Four Strategies for Reacting to Rude Customers

April 12, 2019

Diffusing hostility requires empathy, communication, and patience.

Talking to patients is an important part of a pharmacist’s job, and, as in any customer-service interaction, can occasionally subject a pharmacist to rude or unreasonable behavior. While it’s natural to feel upset when customers are irritable or impatient, the most effective way to defuse the situation is to act in a professional manner and focus on the problem, not the behavior.

“If someone comes in angry and rude, it’s easy to get angry, too,” says Marvin R. Moore, PharmD, owner of The Medicine Shoppe in Two Rivers, WI. “But that’s not going to make the situation any better. I tell my staff, ‘Don’t throw fuel on the fire.’ When a patient is rude, take a step back. They are probably having a bad day.”

It’s rarely personal, says Moore, so there’s no need to get defensive.

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“One thing I’ve learned from dealing with people over the years is that rudeness is often due to something else that happened to them that day,” he says. “They just came from the doctor’s office after a long wait or got unexpected news. This is sometimes the last stop on a rough day.”

Patients may also act inappropriately if they don’t feel well and find it difficult to wait, or if they feel anxious about the prescribed treatment or how to pay for it. 

“Patients may be cranky and impatient as they enter pharmacies, especially when long wait lines are present,” says Nathaniel M. Rickles, PharmD, PhD, BCPP, associate professor of pharmacy practice at University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy in Storrs. 

While it’s not possible to avoid every possible rude patient encounter, here are some things pharmacists can do to reduce how often they occur and react appropriately when they do occur. 

Clarify Concerns 

Pharmacists should develop strategic line control and crowd control practices and listen carefully to each patient’s needs, says Rickles, noting that after waiting in line, all patients rightfully expect to have all of their questions answered thoroughly. How you answer those questions matters. After listening to the patient’s concerns, try to understand the problem from his or her perspective. 

Although it might seem counterintuitive, empathy can be the most effective way to manage the situation, says Roberta Cava, a customer service consultant and author of Dealing with Difficult People. Ignore the rude language and try to sort out the problem. 

“Assure them that you will do your best to help them,” says Cava. “They have come to you for advice and help. Do your best to try to understand what they want from you.”

To clarify concerns, Cava suggests using language that employs the patient’s own words. Use phrases such as, “It sounds as if the problem is...” and, “Is that what you mean?” to show you are working to understand their concerns. The feeling that someone is listening to them and understands their concerns is sometimes all that’s needed for patients to feel less irritable. 

Cava also suggests saying something like, “I don’t blame you for being upset. I would be too if that had happened to me.”

If appropriate, apologize in an empathetic way, without admitting fault. A statement such as, “I’m so sorry you are experiencing this problem,” neither shirks nor accepts blame, but can go far to soothe an unhappy customer, she says. 

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Model Patience 

It’s also essential to remember that you’re the expert in a subject many patients know little about.

“Often, patients do not understand their medications or insurance plans and may have a lot of questions,” says Rickles. “Pharmacists should keep this in mind and display patience. Going the extra mile to answer questions is a big part of serving others, and pharmacists should make it their goal to clear up any confusion a patient has about their medication.”

If your pharmacy does not offer the medication a patient needs or the medication is too expensive, still make an attempt to resolve the issue. 

If you can’t solve the problem on the spot, offer to call the patient when the issue is resolved. 

“A helpful resolution may be to find another pharmacy that does carry the medication, or to find an alternative medication capable of producing similar results,” says Rickles. “Patients will recognize the extra time spent assisting them, which will increase the probability of their return.” 

Explain Delays 

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a rude customer is that the customer is always-the customer, says Beverly Schaefer, RPh, co-owner of Katterman’s Sand Point Pharmacy in Seattle. “The customer is not always right, so you need to sharpen your problem-solving skills to think of ways you can help them solve their problem.”

Patients may also have unrealistic expectations of what you can do to solve some of their problems. Explaining how the system works can help prevent future problems. There are many aspects that the patient may not understand.

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“Prior authorizations take days,” says Schaefer. “Special products take a day or two to be ordered. Insurance companies are inflexible about refill dates. A change in directions needs a new prescription from the doctor. Vacation overrides need to be initiated by the patient. Calling in a refill from your car and then showing up doesn’t mean it will be ready. Payment is expected at time of service. Help your customers learn to help you serve them better. Everyone will benefit.”

Tone it Down 

An unhappy patient may complain loudly and not pause to listen to your attempts to help or explain. 

If the patient is yelling at you, Schaefer suggests lowering your voice. “Talk in a quiet voice. They will have to stop yelling to hear you.” 

There are situations where a customer’s behavior may cross the line into verbal or physical abuse. While an important part of your job is customer service, you don’t have to let a customer verbally abuse you, or use insulting or racist language, and you should never ignore a threat.

If you feel as if you might lose control of the situation-and possibly display some irrational behavior of your own-take a deep breath, pause for a moment, or even excuse yourself briefly. Let the situation calm slightly and then speak in a quiet voice to see if you can make any progress toward a solution. If he patient is still abusive, you may need to get someone else involved, a coworker, manager, or even call 911 in the case of a threat.

“Dealing with rude behavior is part of customer service, but it doesn’t have to end badly,” says Schaefer. “It is your professional behavior in volatile situations that will help you manage the patient and the problem.”

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10 ways to de-escalate the situation

  • Take a deep breath. 

  • Remain professional.

  • Don’t take it personally.

  • Try to ascertain what the problem is.

  • Listen reflectively. Use their language so they know you are really listening.

  • Apologize, if appropriate.

  • Try to solve the problem.

  • If you can’t solve the problem, refer the patient to someone who can.

  • If you feel you are losing control, step back and ask for help.

  • If the customer is being abusive, ask for help.
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