The Prescription for Treating Unhappy Customers

Mar 11, 2020, Written by Jim Miley

Receiving accolades from your customers is a great feeling; a rush of positive affirmation that you’re doing a good job and your future is filled with loyal patrons who help you exceed all your business goals. 

Imagine for a moment how good you would feel if all your customers had only positive feedback, perfect satisfaction survey scores, glowing comments about you to their friends and families.  New customer referrals are pouring in so fast that you’re worried about how you’re going to handle the growth. This is great; you’re livin’ the dream and all your customers are celebrating your success.

Then you get the wake-up call… 

Trouble in paradise:  An irate, unhappy customer busts in on your dream to tell you how you have screwed up.  You and your business have not delivered satisfactory performance. This unhappy camper feels strongly enough to help you by detailing the inadequacies of your employees and your services because you are obviously out of touch with the reality that surrounds your sad little business. 

Your Reputation Matters

According to, 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. And according to a Pew Research Center survey, 96% of US adults age 30 – 49 use the internet.  Studies also show that consumers are much more likely to share a negative experience than a positive one. 

Forbes reports that 94% of consumers avoid a company with bad reviews… Ouch!

Whether you have a local brick and mortar establishment or a sleek online business presence, how you handle the inevitable unhappy customer is very important for the health of your business. 

So How Do You Handle Unhappy Customers? 

Nearly all business owners hold a conviction to prioritize ‘making things right’ for the customer.  But often the path to problem resolution is not so clear. 

What do you do when it is simply not possible to give the customer what they want? 

I’ve dealt with so many impossible situations I have wondered if it were actually as bad as they seem to me upon reflection.  When I make note of the details, yes, yes they often were.

It is not a question of “if” but only of “when” and “how often” a business owner faces situations where they cannot deliver what a customer wants or needs.  How you respond to these unfortunate situations can make all the difference in how your customer responds. Do they stay a loyal customer or do they wander off to your competition?  Do they write a review of how you stand behind your products and make things right; or and angry rant warning others to avoid your services? 

It is in your best interest as a business owner to hone your skills of effective communication and problem resolution for your customers.  The benefits include the obvious of improved customer retention and customer satisfaction, but also some less tangible gains in areas of your own peace of mind and stress reduction. 

Having an effective formulaic approach to resolving customer issues allows business owners to relax in knowing they have a plan to move in a positive direction even when things seem pretty bad. 

As I wrote previously, all business owners hold the conviction to make things right with their customers.  Where a good solution for customer satisfaction is obvious or readily available, just do it. The prescription outlined below applies to the more daunting and hard to escape problems; these are the troubles that most often sour relationships and birth really bad reviews and ex-customers. 

The Prescription for Treating Unhappy Customers

This Prescription has three distinct and critical components.  You must address each of the three components clearly in your communication to the customer or it’s much more likely the client remains feeling dissatisfied and unattended.  Addressing all three components of The Prescription well maximizes the likelihood your customer accepts that you are working to make things right. So here it is:

1. Acknowledge The Problem

Acknowledging the problem is to use reflective communication whereby you re-state the source of the customer’s dissatisfaction back to them.  It means to empathize with the customer so they know you understand why they are unhappy with the situation. 

Do Not Argue With The Customer about whether they are justified or right to feel the way they do.  Far too often I have found team members in a heated discourse over whether the customer is right or wrong.  This does not mean you should accept responsibility for claims that are untrue or accountability for damages of any kind.  It simply means choose your words wisely and don’t argue about whether the customer has a right to be upset.

Acknowledging from an empathetic posture that you understand what and why the situation is undesirable for the customer allows you to move forward toward a solution.  Failing to complete this step well will hinder your ability to make progress toward resolution. Skipping or stumbling on step one will often produce a never-ending argument where the customer feels they need to continuously rehash the problem over and over again.

Common approaches to part one

  • “I’m sorry for the inconvenience this situation has caused by (list some reasons)”
  • “I understand your position (reflect what the client has said) and am working to address it”
  • “This is not how I expect you to feel about our services (reflect the area of disappointment) and am going to work to improve the situation”

2. Tell The Customer What You Are Doing To Address The Problem Now

As an unhappy customer, we all want to feel like the supplier places some priority on removing our pain.  Nothing screams “I don’t really care” to a customer more than no immediate action. 

Telling the customer what you are doing to address the problem rarely means the final resolution.  You need to tell the customer what steps you are taking toward removing their present pain and tell them how you plan to work toward final resolution of the problem as acknowledged in step one. 

Your acknowledgement of the problem in step one often helps you understand what you may be able to do to reduce the customer’s pain level in the short term. 

Examples include:

  • Temporary solutions that help them get by while you work a long-term fix
  • A price concession on an alternative solution
  • A plan that you map out for how you are going to fix the problem and when 

The closer you come to removing the customers source of pain the better, but it is critical that you communicate some clear action you are taking right now to make them feel better about the situation. 

3. Tell The Customer What You Are Doing To Prevent The Problem From Recurring

Most of us rely upon repeat business from customers to be successful.  And we all live and die by our reputation. Part three of The Prescription gives the customer confidence that you can be trusted in the future. 

Even if you offer a solution that solves the current problem, wise business owners don’t forget the fact that there was a negative experience for the customer.  If the customer believes they might have similar issues with future orders, why should they keep sticking their hand back in the trap that hurt them? 

Part three of The Prescription can be harder for some business owners to grasp than parts one and two.  You need to consider the root cause of the defect or problem and brainstorm what you might do differently to keep the problem from happening again.  You may need to be creative with your solutions.

Common examples include:

  • Providing a more detailed quotation prior to accepting an order so the customer understands exactly what is being delivered
  • Additional training for our staff on the exact problem that occurred
  • Any improvement to an internal process that reduces the likelihood of occurrence

I have found The Prescription invaluable in my career working with all types of businesses from global manufacturing leaders, regional manufacturer representatives and solopreneur service providers.

Using The Prescription For Treating Unhappy Customers will have a dramatic impact on how current and prospective customers see your responsiveness as a company and favorably affect your brand image in your market.  Knowing you are prepared with a consistent approach to addressing the needs of your customers lets you rest easier when trouble jobs arise.

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Jim Miley

As a Business Coach, Jim brings a broad background of operational and sales management skills and expertise to help small business owners grow their business and reach their highest potential. He has 30 years of field-proven professional experience.

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