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Customers are angry over the escalating price of gasoline, an undisputed reality of the market. How that anger is preempted, managed and/or handled at the store level, however, can do more than reduce costly drive offs. It can prevent injury and save lives.
While many retailers recognize that frontline employees take a lot of heat — and in some cases abuse — from customers about gas prices, few operators have proactive public relations programs and risk management practices in place to minimize employee exposure to consumer rage. And few retailers have formalized training geared specifically to help store employees properly address and diffuse these situations before they escalate verbally, or worse, result in injury.
Nothing put this issue more squarely at center stage than the recent fatal drive-off that killed Tony Caddi, owner of a Montgomery, Ala. gas station. Caddi — who grabbed onto the thief's vehicle — was run down by the driver who escaped with $52 worth of gas.
Most retailers can empathize with Caddi's visceral response to protect his property and his outrage at being so blatantly robbed. Clearly the industry is tired of putting up with drive offs, but there has to be a better way to combat the problem.
Some folks like Tulsa-based QuikTrip Corp. are addressing it strategically and operationally by issuing special identity cards to cash customers who want to pump and pay. Driver's license identification is required up front so that if there is ever a problem, QuickTrip can identify the perpetrators. While at first the program caused customer grumbling, they got used to it pretty quickly and, importantly, QuikTrip has realized a dramatic reduction in drive offs.
What else can operators do to reduce drive offs? What can they do to ensure frontline employees are properly trained and protected? How can retailers better communicate to their customers and communities? How can they ensure customers — and the general media that reports on escalating gas prices — get the facts straight?
There are many resources available to support retailers. For starters, the National Association of Convenience Stores (www.nacsonline.com) has a resource center and PR ToolKit on its Web site to help retailers clearly and concisely address the problem publicly. Other resources include the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (www.pmaa.org), Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America (www.sigma.org), numerous regional and state associations, and, of course, local law enforcement.
In addition to public relations outreach, there has to be internal training to protect operators and employees. Here are some basics:
Never chase the thief.
If safely possible, get license plate information.
Report all drive-offs to the police.
Teach store-level employees how to handle and diffuse angry and/or abusive customers.
Communicate proactively with your community so that citizens and the general media understand what's causing gasoline price spikes.
Anger typically stems from lack of information or misinformation. Anything retailers do at the grassroots level to educate and communicate with their customers and train employees will only help make a bad situation better.