Dealing With Unhappy Customers

Turning a Challenge into an Opportunity

Unhappy Customers

Turn dissatisfaction into satisfaction with these strategies.

© iStockphoto/Roma

One of Tim's most important clients has just walked into his office, unannounced.

Tim stands up with a smile on his face, ready to greet him, when the dam bursts – his client explodes into an angry tirade because Tim's organization has failed to make a delivery on time. Because of this, the client was unable to demonstrate a key product, which meant that he lost an important sale.

Tim does his best to reason with his client, but nothing he says helps the situation. The client only gets angrier, shouting accusations and spiraling further into a rage. Within a few minutes he walks out, vowing never to do business with Tim's organization again.

Many of us have to deal with angry or unhappy clients as part of our roles, and it's never easy. But if we know what to say and, more importantly, how to say it, we may be able to save the situation. In fact, we can even end up with a better relationship with our client than we had before.

In this article we'll explore how to deal with angry or difficult customers. We'll highlight specific tips and techniques that you can use to smooth things over, so that you can leave them feeling satisfied.

Step One: Adjust Your Mindset

Once you're aware that your client is unhappy then your first priority is to put yourself into a customer service mindset  .

This means that you set aside any feelings you might have that the situation isn't your fault, or that your client has made a mistake, or that he or she is giving you unfair criticism  .

All that matters is that you realize that your customer or client is upset, and that it's up to you to solve the problem. Adjust your mindset so that you're giving 100 percent of your focus to your client, and to the current situation.

Step Two: Listen Actively

The most important step in the whole of this process is listening actively   to what your client or customer is saying – he wants to be heard, and to air his grievances.

Start the dialogue with a neutral statement, such as, "Let's go over what happened," or "Please tell me why you're upset." This subtly creates a partnership between you and your client, and lets him know that you're ready to listen.

Resist the temptation to try to solve the situation right away, or to jump to conclusions about what happened. Instead, let your client tell you his story. As he's talking, don't plan out what you're going to say when he's done – this isn't active listening!

Also, don't allow anything to interrupt this conversation. Give your client all of your attention.

Step Three: Repeat Their Concerns

Once he's had time to explain why he's upset, repeat his concerns so you're sure that you're addressing the right issue. If you need to, ask questions to make sure that you've identified the problem correctly.

Use calm, objective wording. For example, "As I understand it, you are, quite rightly, upset because we didn't deliver the samples that we promised you last week."

Repeating the problem shows the customer you were listening, which can help lower his anger and stress levels. More than this, it helps you agree on the problem that needs to be solved.

Step Four: Be Empathic and Apologize

Once you're sure that you understand your client's concerns, be empathic  . Show her you understand why she's upset.

And, make sure that your body language   also communicates this understanding and empathy.

For example, you could say, "I understand why you're upset. I would be too. I'm very sorry that we didn't get the samples to you on time, especially since it's caused these problems."

Step Five: Present a Solution

Now you need to present her with a solution. There are two ways to do this.

If you feel that you know what will make your client happy, tell her how you'd like to correct the situation.

You could say, "I know you need these samples by tomorrow to show to your own customers. I will call our other clients to see if they have extras that they can spare, and, if they do, I'll drop them off at your offices no later than 5:00pm this evening."

If you're not sure you know what your client wants from you, or if they resist your proposed solution, then give her the power to resolve things. Ask her to identify what will make her happy.

For instance, you could say, "If my solution doesn't work for you, I'd love to hear what will make you happy. If it's in my power I'll get it done, and if it's not possible, we can work on another solution together."

Step Six: Take Action and Follow-up

Once you've both agreed on a solution, you need to take action immediately. Explain every step that you're going to take to fix the problem to your client

If she has contacted you by phone, make sure that she has your name and contact details. This gives her a feeling of control because she can get hold of you again if she needs to.

