How to Deal With Inappropriate Comments From Customers

Last Updated May 10th, 2021

“Hey, princess.”

“I see why you got your job.”

“You’re so handsome.”

If you are in a customer-facing role or you lead a team of customer-facing employees, these types of comments may sound familiar. Sadly, unwanted advances, flirting, inappropriate comments, and sexual harassment from customers aren’t as uncommon as we might hope.

And while video offers an amazing opportunity to connect in an authentic, human way, some people will use it instead to focus on physical appearance, make gendered comments, or infuse the conversation with innuendo.

Why does this matter? Here are just a few of the ways people say this kind of behavior affects them:

“It’s unsettling. I’m caught off guard and don’t know how to respond.”

“I feel shame — like I did something wrong.”

“I feel like I’m back in middle school.”

“I feel like my expertise is being diminished.”

This isn’t where you want your employees to operate from when trying to negotiate a sale or train a customer. You’re not your best and your employees aren’t their best when the focus shifts away from their content, expertise, or experience.

Our team at BombBomb has sent half a million videos collectively. That’s because our mission is to rehumanize the planet through authentic and personal communication. At its core, that means that both the recipient and the sender are treated with respect and dignity. But sometimes, people miss that mark. They say or imply things that tear down rather than building trust and relationships.

Having a strategy for you and your employees is key, and we’ve reached out to some of the seasoned experts at BombBomb to help you navigate these tricky situations.

Tips for Managers

We talked with Jonathan Bolton, Chief Customer Officer at BombBomb, as well as Daniel Hall, Director of Sales, to learn how they guide employees through these situations.

Ensure your employees know you support them

Your employees need to know they can come to you with these issues. Ensure your employees know:
You’re a safe person to bring their concerns to.
You won’t dismiss it.
They are more important than a sale.
You won’t tolerate harassment.

Believe your employees

Most employees don’t relish talking about this kind of issue with their manager. If an employee brings a situation to your attention, chances are they’ve thoroughly debated whether they should say something. Gather the facts of the situation, but don’t dismiss it or laugh it off.

Give employees permission to deal with situations

Ensure your employees know how they can respond to these types of situations. If someone makes an off-color comment, do your employees know they have the freedom to call it out as inappropriate? Or do they worry that their job or people’s perception of their ability to do their job will be threatened?

 

Give language

It can be helpful for employees to have phrases tucked in their back pocket that they can practice using. It takes time, practice, and confidence to respond well to uncomfortable and inappropriate comments, and preparing your employees with language can give them a head start. (See below for helpful phrases.) Ultimately, leave it up to your employees if and how they want to respond.

Offer to come to meetings or reassign customers when necessary

Some employees might prefer to deal with these situations on their own, but others may appreciate the support of having someone at a meeting with them. In some cases, they may feel that the customer could be better helped by another employee if trust or respect has been broken in the relationship.

Be proactive

Rather than being reactive and dealing with issues when they come up, train your employees in advance. If you know this is an issue your employees will face, include training in your employee onboarding process. Work with HR to create documentation on how these situations will be handled. Consider doing periodic training for employees.

Understand the psychological toll this takes on employees

Whether it’s a case of sexual harassment or a low-level drip of unwanted comments on appearance, this can take a psychological toll on your employees that you may not know about. Work with employees and HR to determine care strategies for employees so they will be equipped for their job long-term.

Determine when to fire a customer

At times, it may become clear that a customer isn’t the right fit for your company. If customers have been approached about their behavior and it continues, have serious conversations with leadership about whether to continue the partnership. Use these conversations as an opportunity to educate customers on what is and isn’t appropriate.

Tips for Individuals

We chatted with a pro at responding to these types of situations, Alicia Berruti, BombBomb National Speaker. Here are her tips to empower you to reclaim your power when you’ve been diminished.

Keep context in mind

These situations aren’t always black and white. A customer asking if you are single during a first interaction is different from a customer you’ve worked with for several years. Some people may compliment your appearance out of ignorance of how it may impact you, rather than ill intent. Lean on context to determine how best to respond.

Give yourself permission to have boundaries

This might be easier for some than others. If you are naturally bold, boundaries may come easily. But if you lean towards people-pleasing, you may need to do some work. Reflect on what stops you from setting boundaries or speaking up for yourself.

“Boundaries are about creating an environment where you feel safe. It’s not about being defensive, it’s preparing yourself internally so you can do your job without worrying.”

– Alicia Berruti | National Speaker, BombBomb

Determine your boundaries

Everyone will have a different line on what they want to address head-on and what they’ll let slide. Maybe you’re comfortable letting one-time comments on your appearance pass by, but want to respond when any sexual innuendo enters a conversation.

