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.

3 thoughts on “What to do if your customer’s a jerk

  1. Zero tolerance is a strong concept, and when people react in unreasonable ways, it’s easy to see how their moment of madness should in our rational sane world be subject to ultimate sanctions. However, the world is a complex place. Many of us may have lost it at some point in our lives. Perhaps the stresses of children, health, bereavement, work, near death experiences and so on all culminate in a moment of madness. Something that isn’t the norm – where events have conspired to illicit a response which viewed in isolation is wholly unacceptable, but viewed with a holistic knowledge of individual is rational. The problem is in today’s society, we don’t have the bandwidth to discover the truth and understand the individual. The other side of the coin though is that sociopaths, psychopaths, felons, the feckless and the generally nefarious are prone to serially committing acts of moral turpitude, and could probably not stop even if they were offered interventions. Another trait which is becoming prevalent in society is the best defence for somebody who can identify with a minority group in the eyes of others is to “take offence”. The fake offence is even easier online. My point is the behaviours are unacceptable, but a zero tolerance approach is for many people going to unproductive, and for many groups may be ultimately counter productive in the long term (a bit like prison – it works for the truly evil by depriving them of their liberty, but also turns amateur and accidental criminals into seasoned professionals who then go back into society). I don’t have the answer, but I do know that unilateral zero tolerance will ultimately become a new form of passive aggression which the wily sociopaths from all walks of life will ultimately use to exercise power and control over others.

    1. A great point Cliff! We could all do with spending more time to understand the other’s point of view, however offensive it might be, and I think there may be unintended consequences of a strict zero tolerance approach as you suggest. As a general principle for supporting your staff though I think zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour should be the starting point.

  2. There is also a corporate duty to ensure you’ve removed the vectors of deviance. I was intrigued by the dutch research showing a correlation between criminality and litter and graffiti. If people sense they are in an environment that doesn’t care, they then start adopting deviant behaviours. Before we go all zero tolerance, perhaps government departments and businesses ought to say “Have we made all reasonable efforts to treat people with dignity?”. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16096-graffiti-and-litter-lead-to-more-street-crime/

    I do confess to even observing this in myself. I’ve overheard staff in Tescos referring to customers as “scum” and generally feel that their ethos and my interests are not aligned. In Waitrose, the opposite is true. I nearly always take my trolley back to the correct place in Waitrose, whereas in Tescos, I sometimes just leave it . For me, I can afford to have choices where I shop, which means I am able to help myself and be a better person. For those without choices – they are stuck with shops, government agencies and jobs that truly suck along with failing schools and transport systems that we all know could be an order of magnitude better – and yet all those in power continue to extol lies to perpetuate that all is well.

    So I think the starting point from a CSR perspective is to ask oneself – are our facilities, staff and products aligned to the best interests of a decent customer and are we doing our best to treat everyone with respect? If so, then deviant behaviour may well warrant a zero tolerance approach. However, if you haven’t fixed all the metaphorical broken windows, you may actually be creating the tail spin a societal decay in your rush for a quick fix.

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