Marketing Monday: How do you handle an unhappy customer?

The manager at Trader Joe's made me feel he wanted me to have a good experience and it only cost him a new bag of chips. (for a review of these tasty treats, click here)

The manager at Trader Joe’s made me feel he wanted me to have a good experience and it only cost him a new bag of chips. (for a review of these tasty treats, click here)

Marketing boils down to making a sale.

Winning a customer, keeping a customer and getting a customer to come back can all lead to making a sale.

But I think there’s a unique opportunity in how you deal with a problem. That’s when I learn how much you really value me and my satisfaction with my purchase.

I’ll share two very similar experiences, both at grocery stores in our neighborhood that we shop at frequently:

  • We bought a bag of potato chips. When we opened the bag, we discovered they were totally smashed. We were pretty sure we hadn’t done that, as we only traveled a block on foot with them. We took them back to the store, where a manager apologized and asked if we’d like to get another bag or have him refund us.
  • I bought some mashed potatoes in the deli case. (I’m not sure why potatoes are the common element here.) When I opened the container, they smelled bad, like rotten milk. I’d bought them because I was sick and wanted easy comfort food, and I didn’t have the energy to go back out to return them that night. The next day I went to the store and told the manager the potatoes smelled bad. He asked when I bought them. He told me the problem was I should have eaten them the day I bought them. They smelled bad the day I bought them, I said. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. I said I wanted a refund, and he gave it to me.

Two different stores, two low-grade problems, two managers who resolved the problem. Why do I feel so much better about the first than the second?

Because in the first store, the manager showed concern for my satisfaction instead of blaming me and getting defensive.

In both experiences, the solution cost the store something. But in the first, the manager bought my loyalty because he made me feel heard.

When I’ve dealt with unhappy customers, I’ve often felt that a simple “I’m sorry” changes the tone of the entire conversation. It’s so simple. Just an apology for whatever the frustration or confusion or problem is. Start there.

From there, you can offer an explanation if it’s helpful. Sometimes understanding how something went wrong might allow the customer to see you as human. As long as you don’t go past explaining into excuse making, you might reinforce that you’ve heard the customer. Yes, I hear that you have a problem, I know how it happened — and how we’re going to keep it from happening next time.

Then when you get to crafting a solution, I love this suggestion from Inc. magazine:

A particular four-letter word usually does the trick when seeking a solution to a customer’s complaint: fair. “One of the key phrases, which not a lot of people use, is: what would you think would be fair?” Morgan says. “That word fair does seem to bring out in people a sense of, OK, this is reasonable.”

Otherwise, Morgan cautions, customers may jump at the opportunity to demand inappropriate freebies, like a fully compensated meal when a free dessert would be enough. Beside, the customer’s main priority is resolving the issue. Once that’s done, extra benefits or compensation are just filigree – albeit important measures to take if you want the customer to come back.

Want more inspiration for how to do it right? There are loads of pointers online, including:

Colleen Newvine Tebeau is a former reporter and editor who then earned her MBA at University of Michigan with emphases in marketing and corporate strategy.  She is a marketing consultant who helps small and midsized organizations with strategy and tactics, including social media and communications.


Categories: career

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2 replies

  1. It’s amazing how such little actions can go a long way. The most important thing is to *listen* to the customer.

    I bought a hot water heater from Sears and the robo calls started almost immediately. They wanted me to fill out a “customer satisfaction” survey. When I emailed Sears to ask them to quit robo-calling me, it would have been a simple thing for them to just stop calling me, right? I would have been happy with that outcome.

    Instead, they had a human call me to tell me that they weren’t going to call me anymore. Huh? Sadly, in their eyes, they handled that situation correctly, and probably thought it showed how much “Sears cares” (their new motto).

    On my end, I felt more disrespected than ever. They obviously didn’t listen to me at all.


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