Conflict resolution is a crucial part of quality customer service, but utilities must ensure their employees’ health and safety is protected, says Manbir Thandi.

When a utility’s frontline staff are faced with aggressive, vexatious customers, the stakes can be high. Aggressive customer interaction, while rare, can put an employee’s health and safety at risk and, if not handled properly, can lead to legal claims and significant commercial and reputational implications.

Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe working environment. The onus is firmly on utilities to make it clear they do not tolerate customers acting inappropriately and to implement conflict resolution strategies that prepare employees for difficult situations, ensuring the necessary support can be drafted in when required.

An added pressure comes from the current climate. Public sentiment towards the sector, particularly energy suppliers, is at a low point and the media is quick to jump on any customer dispute that portrays a utility in a bad light. In today’s competitive market­place a conflict resolution strategy must balance the need to protect workers with a requirement to deliver good customer service and resolve disputes before they escalate, or are aired in a public forum.

The level of risk is largely dependent on the nature of the customer’s grievance and their temperament. When a customer becomes abusive or threatening during the course of a complaint being addressed, the danger to the welfare of the frontline employee handling the case intensifies. These circumstances can cause serious mental distress for customer service agents in a contact centre setting. For employees who have to visit a customer’s property to investigate or substantiate a claim, their physical safety can also be at risk. If an employee is harmed in the course of performing their duties, utilities can be left liable.

It must be remembered that situations like this are uncommon. Most complaints are resolved quickly and amicably. Serious conflict flashpoints usually occur when a customer’s day-to-day life has been seriously affected. This could include a burst water main causing significant flood damage to a customer’s property, or a long-term power outage caused by routine works. Other customers may act in an unacceptable manner for no apparent reason. An effective conflict resolution strategy prepares staff for such extreme circumstances.

With this in mind, here are three ways to help utilities implement a conflict resolution framework that protects staff, addresses customer grievances effectively and safeguards the business from reputational damage.


Have a clear process in place to identify and expedite challenging customer grievances. Utilities, like any consumer-centric business, have to handle customer complaints on a regular basis. A conflict resolution strategy must separate the innocuous, day-to-day grievances that are resolved easily from those that pose a threat to the employee on the receiving end.

This involves recording instances when customers have been aggressive in the past so they are easily identified, but more importantly, there must also be a clear process for frontline staff to raise concerns with their superiors if they feel their personal wellbeing is at risk. Utilities must not be slow to support their employees in such circumstances

The next phase is dependent on the business. Usually an incrementally severe process of restrictions will be imposed on the vexatious customer, barring them from making contact until a decision on their case has been made. In extreme cases, it may be appropriate to withdraw employee involvement altogether and legal action or police involvement could be required. The important thing is that this expedition process is transparent and everyone understands their responsibilities.


Deliver effective and targeted training. Comprehensive, regular training sessions are the most effective way to protect the health and safety of employees and prepare them for challenging customer interactions. Any programme should cover a broad range of situations and clearly show employees how to respond to and handle unreasonable, or threatening behaviour, and how to acquire support if needed.

There are a number of ways to achieve this, but whatever the delivery method, utilities must provide realistic scenarios that test employees, without exposing them to customers prematurely, so they gain the experience needed, without incurring the risk.


Cultivate a positive workplace culture. A conflict resolution strategy that protects staff will work only if utilities promote an environment where workers feel comfortable highlighting threatening situations or interactions. The last thing any business wants is an employee feeling they have to put themselves in danger, or go over and above the call of duty, to deal with a vexatious customer, for fear of being reprimanded.

Utilities need to engage the full buy-in of the business to make conflict resolution a success. Good communication, clear policy and effective governance will create a culture where staff feel safe and complaints, whatever their nature, are handled effectively.

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