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Business Smarts: Working with Unhappy Customers

Business Smarts: Working with Unhappy Customers

One of the Better Business Bureau’s most important functions is providing a bridge between customers and businesses when the customer is unhappy and files a complaint. Excellent customer service can often solve problems long before they reach that point, but now and then every business encounters an unhappy customer, and employees need to be trained to deal with them.
A key to this is acting quickly — focusing on finding solutions to the problems presented, or at least addressing the issue to a reasonable extent. Failing to do this can not only lose you a customer; you also run the risk of them telling everyone they know about their negative experience with you. It’s pivotal to be proactive in addressing the concerns of unhappy customers, and to do that effectively, do these things and do them quickly.


Even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, really listening can give you valuable insight that might help you address the issue. Be careful not to interrupt, argue, or try to assign blame. Reacting with anger or defensiveness can escalate the situation, so it’s important to remain calm and in control.


Sometimes customers just want an apology. Give it to them and you may defuse aggressive behavior, allowing for open and honest communication leading to a resolution that works for everyone.

Lower your voice.

If the customer gets louder, you should speak more slowly and in a lower tone. A calm demeanor can help settle an unhappy customer.

Don’t take it personally.

Usually, a customer’s behavior has nothing to do with you. Look at the situation objectively, setting aside your personal feelings — they can get in the way of seeing what’s really going on. Beneath the complaint may be an issue that actually needs your attention. A customer’s rudeness does not make them wrong.

Show empathy.

Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can help you find a solution and can also help customers know they are being heard. Tell unhappy customers you understand and want to help. Ask questions and make a genuine effort to see things from their perspective.

Follow up.

Be sure to follow up with your customers even after you’ve resolved their concerns. Use e-mail, a phone call, or even a hand-written note to confirm that the problem has been resolved and to see if you can be of further assistance. It may seem unnecessary, but the fact that you cared enough to follow up can leave your customers with a positive impression.

Educate your customers.

Customers typically don’t have enough information to truly understand and appreciate the value of your products and services. If you’re thorough in educating and informing customers, you will often be better positioned to resolve — or even avoid — complaints. You might teach and show them why your prices are higher than competitors, why certain features are or are not included, and why your products surpass your competitor’s in quality and value. By taking time to educate an unhappy customer, you help them better understand your perspective — you can make them empathize with you, so to speak. If they continue to be unhappy, you might even show them the impact their demands would have on your operation, staffing, and bottom line.

Remember your happy customers.

Many businesses find themselves spending so much time managing their unhappy customers that they have little left to attend to the happy ones. Don’t take these valuable customers for granted. They deserve and need your attention too.
It’s important to see the value of all customers, regardless of their attitudes. Creating trusting customer relationships is the most important activity of any successful business. It beats marketing, advertising, daily operations, and public relations. Successful businesses make their customers happy and put them first, even when they’re not easy to please.

Sean Spence is the regional director of Better Business Bureau Columbia. 

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