You’ve hired cheerful and flexible staff to interact with your customers. But even the most cheerful team member can get rattled, defensive or angry when confronted by a belligerent customer. And yes, belligerent customers do exist.

They are the people having a lousy day (or a lousy life) and feel better about themselves by berating and bullying others, especially those who aren’t in a position to fight back. They’re the customers who demand you exempt them from your credit card or check-writing protocols.

They’re the ones who demand you replace — for free — a two-year-old plastic bird feeder that broke in the wind. They're the ones who demand a cash refund on a returned item that they didn’t buy in the first place.

Now it’s not the request so much that rattles your staff, as it is the aggressive, almost violent response of the customer when told "no." We’ve heard it all:

"I’m not leaving till I get a refund."

"I’m reporting you to…(corporate/police/consumer affairs/etc.) You guys are crooks."

"I’ll never shop here again."

"I’ll post negative online reviews of your company unless you give me what I want."

"Don’t you know the customer is always right."

"What kind of lousy customer service is this? Store X and Store Y always do what I ask; I’m sorry I shopped here."

When they notch up the aggression, or start hurling personal insults, it’s too easy for your staff to respond in kind. Not a good situation for anyone.

So, what to do?

1. The validity and reasonableness of what the customer is demanding has no correlation to how loud he’s yelling or the extent of the threats he’s making.

Once you give in to tantrums, other customers will notice that a tantrum gets you what you want, however unreasonable. You’ll get more of the same behavior, not only from that customer but from others as well who are watching your reactions.

2. Have clear-cut procedures on how to handle refunds and/or complaints, and make sure that all your staff, management included, follow them.

Managerial exceptions to the procedures should be for extraordinary circumstances only, with guidelines for what constitutes "extraordinary" clearly laid out. Loud demands and threats do not constitute "extraordinary circumstances." Print out these policies to give to these demanding customers so they know your rules aren’t extemporaneous or whimsical.

3. Don’t undermine your front-line staff by contradicting when they’re following procedures.

Staff will feel diminished and even chastised if you don’t follow protocol. Your staff will believe you’ve acted capriciously, which lessens their commitment to following procedures.

4. Emotionally support your staff after an incident with a particularly difficult customer.

These kinds of interactions are stressful, especially for employees on the lower echelons of status who typically have the least amount of power, yet are the most likely to encounter an angry customer.

One company I know, at a private party, had a contest where their staff performed skits of their most demanding, unreasonable customers and then voted on the year’s worst customer. Laughter is a powerful cathartic.

Recognize that in working with the public, it is nearly impossible to please everyone. If a customer threatens to take their business elsewhere, realize his ‘business’, such as it is, is better spent with a competitor, sparing you the stress and energy in attempting to satisfy an impossible and boorish customer.

No amount of revenue from this type of person is worth what they’ll cost you and your staff in terms of stress and morale.