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The first time one of her customers flew off the handle, British Columbia spa owner Mona Neufeld brushed it off as a one-time thing.

It was the fall of 2020, and the customer was angry about having to wait in line to get into the spa and did not want to wear a mask. Neufeld, owner of True Aromatherapy Products & Spa in the village of Fort Langley, B.C., tried to reason with her (citing the health and safety of other customers) but the person stormed off.

“Until that day, I could have counted on one hand the number of clients who had ever lost their temper,” says Neufeld. “We chalked it up to that individual having a really bad day.”

However, as the pandemic dragged on, some of her customers’ erratic behaviour went from bad to worse. In the past 2½ years, Neufeld says she has been called racist, an idiot, a moron and stupid. She has had customers threaten to sue her, call the police on her and threaten her staff, reducing them to tears.

Recounting all this, Neufeld says she still can’t quite believe these things have happened in a store with the old world feel of an apothecary and its collection of crystals, essential oils, salt lamps, salves and balms. “We pride ourselves on being a healing place for mind, body and soul,” she says. “However, since COVID, I’ve endured a level of abuse I never imagined I’d experience. I used to believe the customer is always right. I do not believe that any more.”

Neufeld is not the only person rethinking that old article of faith. Across the country, the people working in customer service at many businesses – airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies, medical offices, grocery stores, restaurants, private clubs – are fed up with the treatment they’ve received from customers who blame them for things beyond their control. They have countless stories of customers losing their tempers when the products they want are unavailable or blaming employees (rather than supply chain disruptions) when they find out they might have to wait months for a piece of furniture or an appliance.

The vitriol, they say, is palpable and many are beginning to push back. Take, for instance, the polite but very firm rebuke a prestigious Toronto golf club gave its members in May. In a mailed letter, the club reminded members to follow the dress code and not use cellphones in public areas. (There had been many infractions.) The final paragraph, however, was the zinger: “Finally, and most importantly, aggressive or rude behaviour, including abusive language towards our valued staff will not be tolerated,” it said, adding that the board of directors would not hesitate to “issue sanctions” against any member who stepped out of line.

So what gives? Why are so many customers acting badly? Toronto retail consultant Bruce Winder suggests it’s tied to anxiety and frustration over pandemic-related issues. “Service providers, especially retail, aren’t operating with their A-game because of inventory, shipping and delivery issues as well as staff shortages,” says Winder, author of the book Retail Before, During & After COVID-19.

To make matters worse, inflation near a 40-year high has caused prices to soar on most goods and services. All of that, combined with the fact that companies like Amazon and Netflix have made us accustomed to getting everything on demand, means that when we don’t get instant gratification, we lose it. Often in completely irrational ways.

“I thought the pandemic would have brought us together,” Winder says, referring to the wellspring of goodwill and support people exhibited toward one another when the pandemic first began. “Instead, the opposite has actually happened. I was at my doctor’s the other day and there was a sign that read: ‘We don’t tolerate people abusing us.’ Sadly, it’s an echo we’re hearing over and over again.”

The anger is not just anecdotal. In May, a survey conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and researchers at the University of British Columbia found feelings of empathy have eroded over the course of the pandemic, with only 13 per cent of Canadians feeling empathetic, down markedly since the onset of the pandemic (when it was 23 per cent).

“In the early days of the pandemic we all pulled together,” says Emily Jenkins, the UBC professor who co-led the research, which used a sample of 3,000 people aged 18 and older living in Canada. “People were banging pots and pans and celebrating the front-line workers in health care, food services etc. Then, over time, as fatigue of the pandemic set in, collective grieving of the life we once knew began, and anger became the overriding emotion.”

Jenkins says data from their most recent poll in May found 32 per cent of respondents reported feeling anxious, worried or stressed, while 26 per cent reported feeling angry. “We could very much see it coming up in various events and movements that were happening in the country, culminating with the convoy protest that occupied areas around Parliament Hill for more than three weeks.”

Kendall Williams, owner of 25-year-old interior design company Kendall & Co. in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood, says he has tried to empathize with those customers who are struggling but adds his patience for boorish behaviour has run thin. To protect his staff from what he says was “daily abuse,” he shut his doors and now only accepts customers by appointment.

“In the last two-and-a-half years, we’ve probably been open to the public 50 days,” says Williams, who in addition to his bespoke interior design business runs a small storefront with home furnishings. “We’ve had trials where we’ve reopened, but it’s just not worth it,” he says. “My staff is like family. I just won’t tolerate them being spoken to as if they’re less than human.”

He watches people storm up to his door, ring the bell countless times, sometimes yell at them through the window and stomp away. The animosity, he adds, takes his breath away. “As humans, we have been taxed by the pandemic and it’s changed a lot of people,” he says. “I find it incredibly sad, but I don’t see the situation getting better any time soon.”

As a retailer, Williams says his coping strategy is to pro-actively manage people’s expectations, in terms of inventory and delivery, so they don’t fly off the handle when things don’t go according to plan. “We modify our communication on our web page every five or six days so they know what to expect. Under the current circumstances, it’s the best we can do.”

Neufeld does the same, adding that “Ninety per cent of my customers are wonderful. It’s the remainder who can make life hell.”

She has some advice for the 10 per cent: “It’s sound trite but just be kind. Look at that other person, see them and treat them as you’d like to be treated.”

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