New NRF Foundation credential provides tactics to mitigate customer conflict

Trainings help retail workers work safely and keep the economy open
Adam Lukoskie
VP, NRF Foundation
October 22, 2020

Retail employees require training to handle crises that arise surrounding in-store safety policies and customer tension. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NRF Foundation is launching new credentials in its RISE Up program focusing on retail operations and customer conflict prevention.

The Foundation partnered with the Crisis Prevention Institute to develop a credential specifically for front-line, customer-facing retail workers to help them learn to avoid and de-escalate conflict.

Retail Employee Resources

Check out other resources on de-escalation and conflict prevention for customers and employees here.

We’ve all seen accounts of employees being berated or threatened by customers who don’t want to wear masks or wait in line to enter stores. Other times, mask-wearing customers lash out at those who aren’t wearing masks, potentially risking the well-being of employees and other customers.

These situations can often be averted by learning the four stages of the CPI Crisis Development Model. The model represents a series of recognizable behavior levels an individual might experience during a crisis moment and the related staff attitudes and approaches used to de-escalate behavior.


Customers exhibiting anxiety might demonstrate outward behavior including fidgeting, crossed arms or pacing, signaling agitation.

The employee response in this stage should be supportive. Early intervention is essential, and requires a supportive, nonjudgmental approach. Acknowledge the customer’s concerns and give them an opportunity to vent before asking them to do something they might not like (e.g., wear a mask).


If the customer is not placated by the supportive response, they might become defensive. They might yell or refuse to comply with a request, indicating they are protecting themselves from a real or perceived challenge.

At this stage, the associate should be direct, providing clear instruction with reasonable choices — “setting limits.” For example, associates can ask the defensive customer to step aside and offer to let them discuss the problem with a manager. Remain calm and consistent, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Risk behavior

If the customer begins displaying risk behavior, it means their distress level has risen and they might pose a threat to themselves or others by aggressively invading someone’s space or physically assaulting them.

The store associate should immediately implement safety interventions by asking for help — either from a co-worker, a supervisor or security. Divert the person to an area with fewer customers to prevent other people from escalating as well, and to keep everyone safe.

Tension reduction

Once the crisis has faded, the customer and associate will experience tension reduction. A person’s physical and emotional energy decreases, and they regain a sense of calm.

Now is the time to engage in therapeutic rapport. The threat is over and the employee can address the physical or emotional needs of everyone involved by listening, offering support, demonstrating empathy and avoiding blame. That includes everyone affected by the crisis, which could be co-workers and other customers, in addition to the customer directly engaged.

Accurately identifying stages of escalating crisis and implementing the appropriate staff response are key to successful de-escalation. The goal in all crises is to arrive at the tension reduction stage as quickly as possible. It’s important to note that behaviors could appear in any order, as individuals may be highly agitated prior to arriving in the store.

The NRF Foundation is also offering training in safe operations through the COVID-19 Retail Operations credential, made possible by American Express. This training will help retailers meet state and local requirements for COVID-19 specific employee trainings.

For more information and to enroll in the COVID-19 Customer Conflict Resolution and Retail Operations courses, visit the Foundation’s RISE Up COVID-19 training page.

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