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How to Handle Customers Who Won't Follow Safety Rules

When you reopen your business, you need to make new policies clear to customers--and respond appropriately if they refuse to comply.

When Cheryl Turnquist opened her pilates studio on Monday, she knew some customers wouldn't want to comply with her social distancing and mask policies. But she's prepared to sacrifice business to keep her staff safe.

"I'm not going to give in just for the dollar," says Turnquist, founder of Providence Pilates in Providence, Rhode Island. "I'd rather go out of business than have to compromise my principles for people who are just selfish."

As all 50 states begin to reopen their economies, business owners are grappling with how to enforce new health safety rules. Complicating the situation, many disgruntled customers who can't or don't want to comply have been taking videos of their interactions with staff and posting them on social media. That's created a dilemma for entrepreneurs who need sales but who also want to protect themselves, their workers, and their other customers.

Fortunately, business owners and health experts have identified a set of best practices to help customers understand and follow the new rules--and to handle the situation properly in the event they refuse. Here are four tips you should know.

1. Share your policies with customers in advance

Entrepreneurs should convey their new policies on their websites or social media, to prepare customers for what's expected and ask them to participate, says Natalie Seymour, an extension associate in the agriculture and human sciences department of North Carolina State University. Seymour, who co-authored a report on best practices for reopening restaurants and other food businesses, says customers will respond better if you explain that the rules are there to keep them safe.

Turnquist outlined the studio's new policies in a company newsletter prior to reopening and is also reiterating those rules to customers via texts or phone calls before they arrive. She expects Providence Pilates customers to wear a mask and socks during their workouts. Before class, they have to wash their hands, fill out a state-issued checklist that screens for symptoms of Covid-19, and wipe down their stations.

2. Prepare your employees

Once the rules are established, make sure your employees understand them, can relay them to customers, and feel comfortable defending them. After all, they will be the gatekeepers if you're not present.

Turnquist promoted one of her teachers to the position of client experience manager so there's someone to reinforce the rules, she says. So far, her staff hasn't encountered any unruly customers. However, she told employees their safety is one of her main concerns and she's not putting up with anyone who won't abide by the guidelines.

Even so, if a customer questions a new policy or refuses to comply, employees should be able to explain why it's in place. Again, here it's best to remind clients that the safety precautions are there to protect everyone, says Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

"It's an agreement that we all act responsibly toward each other," Kuritzkes says. "It's not about one individual getting sick--it's an issue of social responsibility."

3. Have a backup plan

With all these precautions in place, Turnquist still has a backup plan for people who are unwilling to follow the new rules. She's directing them to her digital classes, which she launched after temporarily closing the studio. She's not alone. Laura Aidan, the founder of Austin-based ice cream and cocktail bar Prohibition Creamery, says when anyone doesn't want to don a mask inside the location, her response is to offer them curbside pickup.

4. Determine your final straw

To be sure, there is a gray area for these new policies. For example, Aidan recalled a family of eight who recently dined in her outdoor area. While Texas guidance says groups dining at tables should not exceed six people, she felt conflicted about approaching the family. She didn't want to tell them to leave two children home next time, but she also wanted to keep her other customers and staff safe from infection.

Aidan encourages her staff to prioritize their health and feel empowered about making decisions if she's not present. She feels that her employees are capable of enforcing the necessary rules to keep everyone safe. "There's an infinite number of scenarios to prepare yourself for and how to best confront people about it," she says.

If all else fails and customers refuse to comply with your safety rules, you need to accept losing some business, as Turnquist has. "This is about everybody who comes in after you, like the people with elderly parents or immunocompromised children at home," she says. "If you're going to fight me on it, then please don't come back."

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