NATIONAL REPORT — Since spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most people live throughout the world and directly impacted retailers and the way they operate – especially those deemed essential, such as convenience stores. Safety measures including social distancing, hand sanitizing and mask mandates have become a part of everyday living for both customers and store employees, and c-stores around the world have adopted these policies to keep everyone safe.
Not all customers, however, are happy to comply with such mandates and measures. As a result, retailers have been left to find ways of enforcing pandemic policies at their locations. Among the methods being utilized are employee training, store signage, store layout changes, increasing labor, and even offering free masks to customers who come in without one.
“There are CDC guidelines but no overarching mandate, so everyone is left to police and ensure compliance on their own and even though a store might have a sign that says a person must wear a mask, when someone comes in and refuses to wear one, it’s up to the employee and the establishment to ensure compliance,” said Oscar Villanueva, managing director of security services at R3 Continuum, based in Minneapolis, Minn., which focuses on crisis response, mitigation and management.
If an employee is not trained in hostility management or de-escalation techniques, they will be ill-prepared to confront such customers and many will defer to the store manager, who without training may not be prepared either, Villanueva noted.
“There have been news stories about an employee getting an arm broken in Target over a confrontation with a customer, and in Bed Bath and Beyond, the employee got a manager but ended up punching a woman in the face,” he said, explaining that incidents like this can be avoided with training and a well-defined plan from the corporate level.
He believes clearly defined company policies outlined and communicated from the corporate level are key and says it would be helpful for managers and supervisors to get high-level training on hostility management and de-escalation techniques, while employees should receive some type of awareness training.
Villanueva shared the following recommendations to manage hostility and de-escalate confrontational situations with customers:
Recommendations for store-level employees and managers:
Communicate your concerns professionally (remember that what the customer says or does is not personal).
Reference the safety needs of both parties.
Work to understand the customer’s position and show empathy.
Ask for the customer’s help in resolving the issue.
Present alternatives for resolving the issue.
If all else fails, seek assistance from a manager
If unable to resolve the situation and there is imminent danger, call security or the police for assistance.
Recommendations for the corporate level:
Create a policy addressing mask-wearing and social distancing for both employees and customers.
Communicate the policy via signage for customers and via internal communications for employees.
Ensure that employees adhere to the policy and lead by example.
Have contingency plans/procedures in case the policy is not followed (i.e., seeking security and law enforcement assistance, if necessary).
Provide training on hostility management and de-escalation techniques to both employees and managers.
When encountering a customer who refuses to comply, the way the person is approached is important to how the conversation or confrontation may go, according to Russ Turner, director of People Incorporated’s Training Institute, based in Eagan, Minn.
“The main thing is to approach people as if you are allies and assume a positive intent,” he explained. “If they don’t have a mask, they probably forgot it in the car and are not used to wearing it yet. Assuming positive intent will help the employee be less reactive.”
When asking for compliance, using a connector phrase — “Thanks for coming in” or “Good to see you” or “We are happy you are here” — can disarm people and establish a connection before an employee asks for compliance on something. And it’s important for it to be an “ask,” not a “tell,” Turner advised.
“Use polite language like ‘would you please’ or ‘could you’ or ‘would you be willing to,’ and mention if there is a mandate in the state. Like here in Minnesota, we have a state mask mandate,” he said. “Also, it’s good to give people an out like, ‘Hey, it looks like you may have left your mask in the car,’ or ‘It looks like you have forgotten your mask; here, you can grab one of these,’ rather than, ‘Sir, where is your mask?’”
When it comes to social distancing, floor decals, roping off certain areas to guide a line, and other signage can help customer compliance tremendously, specifically because it helps them visualize what needs to be followed, noted Perry Kuklin, director of marketing for Lavi Industries, a company based in Valencia, Calif., that helps retailers with queue management and customer-flow equipment and technology.
“It’s important to make sure people can visualize and understand what 6 feet apart is, whether it’s a retractable belt for every 6 feet with a sign that says, ‘Please stand behind this sign,’ or floor stickers. It really helps,” Kuklin said, adding that with c-stores sometimes short on space, forming a single-line queue and even adding acrylic partitions to keep other customers from walking too close can be helpful.
It’s important to have signage that communicates exactly what the expectations are, Villanueva said, and to make sure signs are posted clearly outside the store before a customer even enters. The signs should be large enough that customers can’t miss them.
“If you don’t communicate to clients as they are coming in, then you risk them saying they didn’t see a sign,” he said.