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October 23, 2013

When an Employee Sues a Customer

Filed under: General HR Buzz — Tags: , 11:11 am

Anyone who has worked with customers regularly knows it can be a real challenge.  We put many hours into training our employees to maintain a professional demeanor and keep their emotions in check while assisting an unhappy or just plain irate customer.  But, what if . . . . one time, our employee just can’t deal with a particular customer’s actions?  Where do they draw the line between mild-mannered customer service representative and standing up for themselves?

Well, an interesting case came out of the Tennessee Court of Appeals where an employee of Southwest Airlines sued a customer over the rants she made on Twitter and Facebook about her customer service experience with the employee, Jennifer Patterson.  The accused, Natalie Grant-Herms, was complaining about not being able to board the plane at the same time as her two young children.  Instead of waiting until they could all board together, she went to the ever-so-public forums.  Patterson, who is an operations agent for the airline, sued Grant-Herms for posting false and defamatory comments.  The court dismissed the defamation of character, but felt the invasion of privacy claim could proceed.

This case brings to mind that employers need to make some serious decisions on how they will handle such a situation.  An employer’s first reaction may be to formally discipline the employee, however, they could run the risk of facing discrimination or retaliation charges themselves.  Does the employer have a policy in place to address this topic?  We know, as employers, we can’t treat everyone the same, but we must treat them fairly.  No two situations are alike and each must be viewed on its own merits.  This is definitely an area to seek legal expertise.

Even though at times, customers may test employees’ ability to remain composed, we don’t want our employees feeling ill-equipped.  Following are some proactive measures an employer can take to help employees be confident and equipped to provide superior customer experiences:

  • Reiterate often the importance of customers to the business.  Customers make everything possible – new products, new jobs, profit, and growth.
  • Train employees on acceptable customer service interaction.  Include practice sessions that simulate assisting a challenging customer.
  • Empower employees to make reasonable autonomous decisions for the benefit of the customer, e.g. waiving a fee, awarding the customer a gift card of de minimus value for a long wait, etc.

Help your employees deliver customer service experiences that stand out from the crowd.  Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


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