When it comes to difficult visitors and de-escalation techniques, front desk workers are the true unsung heroes of the workplace. The receptionist is, after all, always on the ‘front line’ and exposed to a variety of unexpected situations.
One of these situations is dealing with a difficult visitor.
Whether an aggrieved customer, a spouse, partner, friend or family member of an employee, or something else in these situations, knowing how to handle it makes a huge difference.
This is where de-escalation techniques come into play. We talked to several front desk heroes and asked them what their favorite or most effective methods of handling difficult visitors are.
1. Never get angry back at the visitor
First rule is, if the visitor is angry for some reason, do not mimic their behavior.
It’s easy to get defensive, but you must understand that at the moment, that person is acting irrational and won’t be persuaded. More likely, you will push them to become even angrier.
Additionally, if you get angry back at them, it could further escalate into an official complaint; you are basically giving them fodder to make life difficult by putting forward a narrative that the issue was in your behavior.
Not to mention, when they are angry, people are usually not open to any logical arguments, so don’t even try that. At that moment, their unpleasant experience is, in their mind, indicative of the whole business.
Defensiveness just further exacerbates the division between “me vs them” point of view they are having at that moment.
2. Express understanding and empathy
A much better strategy than inciting a further argument is to try to defuse it. How do you achieve it? With compassion and showing empathy in a variety of ways.
Don't be alarmed by your own body’s reactions. When we are feeling attacked, often we started breathing more shallowly, and our heart starts to race, or we start sweating. Next time this happens, just observe it and don’t let it fluster you further.
Think of the last time yourself was feeling undeserved or wronged or badly treated. Then realize this is how that person is feeling right now. Imagine it was in fact you talking to yourself at that very moment.
Offer a word of understanding – this is the key to defusing the situation. Use a phrase such as “I get how you feel” or “I understand how difficult this might be for you”. By affirming their feelings, you are deflating the whole “me vs them” narrative and putting you and the visitor on the same footing.
3. Offer action
This is a crucial step to de-escalating a difficult visitor. While showing them understanding lifts the barrier between you, what you do next makes sure it stays lifted.
This is achieved by stating clearly the next steps you will take and when, and assuring the visitor this is one of your priorities.
The way you say it also matters. Sheila Wells, who performs customer care training and writes on her blog about it, says:
An individual being difficult at the front desk is often like a child throwing a tantrum. But at that moment it’s better to appeal to their adult side and not talk down to them like a child.
“I understand your problem and I assure you I am trying everything to help you. Please take a seat and I will let you know as soon as I have any information”
This will be much more calming and effective than saying:
“I am doing all I can here. You will have to take a seat and wait your turn.”
By offering a concrete solution, you are reversing the whole situation and doing immediate damage control. At the same time, you’re showing the person in question that you’re action-oriented and truly care about their situation.
4. Involve others
Marsinah Jackson, who's been with the Lowell School in Washington DC for over 10 years, says:
“I've had the help of supervisors to [handle] visitors that are not welcome to speak with them directly if I can't get them to go away with my smile.”
And indeed, while you should be perfectly equipped to defuse an uneasy visitor yourself, sometimes getting someone else’s help is the only way to do the trick.
This could be your supervisor, the security personnel, or just any other senior person in your company.
5. Handle excessive aggression
You will definitely want to call over some help if the person in question is particularly aggressive. In this unfortunate event, try to position yourself so you have a barrier between you and the visitor, advises Ms Wells.
This can be a particularly unsatisfied customer. These individuals show up at your office to express their point of view and escalate into verbal or physical violence.
In these exceptional situations, the points we already mentioned about not fighting back and trying to offer compassion + a solution, matter even more. Just in case, make sure you are maintaining eye contact, assume a non-conflictive demeanor but also position yourself close to an exit if needed.
6. Don’t take it personally
Above all —and this is not always easy— do not take the situation personally. At all times during the interaction, try to keep your professional detachment, stay polite and try offering a solution.
“Learn to ignore rudeness”, says Ms Wells. The person raising an issue is at the end of the day doing that because they are not getting what they wanted. This would be the case even if someone else was working there instead of you.
So focus on righting the situation for them and remind yourself this is after all a professional situation demanding professional poise.
7. Be prepared
This is a pre-emptive de-escalation technique.
You won’t always have the luxury of doing that but if you know a “difficult” person is going to visit you can get additional peace of mind beforehand by preparing for it.
Proxyclick is equipped with an ability to pre-register visitors so by scanning the scheduled visitor list you can glean who is supposed to show up on that day and prepare your plan.
Additionally, you can place certain individuals on watch lists. This means that you can designate someone in your company to receive a ‘silent’ alert when a specific visitor checks in. This can help you gain a few seconds or minutes of precious time to prepare for dealing with that person, whether you’re a reception or the host.
Practice makes perfect
Whether or not you will face a visitor that is hard to handle is not the question. The question is ‘when will it happen?’
In order to preserve the air of hospitality and achieve lowest friction possible at your front desk, it’s important to practice your cool and be prepared as much as possible.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.