Other Projects & Case Studies

Managing Aggressive or Abusive Customers

Customer Abuse
In July 2020 the Wholesale and Retail IRC put forward a proposal to develop a new Unit of Competency to equip customer-facing workers, particularly in the retail sector, with the skills and knowledge to manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers.
This proposal was approved by the AISC Sub-Committee to be developed as a cross-sectoral Unit and Skill Set and is now being progressed by the IRC.


AISC Emergency Response Sub-Committee

In April 2020, the AISC formed an Emergency Response Sub-Committee (the AISC Sub-Committee) to enable fast tracked adjustments and training package products specifically to respond to areas of critical workforce and skills needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The scope of the sub-committee was extended by Skills Ministers on 15 May 2020 to enable it to continue its role in fast tracking national training products to meet longer term critical skills needs beyond the COVID-19 health crisis period to support economic recovery.

The sub-committee agreed at its meeting on 2 July 2020 to focus its efforts on supporting achievement of the following objectives:

  • supporting displaced workers and those at risk of displacement to urgently obtain the necessary skills to take advantage of opportunities that exist in the labour market, either through existing training products or the rapid creation of new products where required
  • supporting urgent and unmet skills needs of businesses as they seek to adjust to the significantly altered economic environment and transition to new opportunities, particularly in industries undergoing significant structural change as a result of COVID-19. 
  • The sub-committee also agreed these objectives should be achieved through the creation of short courses or skill sets wherever possible.

    In July 2020 the Wholesale and Retail IRC put forward a proposal to develop a new Unit of Competency to equip customer-facing workers, particularly in the retail sector, with the skills and knowledge to manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers. This proposal was approved by the AISC Sub-Committee to be developed as a cross-sectoral Unit and Skill Set and is now being progressed by the IRC.

    Managing disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, many consumers have engaged in ‘panic buying’ creating sudden and unexpected demand for a number of products in supermarkets, pharmacies and other retail outlets. This demand has made it difficult for retailers to maintain stock levels in stores, and has led to increased instances of inappropriate and potentially aggressive behaviour from customers.*

    As recently as April 2020, the Public Health Act 2010 was amended to include penalties for people who intentionally spit at or cough on a worker in a way that would be likely to cause fear about the spread of COVID-19. The fact that this measure has been required is an indication of the severity of the risk to customer-facing workers.

    Icare has recently released an evaluation of the pilot they conducted of their Respect and Resilience Program, which sought to address the issue of customer misbehaviour in the retail and fast food sectors. They defined customer misbehaviour as encompassing the spectrum of negative acts perpetrated by customers and directed at service employees, ranging from incivility, to verbal abuse, and escalation through to physical aggression and violence. It can be defined as unacceptable, often hostile, behaviour exhibited by customers of an organisation towards an employee or employees that creates an offensive, intimidating, or frightening situation. It can affect a worker’s physical, psychological and social health and can have severe consequences for the business – poor workplace morale, higher levels of absenteeism, sick leave and staff turnover, and escalating workers compensation and other insurance claims. The pilot saw positive outcomes with a reported 47.75% reduction in the incidence of customer misbehaviour.**

    While there exists a range of units of competency that cover areas such as communication and conflict management skills, there is not currently any national training package product that covers the issue of aggressive customers and the mental health and wellbeing of customer-facing frontline workers.

    The proposed unit of competency, while having cross-sectoral applicability, will be of particular relevance for workers in the retail sector, particularly young people and female workers, as these cohorts are heavily represented in the frontline retail sector. For example, 68% of sales assistants are female and the average age is 26 years. 75% of checkout operators and office cashiers are female and the average age is 21 years. 90% of pharmacy sales assistants are female and the average age is 26 years.***

    Reports from retail employers have consistently described a significant escalation in customer aggression and abuse particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one large retailer citing an increase of 577% in aggressive incidents against staff over this period. There are also increased reports of crime against retailers and this is anticipated to continue if not increase should subsequent waves of the pandemic hit and also once the current government support payments reduce or cease in the coming months.

    The proposed unit is able to be contextualised for a range of other customer-facing sectors and job roles. These front-line workers are often responsible for assisting in the implementation of COVID-19 safety measures and can face hostility and aggression from customers frustrated with the new requirements for things such as social distancing, purchase limits on products, limits on number of people in customer service spaces and delays encountered when cleaning or sanitising premises between customers.

    The IRC notes that it is critical that no frontline customer service worker puts their health (physical or mental/emotional) at risk while providing services to other members of the community. The safety of these workers is a priority and it is critical that they are supported with the appropriate skills to deal with customer abuse and aggression and its impacts on their own health and wellbeing.

    The proposed Unit of Competency will contain information on strategies to deal with the customer, along with mental health and wellbeing of the worker and environmental means to prevent or assist in dealing with volatile customer situations.

    The proposed unit of competency looks to cover key topic areas including:

    • Recognising disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customer behaviour and its impact
    • Identifying when customer behaviour is escalating to abuse or aggression
    • Causes of customer abuse and aggression and the triggers
    • Strategies for defusing and de-escalating abusive and aggressive customer behaviour
    • Resilience and coping strategies for workers who encounter customer abuse and aggression.
    • The resulting training should be able to be delivered online to existing and new workers, both as a standalone Skill Set or short course and within relevant qualifications.

      Proposed Training Package Products

      New Unit of Competency

      Unit Code

      Unit Title



      Manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers


      New Skill Set

      SIRSS00022 – Manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers

      Unit Code

      Unit Name



      Manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers


      Contextualisation Guides

      Contextualisation guides which are to be made available on the AISC website are proposed for the following sectors:

      • Retail
      • Community Pharmacy
      • Hair & Beauty
      • Hospitality
      • Aged Care
      • Local Government
      • Public Transport
      • Transport & Logistics
      • A template was available on the SkillsIQ Online Feedback Forum for stakeholders in the above industry sectors to provide additional information that will assist Registered Training Providers in contextualising the Unit of Competency for delivery in those sectors.

        We encouraged stakeholders to download the template and complete and email to feedback@skillsiq.com.au so that it can be considered for inclusion in the contextualisation guides.

        Consultation Timelines - Feedback Closed

        National consultation for the proposed new Unit of Competency and Skill Set was open from 27 August – 4 September 2020. During this period input was sought on the draft Unit and Skill Set and their appropriateness in enabling the target group to achieve the stated aims, as outlined above.

        SkillsIQ will be distributing the draft Training Package Products to key industry stakeholders and VET professionals, in order to ensure the opportunity for broad national feedback. State and Territory Training Authorities will also be provided with the opportunity to make comment during this period.

        Feedback can be provided online via the SkillsIQ Feedback Forum, can be accessed here

        Following the close of the consultation period, all feedback received will be collated and evaluated by the IRC to develop the final draft for submission and consideration by the AISC Emergency Response Sub-Committee.

        Contact details

        For more information please contact:

        Patrick Cummings
        Skills Engagement Executive
        E: Patrick.cummings@skillsiq.com.au
        P: 0429 600 586


        https://www.nsw.gov.au/covid-19/safe-workplaces/employers/managing-violence-and-aggression - accessed 13 July 2020.

        ** Bradley, G., Davis, M., Ferguson, S., Buys, N., & Ellery, A. (2019). Respect & Resilience: Development, Implementation and Program Evaluation. Southport, Queensland: Griffith University.

        *** Department of Education, Skills and Employment – Job Outlook, various ANZSCO job codes, accessed June 2020.