7 Effective Verbal Intervention Strategies for Retail Workers

May 31, 2024
Security guard intervening during conflict between two retail customers.

If you work in retail, you know that good verbal intervention skills can help you respond in the safest, most effective way possible when dealing with challenging customer behavior. When things begin to escalate, knowing how to defuse the situation is essential to avoiding physical confrontations.

These seven techniques have shown to be incredibly effective in reducing the anxiety and defensiveness that often precedes greater conflict.

1. Remain calm

This might sound easier said than done, especially when a customer is screaming, swearing, making threats, or using abusive or threatening language. Keep in mind that when someone is acting this way, they’re starting to lose control. If they sense you’re losing control, too, the situation is likely to get worse. To prevent this from happening, it’s important to stay calm.

While you can’t control someone else’s behavior, you can control your own response. A composed, rational reaction can go a long way toward positively influencing the customer's attitudes and actions.

2. Remove the audience

Onlookers often fuel the fire of a situation. Oftentimes, they can become cheerleaders, encouraging the customer’s behavior. And even if they don’t, someone who’s escalating is less likely to back down when they have an audience. Try to take the customer aside, lead them toward another area, or ask a colleague to lead bystanders away. Your approach will be much more effective one-on-one than in a group setting.

3. Watch your body language

When a customer is agitated, they’ll instinctively pay less attention to what you say and more attention to HOW you say it—and that includes your body language. Be aware of your posture and gestures and be sure to give the person you’re intervening with enough personal space.

For nearly all of us in tense situations, our anxiety rises when our personal space is invaded. This heightened anxiety makes it more likely that a customer will act out in a more serious way. By maintaining at least an arm's-length distance, you’ll be less likely to increase the person’s anxiety—and more likely to reduce it. Make sure your nonverbal behavior is as respectful and nonthreatening as your spoken words.

4. Keep it simple

Be clear, direct, and respectful with what you say. Because an escalating individual is usually too preoccupied to hear many words, complex messages will only increase their anxiety and make their behavior more difficult to de-escalate. Avoid jargon and complicated choices.

5. Use reflective questioning

Restate what you think the customer is saying and ask them if you’re understanding what they mean. This will help them clarify their message. It will also help you figure out how to help them get their needs met in a safe, productive way. Try to listen for the real message — the feelings behind the facts. Also know that by repeating or reflecting the customer’s words in the form of a question, you’ll help them gain valuable insight.

6. Be silent

Ironically, allowing for silence is one of the most effective verbal intervention techniques. Silence on your part allows the customer to restate and clarify their viewpoint. This can lead you to a clearer understanding of the true source of their conflict.

7. Watch your paraverbals

Two identical statements can have opposite meanings, depending on the tone, volume, and cadence of your voice. Make sure your vocal inflection is consistent with the words you use. This will help you avoid sending the customer the wrong message.

For example, “Come with me” can either sound reassuring or threatening to someone who is upset. Controlling how you say things is one of the most crucial things you can do to prevent a situation from escalating.

Your confident, skilled response plays a critical role in whether a situation gets better or worse. While you can't control everything in a situation with someone who's agitated, when you know these strategies, you're much more likely to influence behavior in a positive way.

CPI’s Verbal Intervention Training can help your retail team take safety and well-being to the next level.

Ideal for organizations that have a hands-off policy and staff members who don’t experience the kind of higher risk situations that require physical interventions, Verbal Intervention trains staff to respond to crisis situations by focusing on de-escalation techniques and safe, non-restrictive interventions.

Learn more about CPI Verbal Intervention Training.

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