During a conversation about paint touch-up, an agitated home owner in Oklahoma City explained to her warranty manager that “I own a .44 and I know how to use it.” A furnace technician in Salt Lake City was threatened with decapitation by a home owner who thought his furnace was too noisy.
A woman home from military duty in the Middle East and now living in Atlanta met with the warranty manager and a manufacturer rep. She had a pistol in the back pocket of her jeans the entire time they inspected issues with her home’s siding. In Edmonton, a receptionist answered a call to hear a home owner say that he was on his “way to your main office with a bomb.”
These examples of home buyer bullying demonstrate the extreme edge of changed consumer attitudes. Using intimidation or threats to try to gain an advantage is becoming more common.
Builders sell what is usually the most expensive and arguably most important product those consumers purchase. That reactions gravitate toward the extreme end of the behavior spectrum is not surprising. Here are four steps I recommend to builders for handling these home buyer bullies:
1. Set goals and boundaries
When builders ask how to handle these “customer service” situations, my first response is that these behaviors go beyond service practices; this is a matter of security. Your first priority is to keep people safe, with protecting property a respectable secondary goal.
Recognize as well that a large difference exists between a frustrated buyer raising a voice or a griping post on Facebook and someone who describes a physical act that would harm people or property. Ensure that every employee and associate knows that a report of any such behavior will result in the company taking appropriate actions.
2. Go on record
File a report with local law enforcement. Should any of the threatened behaviors actually occur, having a record of the initial threat would assist police or deputies in tracking down the culprit.
Reporting begins with documenting the date, time, location, and names of those involved, as well as any witnesses. Next, share those details with the appropriate authorities. In Atlanta, the sheriff sent a deputy to have a chat with the home owner. Whether your local law enforcement will do something similar or merely file the information would depend on the nature of the event. Minimally, you want details, names, and the date on file.
3. Spread the word
Share information about the circumstances and the events with your personnel. No employee’s safety should be threatened by anyone. Being aware of such events calls attention to the need for good habits and having a couple of options in mind if any kind of inappropriate behavior occurs.
4. Develop a plan
On a case-by-case basis, meet with your team and discuss options. Can you “fire” the customer? With a documented history of errant behavior of this type, terminating a contract is a real possibility. It might be best to refund all monies paid to avoid further motivation for drama.
If eliminating the buyer is impossible, decide whether further contact is acceptable and under what circumstances. You might decide that any meeting or inspection will involve at least two people; another option is to work only with the individual’s spouse or partner. These practices would apply to any contact with trade contractors as well as company personnel.
A more extreme action would be to use the services of a third-party inspector and trades from outside your normal group. Define such conditions calmly and clearly for the customer involved and confirm the details in writing. Working with strangers who had nothing to do with the original transaction often ends the bitter attacks and threats. Disclose the circumstances to any company or individual who would then have contact with the bully.
On a more general level, discuss security with all your staff. Have a plan for how to react to an angry customer at the reception desk. What steps could your sales consultants take if one of them felt uncomfortable while at work? Hiring private security is an extreme step, but might be warranted in some cases, at least until things settle down.
While all of this is undesirable news, ignoring it could lead to tragedy. Vigilance is appropriate and being prepared can bring peace of mind.