Think through how you want to respond to the different shades of experience you might have. You might not know this right away — determining your boundaries will likely be a learning process and ever-evolving.

 

Talk to your manager about permission

Find out what your employer’s stance on these situations is. Talk about the situations you experience and ask for support. A good employer will empower you to respond as you feel is appropriate and will support your decisions.

Practice

For many of us, responding to these situations isn’t natural and it’s certainly not easy. If you know these issues will come up in your role, rehearse your response, just as you would rehearse a close if you’re in sales or training if you’re in customer support. Get with a trusted colleague and role play. It will take time, practice, and a little discomfort, but that time is worth it as you empower yourself in your role.

Set the tenor of the relationship at the beginning

Often when someone makes an inappropriate comment, they’re testing the water. They’re seeing what you’ll put up with and purposefully pushing buttons. As much as you are comfortable, call out behavior the first time, so you don’t have to deal with it on the second, third, or fourth interaction.

Alicia shares why it’s so key to do this early:

“It comes down to authenticity and vulnerability. We know these are important in building trusting relationships,” Alicia says. “If what’s in the back of your mind when you work with someone is that they make you uncomfortable or that you’ve been diminished, you won’t be able to do your job as well. Vulnerability is always scary. But when we show up authentically by calling out things that make us uncomfortable, that will be rewarded one way or another — either by taking our power back and being treated with respect or by learning someone’s true colors when they respond poorly.”

Be direct and adjust your tone as appropriate

You don’t have to be “sweet” when responding to things that should never be said. As you are comfortable, give yourself permission to stand up for yourself by being direct and adjusting your tone from light-hearted to serious. Their response will tell you a lot about whether they’re the kind of customer you or your company wants to work with or not.

Ask for input on whether something was inappropriate

Sometimes you need a sounding board when something felt off. Talk to a trusted colleague about the experience and how it affected you.

Record it and tell your manager

Make note of the time, date, situation, and how you responded. This is especially important if something occurs again in the future. If you feel it is appropriate, talk to your manager about it.

Invite a manager or team member to your meeting, or ask the customer to be reassigned

If the trust or respect in the relationship has been damaged by this customer, consider whether you want to request that a colleague be present in future meetings or if the customer could be better helped by another employee.

Alicia shares how, again, this comes down to trust:

“When trust is broken, you aren’t going to be able to show up in that relationship in the way you should,” she says. “It won’t be a successful business relationship if it can’t be respectful two-way.”

Know your value and reclaim your power

Even when we know they shouldn’t, experiences like these can make us feel diminished.

Alicia is a pro at reclaiming her power. She shares her mindset:

“It’s not my intention to make people uncomfortable, but there is a certain amount of taking your power back when you say, ‘You’re not allowed to speak to me like that.’ It is empowering. In a situation where you were diminished, you have the power to say, ‘No, I won’t be diminished.’”

Helpful Phrases and Techniques to Use With Inappropriate Customers

Each person will have a different style and comfort level in responding to unwanted behavior. Here’s a list of phrases or techniques you can use (from less direct to direct):

“Let’s get back to the topic.” If you don’t want to directly call out behavior, use a simple phrase like this one and move on.

“I’m not sure how that relates, but I’m here to help you with X.” If you want to call out behavior, but quickly redirect the conversation, this phrase is for you. You could also say, “I don’t know about that, but what I do know about is X.” This reasserts the expertise and value you bring to the interaction.

“I’d prefer you use my name; my name is X.” If customers use pet names, such as “Beautiful,” “Sweetheart,” or “Handsome,” ask that they use your name. You can be direct (“That’s not my name.”) or more indirect (“I’d prefer if you’d use my name.”).

“I’m also really good at my job.” Use a phrase like this if attention has been diverted to your appearance and you want to call out the way this distracts from your competence.

Silence. If someone makes an off-color or inappropriate comment, you don’t have to figure out a brilliant or witty response. Silence can be a way of putting the discomfort back on the other person, rather than feeling you have to dispel the discomfort or fill the space with nervous (and ingenuine) laughter.

“That’s inappropriate.” A simple phrase like this, with a bit of space left after it, gives the person a chance to apologize before you move on.

“That’s inappropriate and I’m going to need to end this meeting/email chain/phone call.” If the context warrants it, you may need to end an interaction, whether it’s a video email back and forth, phone call, or video meeting.

Amber Van Schooneveld

Amber Van Schooneveld | About The Author

Senior Writer at BombBomb and author of "Hope Lives: A Journey of Restoration." Amber loves exploring ideas and telling stories with the ultimate goal of helping people. BA: Colorado State University.

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