Executive's Corner, Relationship Building
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It happens to all of us – an unhappy customer’s words catch your attention on social media or through a survey. They’re displeased with your product, your service, or both, and you aren’t sure how to respond. Whether you agree or disagree, however, you need to do something. In this age, an unhappy customer left untended only breeds more discontent.

Responding to an unhappy customer is more than a single act, however. It requires following a certain protocol that addresses the multiple levels of a complaint.

Here are four strategies for handling an unhappy customer, helping you make negative comments productive.

Start Internally

Before you can address an issue with a customer, you need to deal with the internal implications. This doesn’t mean you need to solve the problem before you can respond – but you do need to gauge your own reactions and feelings in light of these comments. If you’re feeling angry or offended, for example, leaving those feelings untreated can cause them to come out in your response. This can come out as arguing with the customer, something you should never do – even if you think they’re wrong.

Alternatively, negative feedback can create a kind of negative self-talk loop in which you think there’s nothing helpful or positive you can do. New entrepreneurs are especially vulnerable to this kind of internalization, but it’s something we all do. To really succeed in business, however, it’s a cycle you need to break early on. Take a page out of the mental health playbook and work on replacing negative self-talk with positive alternatives. This will help you get into a mindset that allows you to work with your customers towards a solution.



Let Them Know You’re Listening

When you respond to a complaint by a customer, you’re doing more than just telling them that you’ve read their words and want to thank them for communicating with you. Rather, you’re kicking off a longer process in which you work with them to solve a problem. Maybe their complaint is easy to deal with – they got a damaged package or spoke to an unhappy rep who wasn’t helpful. These are easy fixes.

But when the solution isn’t easy, you’ve got to let customers know that not only have you heard their complaints, but you’re moving those complaints through the right channels. Acknowledge that you’ve heard them and then tell the customer who you’ve shared their complaint with. You want them to know that you’ve told others about the complaint who can help them. This also gives them multiple people to follow up with in the future.

Speak Privately

Depending on the scale of the complaint, you may want to respond to the original comments made by the customer in a public forum. Maybe their initial note was joined with a chorus of others with similar experiences who you also want to speak to. But sometimes it’s better to reach out to customers privately.

Private contact allows you to do several things. First, you can extend more than courtesy in private contact, whether that’s a refund or a replacement or another nominal gift. But it also allows you to have a more in-depth conversation about the problem. You can exchange emails, engage their ideas or issues, copy others on the conversation, and work more effectively to manage the issue via private channels.

Take Action

Finally, once you’ve addressed the issue with the individual client, you need to determine whether this is a more systemic issue with your product or delivery and what the best way to proceed is. Do you need more customer feedback? Consider holding a small focus group, chat, or Q&A session. These are low cost and low commitment but can yield real rewards.

This initial negative contact can form the foundation for a more engaged relationship with customers that is also part of an experiential marketing approach. Customers respond when you provide these types of memorable experiences as part of your practices.

Being responsive and positive is the most important part of handling customer complaints. When we’re able to approach problems with grace and humility, we build meaningful relationships out of what may have been only a superficial transaction.

At the end of the day, your clients are your most trusted advisors, so treat them that way.


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