How to Handle Unhappy Customers

For years I handled my own customer service. Each morning I would cringe as I opened my inbox, and reluctantly started scanning the subject lines for urgent or upset customers.

“WORST PRODUCT EVER!”

“SCAM!!!”

“REFUND IMMEDIATELY!”

(If you read your customer service emails, you know that these emails are almost always written in ALL CAPS – so that people are sure that you know that they are ANGRY and YELLING – and they often include a gratuitous amount of exclamation points.)

To put it frankly, it sucks.

You work very hard to get your art out into the world and it is SO scary to put yourself out there.

It’s basically your worst nightmare come to life when people tear you and your work down.

And trust me, they will….

Unfortunately it’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN you will have to handle an unhappy client or customer.

When I was talking to my community about customer service, one woman put it so clearly…

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It’s one of the worst feelings in business when a customer just lets loose with a litany of reasons why they’re unhappy and you’re terrible.  Especially when you’re a very small business or one-person-shop, it can feel extremely personal. And even the most seasoned of us can get upset when a customer is upset.

But the first thing to realize is that you have to be the bigger person in this situation, because you are representing your business and your brand.

We all have bad days, and you can never know what the other person may be going through. And remember that almost every problem can be fixed.  If you approach problem customers with the right attitude, they’re not likely to be problems for very long.

Click here to download our Happy Customer Service Scripts that you can use to handle unhappy customers.

Is Your Customer Always Right?

If you set the right expectations, then no. But it’s your job to first set the boundaries, and then hold them kindly but firmly.

One of the best parts about being your own boss is that you get to call the shots and decide who you will respectfully refuse to serve.

Regardless of whether the customer is “right” about a problem, you need to get into the right mindset to turn a complaint into an opportunity. Look at it as a challenge to right a wrong, win a customer, etc.

When you have to deal with a complaint or angry customer, think B.L.A.P.E:

    1. BREATHE. Take a deep breath. The best thing you can do right from the start is try to get calm and center yourself a little.  You can’t be defensive: customers have the right to ask, you have the right to uphold your company’s standards/protocol.  It’s time to go on the offence and solve the problem. Make sure YOUR energy is upbeat and complimentary because that’s all you can control. In the end, having a positive attitude can usually turn the situation around.

    2. LISTEN. It can be sooooo tempting to cut people off and try to start to fix the problem before their tirade has run its course, but that’s likely to make them even angrier.  Let them tell you their whole problem before you try to respond.  (Of course, you don’t have to take any abuse! If they can’t be civil and are just yelling and being unreasonable, you should politely remove yourself from the conversation. A great phrase to interrupt this is to say, “I would love to help you when you have calmed down and we can communicate clearly.”)

    3. ACKNOWLEDGE. Address their issue before suggesting a solution. This can be as easy as saying rephrasing what they’ve said back to you.  “So, Bob, you’re unhappy with XYZ.” In this world of email, never underestimate the power of jumping on the phone to solve a problem.

    4. Provide a SOLUTION. The best thing you can do is actually solve their problem and do so quickly.  If you can solve their problem for them, their anger is likely to evaporate just as quickly. As you work with a customer, keep very good notes with dates for reference. It’s hard to argue when you can provide evidence of what was done and when, and it also keeps you accountable to being consistent with policy.

    5. EXCEED EXPECTATIONS. This shows that you really care when you go above and beyond to not just solve the problem but mend the relationship.  Sometimes this can be as simple as providing a refund or partial refund, offering a bonus or a coupon, or calling to follow up and make sure the problem was really solved. Ask how the experience could have been better and see if that can be done.

Go out of your way to do as much for them as possible. If they are having trouble registering, call and get their card number, keep them on the phone while you register for them, then send them an email after the call… even go as far to schedule a check in a week later to ensure they are having a good experience.  That is good customer service.

Remember, you’ll always have those customers who push to see what they can get away with. (If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk…) But you are the “gatekeeper.” You can say no, be firm, and still be positive:

  • Be gentle but firm — use the broken record technique and just keep repeating your answers.
  • Some people will insist on things that violate your policies and/or are outrageous. Keep referring to the policy that they agreed to. (This is why it’s so vital to have clear policies in writing.)
  • Look for an acceptable win-win (i.e – We can’t do that, but we can do this).
  • Know that some days you won’t be able to win with a customer and it may be for the best to cut your losses in that particular case.
  • You have the right to refuse service to anyone who is unnecessarily rude or abusive. I encourage exercising that right when needed.


Setting boundaries with customers is more about you than them. Lead by example. If you respect your business enough to set boundaries, you are teaching the people you serve how to do the same. (Do you want to be nice or credible/respected?) But remember that in order to enforce boundaries, there must be “consequences.” (Ex: if you don’t pay, you don’t get the service.)

Of course, the harsh reality is that  not everyone will love your stuff, but that’s ok (there will be plenty of people who DO love your stuff). Things will break and mistakes will happen; fix them as quickly and as best you can and keep your customers posted on updates.

And finally, remember you simply can’t please everyone. That doesn’t take anything away from the value you offer.

To make dealing with problem customers even easier, we’ve created some Happy Customer Service Scripts to help you through. Click here to download them and save them somewhere that you can have them handy when you need them.

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