Once the situation has been resolved, follow up with your client over the next few days to make sure that she's happy with the resolution. Whenever you can, go above and beyond her expectations. For instance, you could send her a gift certificate, give her a great discount on her next purchase, or send her a hand-written apology.

Step Seven: Use the Feedback

Your last step is to reduce the risk of the situation happening again.

If you haven't already done so, identify how the problem started in the first place. Was there a bottleneck that slowed shipment? Did a sales rep forget to confirm an order?

Find the root of the problem   and make sure it's fixed immediately, then consider using Kaizen   to continue improving your work practices. Also, ensure that you're managing complaints and feedback   effectively, so that you can improve that way that you do things.

Further Tips

  • It's important to handle difficult customers professionally. Learning how to stay calm   and how to stay cool under pressure   can help you get through challenging situations with grace and professionalism.
  • If your client is especially angry, then talk slowly and calmly, and use a low tone of voice. This will subtly help lower the tension, and ensure that you don't escalate the situation by visibly getting stressed or upset yourself.
  • If your client has sent you a difficult email or they're angry with you over the phone, then offer to meet with him or her in person if you can to address the problem. This will not only diffuse anger (since it's harder for most people to get truly angry face to face) but it also shows that you genuinely want to address and fix the situation.
  • If you feel that your client is being unreasonable, you might start to get upset, especially if he or she is criticizing you, or your organization, unfairly. So learn anger management skills   so that you can stay calm in these situations.
  • Occasionally a client or customer may become verbally abusive towards you or your team. Know in advance what you'll tolerate, and what you won't. If things escalate, you may need to be assertive   and stand up for yourself, or even walk away from the situation to give the client time to cool down.
  • People in your team might be the ones on the "front line" when it comes to dealing with difficult customers. Make sure that they know how to engage correctly in emotional labor  . (This means that they should know how to manage their own emotions when dealing with difficult people.)
  • Work on improving your conflict resolution skills  . These skills can help you if you need to negotiate with your clients.

Key Points

Dealing with difficult customers can be challenging. But if you handle the situation well, you may even be able to improve your relationship, and create further opportunities.

Make sure that you listen actively to his problems or complaints, and resist the urge to interrupt or solve the problem right away. Be empathic and understanding, and make sure that your body language communicates this.

If you're not sure how to fix the situation, then ask your client what will make him happy. If it's in your power, then get it done as soon as possible. Follow up with your customer to make sure he was happy with how the situation was resolved.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (8)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Terry,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Terry wrote Over a month ago
    How much of this is fraud and scams though. I have been researching this for years and have found almost nothing online to help small restaurants like mine to prevent these losses. All large business (mostly retail) do have controls in place for these losses. They also have the money to hire employees to do loss prevention. According to the 2012 report by Association of Certified Fraud Examiners the average business loss due to fraud was 5% and the losses are higher the smaller the business is. The study also showed that businesses with just one type of loss prevention system in place had 50% fewer losses than businesses that had no loss prevention system in place at all. With Scam Defense Tracking you can cut these losses dramatically.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks Baguma - glad you enjoyed it.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Baguma wrote Over a month ago
    Very interesting Article
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Ernest,
    Glad to hear that you found the article of value. Was there any particular points that resonated with you, and ideas that you will now implement?

    It's always interesting to share ideas on how to deal with unhappy customers!

  • ernesttan1976 wrote Over a month ago
    Good article. I can surely learn from this.
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Great tool, and Zuni sounds like your company is getting it right.

    The advice I particularly like is asking the upset customer what they would propose to resolve the situation! Its not always possible but if it is you usually flip a disgruntled customer into a re satisfied one, worth their weight in gold...
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    In our company we treat all complaints as an opportunity. We have an opportunity to win the loyalty of the customer by providing an exceptional service recovery experience. As they say, keeping a customer is far less expensive than acquiring a new one. We also have an oppotunity to improve our service and processes which makes us even better than we are today.


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