The 12 Best Tips for Dealing with Unhappy Customers

Responding to angry, disgruntled and frustrated customers can be very stressful, especially over the phone. However, I strongly believe that this is precisely the time when businesses have a golden opportunity to shine.

Think of it this way… it’s easy to be polite and upbeat when things are going great.  However, way too many business owners underestimate the value of training their employees in the fine art of dealing with difficult customers; demonstrating the “right way” and tolerating nothing less.

However, before I continue, some words of caution…

  • Employees are much more willing, and able, to arrive at positive solutions for unhappy customers if they are armed with the tools necessary to make this happen… the most important being, empowerment.
  • If you cripple your employees’ ability to “turn lemons into lemonade” I’ve consulted with many companies that cripple their employees by severely restricting their ability to “make good”.

They erroneously claim that they will “give away the farm” (the old, “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile” syndrome.) without ever considering the amount of money they’re losing on lost customers; rotten word of mouth; excessive employee turnover; wasted phone time, stress, etc.

I cringe every time I hear this! If you don’t believe me, go to your nearest bookstore and buy a copy of “The Nordstrom Way” (Spector and McCarthy) and see if reading that changes your mind!

One of the unexpected pleasures you and your employees will derive from really, really pleasing a miserable customer is the joy it brings! No, this is not “touchy-feely-warm-and-fuzzy-psychobabble” … just try it and you’ll see.

Remember, no matter what “business” you’re in – whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, retailer, non-profit organization, wholesaler, consultant, etc. you are there to serve.

So, be grateful to that irate customer who snaps you awake, and presents you with an intriguing psychological challenge and often winds up becoming your most loyal customer!

Tips for Dealing with “Distressed” Customers

No matter how angry or unreasonable your customer is, your ultimate three goals are to:

1. Calm them down

2. Communicate your understanding of their problem, empathize, fix it, and …

3. Hear a hearty “thank you!” when it’s over

So how do you achieve the 3 key goals above?

Following are some quick tips.

1. Smile as you answer the phone (yes, people can really tell) or greet the customer in person

2. Introduce yourself enthusiastically. For example, “Hi, my name is John… we’re glad you called the XXX Company today! How can I help you?”

3. Once they’ve told you the reason for their call (or visit), let them know that you will personally handle their complaint, then:

  • Apologize and acknowledge their feelings.
  • Sympathize and let them talk.
  • Prepare to help, ask questions, and convey personal caring.
  • Speak normally… do not raise your voice.
  • Slow your speech down a bit and lower your pitch.

4. Use Helpful Words and Phrases

Take some time to find those calming words or phrases… ones most likely to diffuse a stressful situation. Here are several to try:

  • How can I help you?
  • Thanks so much for your patience and cooperation.
  • Sir, could you please explain the situation so I help you resolve this.
  • I’m so sorry to hear that… I don’t blame you for being frustrated. I believe I would as well…
  • Let’s work together to resolve this, shall we?
  • I can see why you feel that way…
  • I see what you mean…
  • That must be upsetting…
  • I understand how frustrating this must be for you and I really appreciate your patience…

5. Avoid words and phrases that “fan the fire,” such as:

  • Our policy is…
  • Calm down!
  • What’s your problem?
  • That’s not our fault!
  • I can’t help it if my employee was rude…
  • I’m not going to repeat this again…
  • Listen to me…
  • I can’t…
  • Why don’t you be reasonable?
  • There’s nothing else I can do…

6. Remain Cool

Unhappy customers can cause stress but it’s important to remember that their anger is not personal. They are annoyed at a problem, not you. Often they just need to vent. If you suspect this, it’s a good idea to let them go on a bit. Additionally, remind yourself that:

  • It’s silly to allow another person to ruin your day.
  • You’re a professional and know how to deal with this situation in that manner.
  • You’ll feel very proud when you reflect back on how well you handled a difficult situation

These techniques will have immediate calming effects and place you in control of the conversation in a non-threatening way. Note their name – then use it! It’s the sweetest word(s) in any language (make sure to ask how it’s pronounced if you’re not certain).


7. Give them your undivided attention…

They’re already unhappy, so don’t make it worse by making them feel that you’re not really “there” (e.g. don’t loose focus or look around, no rustling papers, or answering other calls).

8. Listen carefully and take notes…

The vast majority of customer complaints are legitimate, so this should always be your first assumption. Writing information down will ensure that you’ve accurately documented the situation, help you find solutions, avoid having the customer repeat themselves, and make it easier to relate the event to others if needed.

9. Echo key points…

This will go a long way in reassuring the customers and make certain that you understand the “heart” of their complaint. In other words, “ask the question behind the question.”

10. Ask, “How can I best resolve this for you?” Then, make things right!

Remember, if you’re contact personnel are not empowered to offer and / or deliver a solution, the process will break down at this point.

11. Thank them for calling or visiting… Apologize for any inconvenience they’ve experienced and let them know that you and everyone at your company will continue to work even harder to ensure that their future experiences are delightful.

12. Update their customer account to reflect your conversation and resolution…

This ensures that other employees can get up to speed, if needed. Additionally, make sure that you follow-up with anyone else involved in the “fix” within 24 hours!

Having said this, there are a few customers who use “bullying” as a means of intimidation. Although their reasons for acting out vary, they generally take advantage of any opportunity to be difficult. This type of interaction, although rare, obviously presents added challenges. If you learn ways to deal with them correctly, however, you’ll feel far less stressed.

First, never tolerate behavior that crosses certain boundaries. Abusive language should be dealt with immediately with a firm, “Mr. / Ms. Smith, excuse me, I want to help you, but I cannot permit you to use unprofessional language.” Be sure to use their name and formal title, if appropriate. It will increase the chances of this working. Nearly always, this results in an apology.

If not, hand the customer off to someone else, place them on hold or terminate the call (or encounter) with a statement such as, “I’m sorry, this cannot continue.”

Any incident that goes this far, or includes harassment and / or threats of violence should be reported to other employees and/or law enforcement authorities.

Fortunately, these are the rare exceptions. Most consumers are intelligent, reasonable and honest people who expect to be treated fairly.

Lesson Learned? Every business has a defining moment… and it’s usually when something goes wrong. Your most loyal customers are generally ones who have experienced a problem that was handled “right” the first time.

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Mary Eule Scarborough, an unassailable marketing expert and thought leader, helps businesses of all sizes get and keep more profitable customers. She is also:

  • A former Fortune 500 marketing executive, …
  • The founder of two successful small businesses, …
  • An award-winning speaker, …
  • A Certified Guerrilla Marketing coach, and …
  • Co-author of three books (to-date): “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Marketing“, (Entrepreneur Press, November, 2007), “Mastering Online Marketing” (Entrepreneur Press, January, 2008), and “Guerrilla Marketing On The Internet” (Entrepreneur Press, July, 2008).
  • Qualified with a BA in Journalism / English from the University of Maryland, and …
  • Qualified with a Masters degree in marketing from The Johns Hopkins University.

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