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October 9 th, 2014

Dealing with negative or unhappy customers

Customer service and, by relation, public reputation, can be a very tricky thing.Angry customer

One is tempted to believe that it is easy when things are going well: When a customer purchases a product or service and is happy with it, that that will translate into more business. This often does happen, but it is not a guarantee: Sometimes, the customer is quietly happy, all to themselves and nary another soul hears about it.

When a customer is unhappy, however: This is where the difficulties can begin and not only does a business owner, but all her or his own staff must tread carefully.

We have all heard the time-worn saying "The customer is always right" - Anyone who has ever worked in a customer-facing position knows the second half to that statement: " their face" - And this is true: Even when a customer is one hundred percent, completely in the wrong, a business should NEVER call out the customer as a liar, accuse them of shady behaviour or worse: Insult them outright.

Three common causes for an unhappy customer:

  1. The product or service did not work or deliver as promised.
  2. The customer is being deceitful or mistaken
  3. The customer or the business had a misunderstanding of their needs to be satisfied with the purchase.


Based on the causes, above:

  1. This is easy: Offer a replacement or a refund. Apologize for the inconvenience. If you really want to score a little higher in the customers' eyes: Offer a little something extra for the issue as it was entirely your (or your products') fault.
  2. This can get very tricky; The quickest and easiest method is to offer a refund and get them out of your business as quickly as possible. This, obviously, is easier with smaller purchases than with large. When larger dollar amounts are involved, you can refer back to your conditions of sale, your sales contract or, as a last resort, applicable laws in commerce. At no point should you accuse the customer of lying - You may, after all, be mistaken. You should have a clearly stated refund policy stating that all refunds require identification and a signature, which should be stored in a database accessible to all your locations; A policy limiting the maximum number of returns in a year, with the exception of clearly defective merchandise, should be in place, as well.
    If you do not have such policies in place, attempt to negotiate with the customer: Either offering them a replacement of the object in question or one equal in value. If you do not have the above mentioned policies in place: Now is a good time to correct that. The easiest is still to issue a refund and be done with the situation. Unless the customer is a serial abuser of return policies, the chances are good they will not return, if an amicable solution has not been found. You can, of course, ask them to choose another supplier for future needs, though this runs the risk of 'rubbing salt in the wounds'
  3. Misunderstanding by the customer or sales person; This one, too, is relatively easy; First, try to see if it is merely a matter of educating the customer in the proper use of that which they purchased from you; There is still a chance of a happy outcome. If that is not the case, then check to see if you have another product or service that does match their needs - Your customer still does, after all, have a need to be fulfilled. If it turns out that there is no appropriate substitute: Refund them fully. While they may not need what you are selling right now, that may not always be the case: This resolution gives them the confidence in knowing that you will take care of them, even when mistakes are made.

When a customer goes negative on social media

Unfortunately, many, many a business has fallen victim to this - sometimes when it was their error, sometimes when it was a "customer from heck" - It is usually not the sale or attempt at refund that causes the greatest problems, though: It is often how the business responds publicly to the criticism.

There are several steps to take, with negative public media exposure:

  1. Apologize for the negative experience and inconvenience. Even if it is the customers' fault, your purpose of being in business is to provide solutions, be it selling cupcakes to satisfy a five year olds' hunger or Caterpillar excavators to dig foundations.
  2. Ask them to contact you directly and offer more that one method of contact - Some customers do not like the idea of direct confrontation, so voice or in-person may not be the best initial contact: Email, social media, telephone and business address, if applicable.
  3. Never, ever reveal personal information about the customer or their purchase in social media. Not only may this violate laws within your jurisdiction, but it can look petty or vengeful - Even if the customer is doing the same to you. The old saying "Two wrongs do not make a right" holds true.
  4. Follow the steps in Resolution above, to end the dispute - hopefully in a positive manner
  5. If the resolution is amicable, ask the customer if they would mind posting an update where they made the initial public post. If they do: Follow up, yourself, thanking the customer for their understanding and apologizing again for the inconvenience, if appropriate.
  6. If the resolution is not amicable, but you have provided a refund or exchange, but the customer does not wish to post an update: If possible, follow up, yourself, saying that a resolution has been reached and you were happy to do your best to resolve the situation.
  7. Interact! Do not be afraid to respond to your customer in public, even when they are clearly unhappy, BUT: Take the high road. Never use crude language or insults, even if the customer is doing so, to you.
    Do not be overly afraid of "negative" reviews: Everyone knows there is no such thing as a perfect business with a 100% perfect record of providing perfect products and solutions. You will, more often than not, get MORE loyal customers when it is shown that you TAKE CARE of your customers, even when - especially when - something goes wrong.

Legal threats

You should never, EVER do this, unless there is actual, measurable and provable damage being caused to you. You should also never make threats of litigation without first consulting legal counsel. As a business owner, you must always be aware of the possibility of being accused of SLAPP - Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation - In other words; Using the threat of legal action solely to silence criticism or negative press.

Threatening a customer with legal action almost always backfires in that it attracts far more negative attention than otherwise, unless the customers' behaviour is so egregious that only a court of law could solve it. Once legal action, or threat of legal action has been taken, STOP talking in public about it: This will be the first thing your lawyer tells you.


Above all: Resolution with an unhappy customer is almost always better when you can "make them whole" - Either by providing them with the purchase they initially desired and the knowledge how to use it, or refunding them entirely, so they are returned to a state of zero loss.

Sometimes, these refunds are given even when the customer is clearly in the wrong; This is often simply the cost of doing business; You will, after all, find a lot more success with positive reviews and interactions than with negative.

Marc Bissonnette
Arnprior, Ontario
June, 20, 2018

Copyright © 2020 / Marc Bissonnette, Ontario - All rights reserved -

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