What to do if your customer’s a jerk

Zero tolerance is the only option

I’ve focused recently on the toxic effect that people who behave badly at work have on overall morale and performance. The behaviour of these jerks or assholes should be dealt with to minimise its effect on their immediate colleagues and the longer-term impact on employee engagement.

But this week a distressing news story made me realise that whilst jerks can exist anywhere in the workplace, they can also be present on the customer side.

On a flight from Barcelona to London Stansted on Friday, a white man was filmed shouting at a black woman to get her to move seats (he has a reserved one apparently) while the passengers were boarding the plane. The woman is disabled so can’t move quickly but Mr Jerk seems oblivious to this and seems to think it’s OK to heap a volley of racist abuse at the woman. I’m not going to dignify his appalling behaviour by quoting it here, but you can check it on YouTube (warning: contains offensive language).

What’s just as shocking as his behaviour is the response of the Ryanair crew. They do intervene to get him to calm down – although the action of the passenger in the seat behind is more proactive – but frankly that’s not good enough: he should have been taken off the flight. In fact, towards the end of the video they appear to be more interested in him than the abused woman.

But let’s not blame the crew: they’re under a lot of pressure to get flights off the ground – like any low-cost operator they depend on the schedule and that will have driven their behaviour. The downside is that not only is the whole flight stuck with Toxic Racist for the whole journey, but Ryanair’s reputation takes another knock.

Too hard

At NextTen we try very hard to love Ryanair: they prove our point that if you have a clear focus on customer outcomes (low cost holidays) then you don’t need magic moments or even a particularly friendly approach to your customers to have a successful business model. But they’re clearly driving this model too hard: strikes by staff have dented profits and it looks like they may be having to cut fares too much to keep customers.

Ryanair have reported the incident to Essex police, although this is definitely too little, too late. With the investigation requiring cooperation with Spanish police it’s possible no prosecution will be made.

The customer is not always right

Sadly, customers behaving badly are a constant for any business and transport is one of the areas where people can find themselves under stress and staff can be on the receiving end of complaints about late running, overcrowding or any of the things likely to affect the business of getting from A to B. But sometimes it’s more subtle: a few years ago I was told a story by one central London bank branch I was visiting about a local business owner who thought it was quite OK to park up on the double yellow line outside while he deposited money. He expected staff to keep an eye out for any traffic wardens and woe betide them if he got a ticket! To me this was quite unacceptable behaviour but as he was a good customer it was tolerated.

These extreme examples show the extent to which companies have a genuine customer focus that is driven by respectful treatment of everybody, customers and employees alike. In the case of the bank, the staff should have felt that if they challenged the customer about his selfish behaviour they would have been backed up by management. In the case of Ryanair, we can infer that other priorities were at play and/or staff might have not felt they would be backed up by management.


Companies should do more to make it clear what customer behaviour they consider to be unacceptable. Of course, most companies – particularly in high-stress areas like transport, healthcare and public services – do, rightly, exhibit the “abuse of our staff will not be tolerated” warnings but more subtle examples need guidance and policies. And staff need to be supported in exercising judgment about action to take when it happens.

But when your customer’s being a racist jerk, don’t think twice, get rid of them. Zero tolerance is the only way to go.

Build a community and you won’t need customers

Instead, you’ll have committed fans who’ll go the extra mile for you

Here’s a heart-warming story from my recent holiday – and I promise it’s the last for now – that has a lesson for organisations who are serious about genuine and deep customer relationships.

Thursday afternoon in Tuscany – another beautiful day is unfolding and, in the main square of Anghiari, the town we’re staying in, seats and staging have been erected for the evening’s concert by Southbank Sinfonia and a specially-recruited chorus of local singers and visitors, mostly from the UK.

The festival’s been going for nearly a week and, in glorious weather, around the old town and nearby locations we’ve enjoyed some sublime music. Can anything spoil our perfect musical holiday?

