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Everyone has heard about the “toxic employee.” There are books about this person. You pay consultants to show you how to deal with them. There are websites, articles, and social media posts dedicated to them.

But how and why do employees become toxic? There are a lot of possible answers to this question, but I want to talk about one in particular today:

The Toxic Customer

I think it’s time that leaders and managers start dealing with the toxic customer.

Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I went to buy coffee at a Publix Supermarket in Florida. The price rang up incorrectly. I mentioned it to the cashier. At Publix, it turns out, the cashier is the one who goes into the aisle to check the price (as I have witnessed once before).

Off the cashier ran to the coffee aisle.

The gentlemen behind me began huffing and puffing and muttering who knows what. I heard words like “in a hurry,” “what’s the problem,” and “where the hell is she?”

When the cashier returned, this customer started yelling at her. He said he saw her talking to people in the aisle and texting. He wanted to know where the hell she was! (It should be mentioned that he never left the checkout lane, and the aisle was nowhere in sight.) She explained to him that she checked the price, answered a question from another customer, and returned.

Off to the right stood two manager-types. They did nothing! Yes, nothing.

Hold that thought.

RecordingA few days later, I arrived for my ukulele lesson at Guitar Center. The room my instructor uses was occupied by another instructor whose lesson was running late. We waited a few minutes. My instructor then knocked on the door, opened it, and told the other instructor that he needed to wrap up.

The woman taking a guitar lesson started berating my instructor, making comments like “You need to calm down,” “You’re gonna die a young man,” “You have a lot of growing up to do,” and “You are never going to live to my age!”

John (my instructor) turned around and walked out without responding to the woman, but reaffirming to the other instructor that he needed to keep to the schedule. The other instructor wrapped up.

As they exited the room, the woman continued her tirade. In front of three other employees. One being a manager. They all did nothing. Yes, nothing!

Let me make this clear: I am an advocate for employees and for better workplaces. If you, as a leader or manager, are not going to defend your people, then I will. And don’t give me that “Customer is always right” crap, because it is just that: crap.

No one deserves to be degraded. No one. Ever.

Leaders and Managers: Sometimes, It’s Your Fault That Employees Become Toxic 

Sometimes, employees become toxic because their leaders and managers – the people who should be supporting them – don’t have their backs.

Back to the Publix story: I went up to the two managers and told them what a great job the cashier had done handling the toxic customer. They said, “Thank you.” I also told them they were embarrassments as managers because they watched a customer do that to an employee and they did absolutely nothing about it.

As for John at Guitar Center, when we entered the room to begin our lesson, the woman was still going on and on to the manager and others. I walked out of the room, walked over to her, and said, “Enough already! You said what was on your mind. And we wouldn’t want to see you stroke out right here because you can’t let go of things. Maybe you need to heed your own advice.”

frogI looked at the manager and others and just shook my head in disgust. Shame on them for letting this go on!

So I leave you with this today:

What are you doing to deal with those toxic customers? And if you’re doing nothing – well, I suggest you read that embarrassing sentence again! Your employees deserve your loyalty. Your employees deserve your protection.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering:

  1. I got my coffee free – That’s the policy for erroneous pricing.
  2. I get nasty looks from the two managers when I walk into that Publix these days. Guess I’m the toxic customer now?
  3. John worships the ground I walk on. (Just kidding. But he was really thankful for my action!)
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