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How to Deal with Unhappy Customers

We’ve all been on one side or the other of an unhappy conversation, right? When your customer thinks your product or service isn’t delivering on a promise, you may find that every single thing that’s been bothering them in life is now channeled into a conversation with you. So, how do you handle it?

Our panel of experts from Building the Customer Wow Machine in Portland had some excellent insight into how to deal with an unhappy customer. Here is a quick list of their tips:

1. Be real and authentic.
2. Set expectations and follow through.
3. Don’t be afraid to say “no” and offer an alternative.
4. Protect and support your team.
5. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and ask yourself if you’d be satisfied.

The talk was so good, that I transcribed it below so you wouldn’t miss a single word. Take a look at the video, read along and then share some advice with the rest of us. How do you deal with a customer who is unhappy with you?


Greg Meyer: Let’s talk a little bit about how we deal with unhappy customers. Rachael can you talk a little bit about how you do that?

Rachael Giuliani: Yeah, I definitely can.


RG: I think the most important thing for dealing with an unhappy customer is, try, try to empathize. I know that sometimes people are unreasonable or over-entitled or things like that, but you can usually, if you have the right people and the right mindset, at least try to understand where the customer is coming from. I don’t think that we would necessarily believe that the customer is always right. Sometimes our customer is very, very wrong. But it’s all about respecting them and respecting their point of view. Um, and not taking abuse. Really, you can say no. You can stand for them not berating you when they’re used to berating people in customer service. It actually ends up being a better experience for them if they know that there is another human being on the other end of the phone and not sort of a punching bag that you can talk to and then hang up. So, empathise, be real and respectful.

GM: And Mark, how do you turn that around when you have an unhappy customer? Really turn them into an advocate?

Mark Hanley: I think in the tech space we have an advantage over face to face with customers, we’re talking on the phone or typically electronically. I think two of the keys are empowering your people to speak, to say, “You don’t have to get escalated to somebody else to solve your problem. I’m gonna take ownership of your issue and I’m gonna solve it.” Set realistic expectations. One of the things I teach my team is, if you have a really ticked-off customer and you know that no matter what you’re doing, they’re going to be mad and you’re going to have to deliver a bad message, and you know it as you’re having the conversation, stop the call, say I need to do my research, I’m going to get back to you I’m going to get back to you in four hours, let’s agree to talk at this time, bla bla bla bla bla, call em back in two. Even though you know the answer, start beating the expectation. Because if you call them back in two to have that conversation, they’ll go “wow, it really was important.” And start doing things to take a bad expectation and turn it around. But also, if you have to deliver a bad message, which we do have to do in the tech space, deliver the message. Don’t sugar coat it. Apologize. No matter how you word it, they’re still going to be ticked off. So treat them with respect and say I wish I could give you a different answer, but this is how our product works. We’re going to take your feedback and consider it for a future release; however, you have to deliver that message, but own the message and deliver it.

Graham Murphy: The most fun thing that I think was just said, is that your customer isn’t always right, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them feel like they are.


There are a few keys that you can use while you’re going through the process... Even if they’re objectively very very much wrong, but in their mind they won. They turned the situation into something they feel good about. So you take a few things into account, you empathize, you apologize, you be very transparent, you hopefully have some level of empowerment within the team itself to be able to turn the situation around quickly and then you can twist the situation however you want.

Jimmy Douglas: A lot of times it’s an opportunity to show them what you’re willing to do to do right by the customer. And what’s really important is that you’re objectively able to put yourself in their position and address their actual problem from their perspective. There might be a couple of different ways to resolve a specific issue and you need to make sure you’re looking at it from their angle. And secondly, ideally you don’t need to treat an unhappy customer differently than a happy customer—at the end of the day they’re all still your customers and somebody should have to get to the point where they’re unhappy that you’re treating them a certain way.

RG: Make sure your team and the people who are dealing with customers have a place to vent. It’s really important and I’ve noticed as Simple started bringing on a lot of new customers and we’ve had a blessedly few angry people but the angry people are really angry for one reason or another. And having a place for our team (for us it’s a chatroom, for us to just blow off steam and say this person was so angry and ugh, I’m so frustrated... this person was a meanie, that’s what they say.. [laughter]..) it actually is really helpful because in doing that you sort of feel you understand why they felt that way and I explained it to them this way, and you sort of work through it on your own. You don’t have to hold that all inside you and say, “arrgh, I hate customers”! You can make it funny or at least share your pain with everyone in the room.

MH: And anyone that’s dealing with a young company or a startup knows you’re dealing with a very different customer, you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t want to hear you’re a startup and you’re working on your system or product. They want it working now and they don’t really get it and you have to have that vent circle and I think that’s a great point.

GM: Know when to say “no.” Especially in the tech realm, it’s so easy to tell a customer, yeah, it’s on the roadmap. We’ll get to it eventually. You really have to suck it up. If it’s not on the roadmap, just tell them, we may consider it in the future, but for now it’s not in the plans. If you tell them that, it’ll save you so much heartache later. If you tell a hundred customers that a feature is coming out next quarter and it doesn’t, those customers are coming back.

Unhappy customer photo courtesy of Mikko Luntiala

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