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Webinar helps businesses handle customer conflicts

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | November 21, 2020 12:00 AM

Nearly 150 people tuned into a Zoom videoconference Thursday to learn coping mechanisms for dealing with conflict in business settings, including customers’ reluctance to wear masks.

The webinar, titled “De-escalation Training — Effective Conflict Intervention,” was organized by Flathead Valley Community College. The training was hosted by Cory Clarke, a Kalispell Police Department officer, school resource officer at Flathead High School and campus resource officer at FVCC, along with Tracy Sullivan, a clinical professional counselor and the disability coordinator at FVCC.

The webinar topic was requested by numerous local organizations in light of difficulties many businesses have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with regards to wearing face masks in stores. Clarke said the high turnout for the webinar likely “speaks to some pain maybe people are feeling.”

Throughout the hour-long training, business owners and store managers shared stories of conflict they and their staff have experienced over the past few months. One woman said that even her highly trained staff had begun to feel “exhausted” by the need to constantly engage with customers who refuse to use face masks.

In light of reports such as this, Clarke explained the law enforcement approach to dealing with conflictual situations, especially in the current tumultuous climate stemming from pandemic-related restrictions.

Clarke reaffirmed the right of all proprietors to decline service to any customer of the retailer’s choosing. If a guest refuses to comply with a company’s mask policy—or for any other reason—Clarke maintained the business owner is within their rights to refuse service to that individual.

Sullivan added that businesses are not required to accommodate shoppers with disabilities that exempt them from wearing face coverings, per the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a public health crisis, she explained, mask requirements actually supersede individual disability accommodations. She encouraged businesses to provide options to customers, such as clear face shields that make breathing easier, and shopping alternatives like curbside pickup.

Clarke also clarified that law enforcement has been directed to handle mask conflicts at businesses as issues with disorderly conduct or trespassing, rather than focusing on mask use as the problem in and of itself.

He said Kalispell Police officers have been called to some businesses as frequently as once a day, and used Ace Hardware as an example. Clarke said business owners like those at Ace are perfectly within their rights to report customers to law enforcement for disorderly conduct or trespassing if their refusal to wear a mask in the store creates a disturbance or an unsafe environment in the establishment.

IN ADDITION to legal resources, the FVCC presenters also went over personal strategies employees can use in situations of conflict at stores, restaurants and other businesses facing tense interactions with customers.

The presentation introduced meeting attendees to physical methods that can be used to stay calm in situations of conflict and de-escalate these tensions.

Sullivan described the body’s many physical responses to fear, in order for workers experiencing those phenomena to better regulate their reactions. For instance, she pointed out a rapid heart rate actually decreases the ability to hear, making it especially difficult for people in these scenarios to listen to the other side of an argument.

She suggested strategies for keeping calm, such as deep breathing, focusing on peripheral vision and rubbing the fleshy part of the palm below the thumb, which can slow down the nerve that travels through that spot.

She also offered suggestions for interpersonal strategies to employ when confronted with a disgruntled customer.

For example, Sullivan said people in conflicts can seek to understand and validate the other person’s point of view, without agreeing that the opposing perspective is correct. In these scenarios, Sullivan said to try a “broken record technique” in which an employee insists that they understand the shopper’s viewpoint while repeating their company policy until the customer realizes they will not gain traction with their aggressive approach.

Sullivan also encouraged employees to offer solutions that the company can meet, rather than promising 100% resolution in a way that might not be feasible. And consistency is key, she noted. Problems arise when an employee gives one answer to a customer, only for a manager to show up and give a totally different response.

Ultimately, Sullivan said, “conflict is a good thing” because it provides an opportunity to grow and build trust.

Sullivan and Clarke will provide another training on conflict de-escalation on Dec. 11. To register, go to https://fvcc.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJUkdOGqrzIjGN15ANZTA3uLjhNwemV_KB1G

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.