Dealing With Unhappy Customers: How To Win Them Back

Happy Customer Experience

We all make mistakes. Sometimes we get busy and quality control slides. Other times it’s a good old-fashioned oversight. And once in a while even the best of us lose our tempers, our patience or our direction and treat customers in a way that we shouldn’t.

You could lose that customer and potentially the next one when your unhappy customer gets vocal, or you could start practicing your mea culpas now.

Here are some ideas for dealing with unhappy customers and, if you’re smart about it, turning them into passionate evangelists.

Think Like Your Customer

When a customer is unhappy you have to let go of your ego, forget what you think you know and put on your empathy cap.

Imagine how you would feel if you were in your customer’s shoes. Get into the role and ask why your customer is unhappy? Really feel it! Get angry and upset – at yourself. Then figure out what would make you happy again – really happy. Then, give that to your customer.

Make The Tough Offer

If you’ve played the role of your unhappy customer and come up with a solution, your business-self may balk at it. Resist! The compensation may seem too expensive. Too hard to live up to. Give it anyway.

Many years ago I worked for a business that made just such an offer. The customer was not happy. The customer was taking her business elsewhere. My boss at the time told the customer that he would provide service to her for free and promised that she would be so thrilled with it that she would become a paying customer again. She took the offer.

It was a risk. My boss was not only giving away services but also staking his reputation on the performance of those services. He had to deliver – and he did. In the end, the customer was thrilled and she went on to be one of the biggest advocates for that business, bringing in friends and sharing her experience with anyone who would listen.

If you want to win unhappy customers back you have to make the same offer. Figure out where your pain point is and give from there. Stand by your reputation.

Suck It Up

Sometimes our customers aren’t the only ones who are unhappy. Sometimes, if a relationship goes off-track, we’re unhappy too. Then everyone complains, everyone thinks they’re right and everyone gets defensive.

But even if you’re completely right and your customer is absolutely nuts – you have to suck it up. It all boils down to the question of whether you want to be right or whether you want to keep the business strong.

Your job in a business relationship means occasionally soothing bruised egos, calming savage beasts and mitigating quarrels. Refuse to react emotionally. That leads to things like angry emails sent with horrible grammar and burned bridges.

I don’t advocate the idea of “the customer is always right” but that doesn’t mean you have to insist on sharing how wrong they are.

Brush Up On Your Psych 101

Sometimes all we really want is someone to acknowledge us. I can’t tell you how many cranky tweets I’ve sent to businesses that have aggrieved me only to get a kind and helpful reply from someone that immediately defused my ire.

This requires diplomacy so practice saying things like, “I understand,” and, “How can I help?” One of the simplest tricks in the book is to ask you customer what he or she thinks you can do to fix the problem.

Unless it’s obvious (replacing a defective product with a new one – free overnight shipping!) give your customer a chance to weigh in. You might be surprised by how quickly a customer solves his own problem.

But if you really want to succeed with an unhappy customer then you need to over-deliver. Figure out what your customer wants and then give more.

Ditch The Excuses

It’s tempting when we drop the ball to explain why. We weave litanies around our bad hair day, our family trouble, the uncooperative weather. Stop!

The truth is nobody cares except your mom and your dog. Your clients don’t want to hear your excuses, no matter how valid they are. Until the day that you win the lottery and call from a beach in Tahiti to tell your client that you’re going to be indefinitely delayed on a project, then avoid explanations.

Practice, “I’m sorry,” instead. Mean it. Then see my points above about making good and over-delivering. Your customers will appreciate that a whole lot more than your story about a flat tire.

Listen First, Second And Third. Talk Last.

Few things irk me as much as being interrupted in the middle of a good rant. You know what I mean – when you storm into someone’s office to air your grievances and they want to do nothing but calm you down and jump right to the solution.

Sure, you want a solution – eventually – but sometimes you need to let your customer vent. Avoid the urge to interrupt. Make sure your customer has a chance to lay everything on the table. Once she’s spent, try this trick: repeat back what you understand the problem to be. When your customer feels heard, she will be able to listen to solutions without all that anger clogging up her ears.

Turn Happy Customers Into Super-Customers

All of these things take practice and you won’t leave every customer disagreement thinking you’ve aced it. Even after fifteen years in business I still have moments of “talk first, make excuses fast”. But if you care about you customers and your business then you’ll learn to tackle the tough times with skill.

Remember the keys: empathize, listen, offer solutions, over-deliver. If you can do that then I bet you’ll find yourself with enthusiasts on your hands. And that’s better than being “right” any day!

How do you deal with unhappy customers? Do you have tips or ideas that work?


  1. These are great tips for the small business owner. These days, negative customer feedback and unhappiness is played out in the social media sphere on sites such as Yelp. I think the small business can keep on top of this through diligent monitoring of the online reputation. With corporations, it is not so easy. For example, I am having issues with my internet service. I have talked to four different representatives with four different solutions. When the solution doesn’t work and I call back, it is a different representative. So I have to retell my story. The feeling conveyed to me is that there is no investment on the part of these representatives to solve my problem. The small business owner, on the other hand, has much more to lose by not paying attention to customer feedback.

    • Sadly, the rules never really apply to big corporations. They probably lose more customers in a day than we’ll ever have in our lives and it doesn’t cross their radar. There is truly no investment on their part. It’s up to us as small businesses to be the ones dedicated to customer service because to us it matters. Losing just one customer can be a big deal.

      And yes, we need to pay attention! Reviews, comments, whatever and wherever they are.
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  4. Great tips for SMBs ! It is never fun to lose a customer after you worked so hard to get them on board but there is a reason that they want to leave and it helps to take a step back and figure it out. If you understand why they are going, there is a good chance you can keep them on . It may be a budget issue or they dont like how their point of contact is handling their account but until you find out, there is no chance of stopping them.
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