When customers refuse to wear masks: How to train employees

As a business owner or manager, one of your top priorities amid the dangers of COVID-19 is most likely keeping your employees and customers safe while they spend time in your establishment. However, that can be difficult when customers refuse to wear masks. 

You may live in one of the more than 20 states that require residents to wear a mask in public. (You can view a list of the state requirements here.) Or you may be enforcing your own mask requirements, just as  some of the biggest store chains in the country—Walmart, Best Buy, and Target—are doing. 

Either way, you and your employees will likely run into a few customers who refuse to follow mask requirements upon entry. 

Unfortunately, these incidents can turn aggressive and sometimes violent. In an effort to keep everyone involved safe, we’ve compiled a few ways to enforce your rules and to empower your employees to handle situations sparked when customers refuse to wear masks.  

Ways to encourage in-store mask usage

The first step in enforcing your policy is to do your best to prevent any type of escalated incident as a result of an anti-mask customer. Here are a few tips for doing so: 

Clear signage 

Get aggressive with your signs. Make sure your rules are easy to understand and easily visible even before the customer steps in the door. In fact, go even further than in-store signs and stipulate your policy in marketing materials, social media, and on your website. 

Does your city or county have any requirements? If so, be sure to include these rules on your signage so the customer knows it’s not just you, but the entire area that requires residents to wear masks. 

If you need some inspiration on what exactly to say on your signs, here’s what is posted on Walmart’s signage: 

“Walmart requires face coverings for all customers, associates, and others while visiting our stores. Nose and mouth must be covered with a mask or cloth (e.g. bandana, scarf, homemade mask). Exceptions apply for infants and young children, and those with certain health issues.” 

Provide masks for free

Many businesses are taking one of the biggest excuses out of the equation by giving anyone who didn’t bring a mask with them a free one upon entering. If you can afford to do it, take a page out of Whole Foods and Lowe’s and offer a free face covering to anyone who enters and does not have one. This makes it easy for customers to follow the rules. 

Place a trained employee by the door 

To help customers further understand your policy, consider having an employee near the entrance who can help educate customers who have questions about the rules. This employee can also enforce appropriate behavior and hand out those free masks we just discussed. 

Although prevention tactics are necessary, situations may still arise despite your efforts. Let’s walk through a few ways to train your employees on how to de-escalate incidents with angry customers who may have an issue with your policy. 

How to empower employees to handle when customers refuse to wear masks

Your employees may feel uneasy about handling a disgruntled customer who not only isn’t wearing a mask but is vocalizing their anger to your team. It’s extremely important to hold a training session on what to do. Here are a few things to include in that training. 

Ensure your entire team is informed on the policy 

Every employee should be properly educated on your new rules and policies in order to properly answer any questions customers may have. Make sure your team is using the same messaging and enforcing the rules the same way to avoid any further confusion. 

Use empathetic communication 

Our country is facing a tense time, and that tension is showing itself in the form of stressed customers. Make sure your employees know to avoid getting frustrated and respond to complaints with a respectful and empathetic tone. 

Train them to first listen to the customer’s complaints, without assuming they already know how they’re going to respond. The very first interaction with that person can determine the entirety of the conversation. So if your employee first approaches the customer from an inquiry standpoint, rather than presumption, the situation could be de-escalated before it even gets bad. 

Be transparent 

Your employee should lay out the rules, but also accommodate any circumstances that may apply to them (like if they have a disability). However, if the customer simply doesn’t want to acknowledge your policy, first reiterate what the rules are in the establishment, and then try to understand what the actual reasoning is behind their refusal. 

For example, if their reasoning is that they feel the requirements are taking away their liberty, respond by highlighting that it’s the business’s liberty to decide who can be in the building. 

Karen Tibbals, founder of Ethical Frames and author of Persuade, Don’t Preach, Restoring Civility Across the Political Divide, posted a video on YouTube about how the mask debate. 

“If the person focuses on liberty, the business can say, ‘We are having a conflict about liberty – your liberty to wear a mask and my liberty to decide who can enter my premises,” Tibbals says in the video. “Because I know you respect my liberty as well as yours, I am sure that you will support my decision to require a mask from people who choose to enter my premises.” 

Calmly de-escalate

Train your employees not to point fingers or get involved in an argument that will further escalate the situation. Stay calm, take their complaints seriously, be personal, and even be friendly—most people will respond well to someone they like. 

Gabbi Rose, owner of Sugarloaf Cafe in Mountain Center, California, takes her kindness strategy a step further by de-escalating incidents with an offering most of us can agree on: dessert. 

“My solution is always pie,” Gabbi said. “We had two customers in an argument, so my host grabbed a megaphone and said, ‘Guys! What is your favorite slice of pie? I’ll give you each a piece if you can take five steps away from each other. We can all agree that pie’s delicious right?’” 

Gabbi explained further and said it’s important to have an element of humor during this time. 

“The whole situation is awkward. It’s awkward for people to walk up to our window, it’s awkward that they’re sitting at a table in between plexiglass, it’s awkward for servers. You have to reinvent the whole process of doing it.” 

Suggest alternatives 

Arm your employees with alternative solutions to help resolve the conflict. If your customer doesn’t want to follow the rules for no valid reason, offer another way for them to shop. 

If you have curbside pickup, or an e-commerce site, inform the customer that the policy keeps everyone safe. Let them know they can utilize your alternative business models to obtain service. 

Know when to ask for help 

Even if your employee is equipped with the best training on how to handle disgruntled customers, they must know their limits and know when they need backup. 

There should be an established hierarchy for when a team member needs help with a complaining customer. Set up a list. Plan who the employee should turn to and when. This could be a manager for the particularly unhappy customers, or in the worst situations, law enforcement. 

Use professional training 

You can also turn to the professionals to ensure your team is thoroughly prepared to handle any potentially aggressive situation. Here are a few online workshops you can use: 

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