How to Handle an Unhappy Customer

January 8, 2010
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A happy customer tells an average of one person about your service. An unhappy customer tells three. If you ignore their requests for action, they tell nine. If you get in an argument, they tell 50!

We all encounter unhappy customers from time to time. How you handle these clients will dramatically impact your future. The potential lifetime value of a client in our industry has been estimated to be as much as $72,000. A source that refers 12 new clients per year is worth about $1 million. If an unhappy customer tells your referral source (which she will if you don’t nip it in the bud), then you have really hurt your business.

Our company grew by $1 million dollars in about a 3-year span. All of it was due to people telling other people how great we were. Can you imagine how much lower that amount would be if we didn’t take care of our problems?

I have a saying about successful people: “Successful people face up to their problems and solve them quickly.” Handling an unhappy client properly can many times create a more loyal client than if the problem never arose to start with. The true strength of a service company is not doing everything right the first time (although that should be the goal).

We live in a fallen world. Things do go wrong from time to time. The strength of a service company is found in how they handle problems.

Because of how the problem was handled, the client is so “WOWed” that they will never use anyone else, and they will tell everyone they know about the great experience they had with you.

The worst thing you can do when a client is unhappy is not respond right away. If you get a voice mail message, or a staff member says, “Mrs. Jones is on the line and she ain’t happy,” you get on it now.

Or how about this one: Your tech was out on the job, there is some discrepancy and you have to get some details.

Don’t wait a week to get back to her. Don’t even wait overnight! Get the information and call as soon as possible.

My rule is to solve any and every complaint before the close of business. Even if you don’t know what to do for your client, let them know you are working on it.

“Mrs. Jones, I just wanted to let you know that I am working on this situation for you. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet, but I promise that we will get you taken care of.”

You see, I didn’t say what we were going to do, I said she would be taken care of.

When you get a complaint, never, ever defend yourself. Ever! Even if you are being accused of something you did not do, resist the temptation to defend yourself because it will not work.

When something goes wrong, it may fall into one or more “fault” categories.

It's Your Fault

Own up to it and apologize. If you are already aware of it, say, “Mrs. Jones, I know about it, and we are going to get it taken care of immediately. Please forgive me. I promise to get that taken care of right away.”

If it was your fault, be sure to reward her for her inconvenience.

Our company automatically rewards a client if we are late. We give a one-hour arrival window (which is unheard of with a 10-truck company).

If we do not arrive during that hour window, regardless of the reason, the client gets rewarded based on how late we were. If we were 30 minutes late, they will get a free room of carpet protector or something of that nature. If we are an hour late, they get several rooms of protector or more cleaning done at no charge. If we are more than 2 hours late, they get the free cleaning, plus a certificate for future cleaning.

If we have to re-schedule the job, they don’t pay.

This commitment gives us a major accountability factor. We will be there. None of this applies if the client decided to reschedule. If it was our fault, for any reason, we apply these rewards automatically. 

It's the Customer's Fault

Let’s say there was something they overlooked, didn’t tell us about, or didn’t understand, even if it was in writing. Take care of her. If you don’t, she will tell three to 50 people.

It doesn’t matter that it was her fault. The best customer service reps are the ones that leave their personal feelings out of the picture. It is a business transaction.

If the client is unhappy and it was her fault, you only have two choices: fire the client and endure the fallout, or keep the client and her referrals.

If you do need to fire a client, make sure you go the extra mile first. Then wait until the next time she calls. Don’t do it while you are in conflict over the situation.

Firing her when she calls in for new service is the best time to do it. 

It's Both Sides' Fault

Sometimes we both have a hand in the problem. Perhaps the way the transaction went down, we let them talk us into pricing it over the phone, whatever. We both goofed. So, you fix it. 

It's Someone Else's Fault

Maybe the situation was caused by another party. There was a pre-existing condition that was not apparent before you serviced this client.

Sorry, no excuses. The client will perceive that you are just making an excuse and trying to blame it on someone else. Remember, you have only two choices.

It's No One's Fault

There are times that things don’t work out. An “act of God,” weather, or whatever caused some kind of problem.

If your client perceives that it was your fault, it is. Not in reality, but in the reality of what you are offering: a customer perception.

No one getting more than the absolute lowest price for his or her service is offering anything less than a customer perception – an expected experience. It is not about the physical job you do or the physical product you sell. It never has been and never will be.

You sell a solution to a perceived problem. You sell the fulfillment of a need. An emotional need. An emotional need with a set of expectations.

The better you can pre-qualify those expectations, the better you will be able to communicate with the client whether their expectations are realistic or not.

As soon as you commit to doing the job, or selling the product, you gave an “expectation guarantee.” You are really selling something that is totally intangible.

Even if it was no one’s fault, if you want to be a hero, take care of your client, and watch your business grow.

The only exception to “shut down” on a client is if they begin to curse you or threaten you. At this point, they need to cool down. Say, “I understand that you are upset, but I cannot assist you unless we can communicate.” If they continue to curse or threaten, then leave or, if on the phone, simply hang up

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