As if to prove a point, the sky darkens, it gets colder, and then without too much warning, pours down with rain. We retreat inside the pizzeria we’ve been lunching at, and shelter from torrential rain and, at one point, what appears to be a mini-cyclone that leaves a trail of upturned chairs and busted parasols in its wake. As the storm subsides, we make a break for the hotel, returning to the square for the concert a couple of hours later. The concert was great, but we missed the best part.

The show must go on…

While we were lazing at the hotel a group of local people and visitors banded together with the orchestra to reassemble the seating and dry it off. When we returned it was like the storm had never happened.

It was a great example of how, when you’re united by a common purpose, the barriers between service providers (the town, the orchestra) and customers (the visitors) disappear. A group of people went the proverbial extra mile to make the concert happen, and a little bit of the world was a happier place as a result.

Onwards and upwards

You could argue that that’s a special set of circumstances: the Southbank Sinfonia is a training orchestra that takes the cream of the crop from music colleges around the world and gives them the experience of being a great ensemble player and, as a result, it has a lot of enthusiastic supporters – it’s a charity – that are all drawn to the festival each year because that’s what they feel passionate about. So, a bit of extra effort to make the show go on is hardly surprising.

But that’s missing the point.

Within any group of customers there will be people who want to feel part of something bigger than simply consuming the product or service provided. Here’s another example from my recent commute.

Book swapping in action

When I head down to one of my clients, I travel via Wimbledon station. On the platform where I catch my train there’s a waiting room with a rather tatty bookshelf in the corner. Over a few days, I noticed that the bookshelf’s contents seemed to vary considerably. Curious, I took a closer look and discovered that it was a book-swapping arrangement. It’s been going since 2009, which is quite something, and shows that

  • someone cared enough to start it
  • people care enough to bring along books to keep it going.

Train of thought

Now I’m not about to suggest that Surrey-bound commuters on Wimbledon station are united by a common love for, er, Southwestern Rail (not the worst of the rail companies in the UK, but that’s not saying much), making them go the extra mile to make waiting for a train a bit more interesting and spreading the love to their fellow humans via second-hand books. But the point is that your customers do care about things and if you want to stand a chance of turning your customers from grudging recipients of your products into raving fans who’ll help you deliver a better service then you need to start finding out a lot more about what they really care about.

Ooh, Uber – look behind you!

At this time of year, at least in the UK, we love a pantomime villain that we can hiss and boo at every time they step on stage. With impeccable timing the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has delivered everybody’s favourite panto baddie, Uber, a slap in the face.  They declared what everyone already knew: that it is in fact a transport provider not an information exchange.

We have an example of what we might call ‘outcome-based justice’. In this case, if a business delivers customers’ desired outcome of ‘getting me conveniently from A to B’ it’s probably got something to do with vehicles that go from A to B rather than the provision of information. Except Uber never wanted to be positioned like that – and the reasons have become very clear!

The big benefit is that it nibbles away at those smug statements that consultants make to the effect that Uber is a taxi company that doesn’t own any cars – still true, but somewhat less paradigm-busting that it might appear.

Uber may have to face the inevitable. Its reaction to this, and other rulings, suggests it may be starting to do so, despite fighting it tooth and nail over the last year. It’s gained its growth precisely through focusing on what customers needed, then having the ability to think creatively about how that might be delivered.

The downside is that its pricing model (also a customer outcome – we like convenience, but we also like cheaper) which is a direct result of its low operating cost means that it has limited competition from other, differently-regulated providers. This lack of competition is bad for consumers in the long run.

Until there’s a reliable teleportation technology available, we humans are stuck with vehicles to get us around at a faster-than-walking pace. It will be interesting to see if a more level playing field will allow other transport providers to innovate. We are already seeing route planning app CityMapper experimenting with on-demand bus services in London – this time an information service operating in partnership with a transport provider (Transport for London).

Perhaps the famous pantomime audience shout of ‘look behind you’ should be directed at Uber to see who’s competing innovatively for the never-ending customer requirement of being moved around.

The ECJ’s ruling may not be good for Uber but it will be better for customers in the long run.