A blonde woman with a mask and a clipboard looks at an older woman with a mask who appears to be gesturing dramatically and looking upward.
Conquering the Karen conundrum
by Kate Zabriskie

She wanted to return a cake that was almost gone. How bad could it have been? Normally, if something is spoiled or not up to standards, it's returned almost intact. This thing was a pile of crumbs. But it gets better; she demanded cash, yelled at me and started causing a scene. I hope she never comes back.

He brought his car in for a repair and demanded that we detail it at no charge. "You have no idea who I am!" Well, I didn't. His car was a low-end luxury car. Our customers with real money don't act like that. The entitlement oozed out of every pore in his body. I handled the situation, but he was horrible!

Encountering customers with challenging behaviors—sometimes colloquially referred to as "Karens"—is an inevitable part of business. (Apologies to all of the very nice people in this world named Karen.) If not handled properly, interactions with these people can escalate and affect the morale of employees and the reputation of the business.

When something is wrong with a product or service, customers should complain, and businesses should do all they can to correct the problem. When customers cross the line, however, they require a different approach.

How to Help Your Team

Don't leave navigating interactions with entitled customers up to your staff to figure out. Entitled customers are not the regular run-of-the-mill challenge, and your staff needs to be ready to handle them.

1. Be clear about what they can & cannot accommodate.

While rules can seem restrictive on the surface, when thoughtfully developed, they can help employees navigate tough situations. Can they give away products? Under what circumstances are free upgrades allowed? In other words, where is the line?

2 Give them a framework to follow & practice it.

A framework or model can provide guidance employees can access in real time if it's something they've memorized and practiced. ACORN is one such tool. Here’s what it stands for and how it looks in practice: 

  • Acknowledgment & Appreciation: Recognize the customer's patronage and acknowledge any requests.

Employee: "So you want to have your car detailed while we repair it. We can accommodate. I have two packages: a light detail at $150 and a deep detail at $300. Which would you like me to add to your order?"
Customer: "I want you to include the deluxe detail at no charge. I've spent a fortune here." 
Employee: "And we appreciate your business."

  • Clarity & Boundaries: Clearly communicate what is possible within the company's policies, setting realistic expectations for what services can be provided.

Employee: "Our detailing packages do have a cost associated with them."

  • Offering Options: Present the customer with viable alternatives or solutions, guiding them toward available choices that align with the company's capabilities.

Employee: "Do you want either package, or should we hold off for another time?"

  • Repetition & Reaffirmation: Repeat and reaffirm key points as necessary, especially in the face of persistent or unreasonable demands, to maintain a clear and consistent message.

Customer: "Are you deaf? I said I want you to include it. I spend a lot of money here." 
Employee: "Sir, I hear you, and we do appreciate your business. Detailing is not free or something we add in. Again, would you like to purchase a detailing package today?"

  • Never Engage With or Match Bad Behavior: Steer the dialogue toward a positive outcome by focusing on constructive solutions, avoiding confrontation and keeping the conversation on track toward resolution.

Customer: "I want a manager!"
Employee: "I can certainly get her."

Whether it's ACORN or something else, practice the framework with your employees before they need it.

3. Be prepared to handle escalations.

Managers are managers for a reason. When customers cross the line, managers must be willing to step in and support their team.

Manager: "Mr. Green, I understand from Wendy that you've requested a deep detail package at no charge. Is that correct?"
Customer: "Yes. I spend a lot of money here, and it's the least you can do. I've already wasted too much time on this."
Manager: "As Wendy explained, we appreciate your business. As for the request for free service, that's not something we can accommodate. Detailing services have a fee. Would you like to purchase a package?"  

4. Learn & adapt from every encounter.

After a particularly difficult interaction with an entitled customer, it's beneficial for the team to debrief and discuss what happened, what was handled well and what could be improved. A review after the fact provides valuable learning opportunities and helps refine the organization's approach to handling similar situations in the future. Collecting and analyzing feedback from these encounters can also inform potential adjustments to policies and procedures to better serve both customers and staff.

5. Recognize Team Members Who Effectively Manage Challenges

Acknowledging and rewarding employees who effectively manage challenging interactions can significantly impact morale and motivation. Recognition can take many forms, from verbal praise in team meetings to more formal rewards like employee of the month programs. Celebrating these successes reinforces the value of skilled customer service and encourages continued excellence.

Dealing with entitled customers is a complex challenge that requires a thoughtful, consistent approach. You can navigate these difficult interactions more smoothly by equipping your team with clear policies and effective communication frameworks like ACORN. Additionally, be prepared to step in when needed. And when challenges arise, use each one to learn and grow as a team. 

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team provide onsite, virtual and online soft-skills training courses and workshops to clients in the United States and internationally. For more information, visit businesstrainingworks.com.