information is key

As with schoolyard bullies, customer bullies are acting out behaviours based on some personal issue. If that’s a dalliance with neofascism, there’s not much you can do. Happily, that’s a distinct minority. The problem is far more likely to be panic, because their customers don’t understand why the costs and timeframes have changed. Here, you can help a lot. Clearly communicating the wider issues behind current problems helps your staff, customers and end users all develop a clearer picture of what is going on.

When you’re sharing information about supply and other industry-wide issues with your staff, it can be worth designing that as material (emails, social media posts, flyers, etc) that your customers can share directly with their clients to potentially help ease the pressure they’re under. While most of us have a reasonable understanding as to why things have changed so much this year, many who aren’t as well connected don’t.

Everyone working in retail has felt some degree of pressure through the Covid period and so most people are trying to bring an extra serving of empathy to work with them, but it can be exhausting. For people who are just flat-out abusive (and often racist into the bargain), it’s not worth trying to find common ground. For builders who are just desperate, it’s worth flagging that many retailers themselves are struggling to get reliable supply. We’re literally all in this together.

I asked multiple readers who’d chatted with me about customer bullying they’d seen at their businesses if they’d be interviewed for this story and all were either too busy chasing stock or wary about backlash. Which brings us to the other form of bullying that’s increased lately. Adverse social media reviews have been weaponised by some groups, particularly anti-mask and anti-vaccination groups. While it’s still recommended not to engage with their arguments, these reviews should be responded to – flagging either that you have no record of dealing with this customer or that the customer has been bullying your business as applies – and reported to the social media company as soon as possible.

On a happy note, this tactic often backfires. Café Dzajko in Sydney’s Tempe was targeted by anti-vaxxers online and saw a notable uptick in customers from near and far who were happy to support a business obeying Covid rules.

Showing your staff that you take bullying seriously and acting to limit its impact will help your business to come through this difficult time with its most valuable resources enhanced, because your people are always going to matter the most.