Rude customers are a drag – but can we small business owners do more?

We’ve been reading about the airline industry’s troubles with unruly passengers. Most of these problems are due to frustrations with wearing masks. But unfortunately, it’s not just the airlines that are experiencing rude customers. Small businesses around the country are also having this problem, and it has nothing to do with masks.

Christopher Morales, who owns the Golden Crown Panaderia, a bakery and sandwich shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has seen a significant rise in unruly customer behavior this year.

“One of my employees was ripped into by a customer about us not taking phone call orders and with the current state of how things are, trying to get employees it’s very disheartening and it makes me upset when people are so rude to the people who are working,” he posted to social media, according to a local television station.

“Nobody deserves to be treated like that. Nobody does.”

As incidents like this increase, Morales stopped taking phone orders altogether.

In Brunswick, Maine, the owner of Joshua’s Restaurant & Tavern vented his frustrations on Facebook. “Whatever juju is out in the universe right now – the awesome folks are being extra nice, and the jerkwads are being extra turdmuffiny,” he posted.

The owners had this advice for customers: “Don’t yell when your order isn’t out in 15 minutes. Have some common sense and empathy. We aren’t going to comp food for taking too long when you were told there was a wait. We aren’t in control of the weather. We have no control over raspberry vinaigrette being out of stock. But most importantly, we aren’t going to put up with ANYONE being ANYTHING LESS THAN CIVIL when speaking to our staff. Be kind to your fellow humans.”

Phew! Talk about the customer NOT being right.

Down the road in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, things aren’t much better. According to the Star Tribune, customers were so rude at one restaurant, the owners decided to shut down for a day just to give their workers a break. They then pleaded with their guests and patrons who swore, argued and threatened to sue to “treat us with kindness and understanding” and to “stop making team members cry”. Other restaurants in the area also reported abusive customer behavior, with one restaurant owner begging for “a little grace”.

The owner of a BBQ restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, says that the abuse by customers has gotten so bad that his employees now read an agreement to each customer when taking an order. The agreement stipulates that the customer will receive a first-time warning for bad behavior then asked to leave if it happens a second time.

“We are going to be kind to you and treat you with respect, we deserve the same because my servers, my staff, we are getting negative feedback when it is not warranted on anything we have done,” the owner told a local news outlet.

The cause behind these incidents, and many other incidents like them, pretty much comes down to one thing: a worker shortage. Small businesses around the country are struggling to find employees as post-Covid demand surges and many workers are choosing to stay at home for various reasons from continued unemployment benefits to lack of childcare and an overall hesitancy to emerge back in the world while Covid and its variants continue to sicken people and claim lives. Impatient customers who are sick and tired of waiting for service are taking out their frustrations on the frontline workers.

Of course, there’s no excuse for this kind of behavior. And many people sympathize with these small business owners who are trying to get back on their feet after an unprecedented economic recession last year.

But before we blame those “unruly” customers and those “lazy” workers, is it possible that we – as small business owners – also share in the responsibility of the current situation? There is a dire shortage of workers and finding good people is hard. But this is a supply and demand issue and when supply gets tight, costs inevitably rise.

So are we paying enough to attract those workers? Are we offering the right benefits? Have we considered increasing hourly wages, enhancing our health insurance, arranging work-from-home schedules, expanding paid time off, providing mental health counseling, helping with college loans – all of the things that bigger companies are doing to fill out their payrolls? Or are we still paying and doing things the same way we did before the pandemic began. If that’s the case, then I can understand why many business owners are short of help.

Of course, many small businesses will say that these things cost too much and can’t be afforded. And I agree these are difficult obstacles to overcome. But c’mon – we’re smarter than that. There’s work opportunity tax credits, forgivable Small Business Administration loans and many other government funding programs still available to help. There are very affordable contactless point of sale and other self-service technologies that can help us reduce overhead.

And we can always raise our prices. I’m seeing many upper-end restaurants doing just that and customers continuing to pay because a) we recognize that these are inflationary times and b) sure, we’re willing to pay more if we get our food while it’s hot and continue to have a good dining experience at your restaurant. I think customers get that these are extraordinary times and understand the cost pressures we have.

Like all problems, there’s never one specific reason or one specific solution and “rude” customers is a good example of that. There’s no excuse for this type of behavior. But if it’s caused by employees not coming to work then maybe it’s not just the employees who are responsible here. Maybe we, as small business owners, need to also take some ownership of the problem and make adjustments in our businesses to solve it.

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