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How To Turn Your Most Unhappy Customers Into Brand Promoters

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You can’t always avoid having upset customers. But you can change their mind. Here’s how.

Note from Len

This is a guest post from Jessica Malnik, who writes some of my favorite content on the web about building a successful community of customers. I got a lot out of this post, and I know you will, too.


Chances are if you have been in business for a little awhile, you probably have received at least a few complaints. It can be all too easy to internalize and take these complaints personally, and get defensive in your replies back. When in reality, you should be thinking that every complaint is an opportunity to make things right with that particular customer. After all, for every one customer complaint online, there is usually 26 other customers who feel the same way but don’t say anything.

This simple change in mindset can often make the biggest difference when it comes to resolving and even winning back over unhappy customers into promoters. That said, not all unhappy customers are created equal. There are certain responses and tactics needed for certain scenarios. In this post, I’ll walk you through several different scenarios and how you can de-escalate some of the gnarliest situations.

Crisis Scenarios

These are going to be your most critical scenarios, as this is likely affecting many (if not all) of your customers instead of just one or a few. This includes crisis communication issues such as,

In these scenarios, this is where you should default to your specific crisis communications plan. If you don’t have a plan drafted already, I would encourage you to work with your support team, PR folks, and all necessary stakeholders to get a full response plan in place, including a full list of emergency points of contact. Your crisis plan should be viewed like your health and car insurance. You hope you never have to use it, but if you get into a mishap, you will be so glad that you have this plan already in place. If you need help figuring out how to draft up your crisis communications plan, check out this great blog post from Len here.

Since you have a plan already laid out, it’s best to be sincere and apologetic when it comes time to follow your crisis plan, as this is your one opportunity to make things right going forward. While it’s not going to change what caused the crisis in the first place, by putting yourself in your customers’ shoes and emphasizing with them and trying to make things right, you can make big strides with winning even the most unhappy customers back for life.

One-on-One Product / Support Issues

This is where all your 1:1 concerns and issues around your product and/or support team fall into. These issues may or may not be your fault (i.e. a time where you screw up), a product bug or a perceived injustice from the customer.

In these scenarios, it’s best to follow this five-step process to de-escalate the unhappy client.

The De-Escalation Checklist
The De-Escalation Checklist

1) Listen to the customer.

You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. The quickest way to take control and begin to turn around a negative customer experience is to actively listen to the client.

2) Repeat back the problem the customer is having to them.

This may seem like a weird, unnecessary step. However, so many situations wind up escalating because both sides are talking and trying to solve different problems. Simply taking the first sentence or two to restate the customer’s problem in your response can go a long way.

3) Classify what type of problem it is internally.

4) Respond back to the customer in a timely fashion.

While it’s great to be thorough, it’s never okay to be so thorough that you postpone responding back to the customer for days at a time. Your first response back to the customer should be within 24 hours, and even that is pushing it in our always-on, real-time world. In fact according to Hubspot, 72% of people who complain on Twitter expect a response within an hour.

5) Follow-up after the resolution.

This is where doing things that don’t scale work to your advantage. If it was a particularly dicey issue or the customer is a frequent contact on one of your support or social media channels, reach back out to the customer a couple of days later just to check-in. Even the most difficult customers will appreciate you taking the time to check in with them, it can go a long way in rebuilding trust with this customer and eventually turning them into a promoter.

Product Feedback / Feature Requests

Feature requests and product feedback are another area that can lead to some negative customer experiences if unchecked. You ideally should have measures in place to bring in ample customer feedback into your product development process. In fact, here’s 10 great tips from Vimeo’s community team for how they organize their community product feedback. However, that’s probably not going to stop such occasional suggestions coming through. When this happens, it’s important to realize these are coming from power users of your product. Even if they aren’t shouting your product to the rooftops, these are the people who already value your product so much that they are coming to you with suggestions for how to make it better. You should acknowledge and cherish these customers extra tightly. Here’s how you can reply to these customers in a way that makes them feel valued and heard even if they are receiving a “no” to their response.

As you get more product feedback streaming into your support team, you should set up a system where you can send feedback around feature requests to your product team on a regular basis. This could be as simple as one-off suggestions in a Slack or Hipchat channel as they come in. (This probably only works better for smaller startups) or a weekly report that you send out.

The Support Regulars

My first job was working at a cashier at a Wendy’s in a mall food court at the age of 16. While the job was far from glamorous, it did teach me a lot about how to handle the “regular customers.” In this case, the customers who frequented this Wendy’s on a regular basis. They ranged from being very picky about their orders to expecting the same meal/service each time and of course the ones who would scream at you for only giving them 1 honey mustard sauce instead of 3.

Your support team probably has a few regulars of their own. They are the ones who frequent a particular channel on a regular basis and never seem to be satisfied despite whatever resolution you give them. These are the ones where it can be easy to take personally or just want to blow them off as the “difficult customer.” That’s rarely a wise move.

The best thing you can do in these scenarios is to try and isolate the root issue behind all of their concerns, using the 5 WHYS Approach (also known as root-cause-analysis). The key with this approach is you can get to the lingering, real root issue of the problem by asking up to 5 WHY questions. For example, they might be a frequent complainer about specific facets of your product. However, their real issue is that they are trying to cast blame on these specific issues instead of the larger issue that’s impacting their business (ex: lack of sales).

The 5 WHYS Approach
The 5 WHYS Approach

The vast majority of the time you can get to the root of the customer’s issue in a 15 minute phone or Skype call. This is a call that you should schedule where the whole point of the call is for you to listen. I recognize this may seem like a waste of time as you are probably just going to let your crazy customer vent for 15 minutes. However, I can guarantee that you will learn something from the customer in that time and more importantly the customer will appreciate you listening to them.

If you are lucky, you are will be able to resolve the problem on the spot for them. However, in most scenarios, this is probably something you can’t fix it. I know, for me at least, these are the support interactions that drive me the most crazy. I love helping people and want to go out my way to help people fix their problems. However, in these scenarios, the best thing you can do for the customer is point them to the best, possible resources where they can get their issue resolved.

Antagonizers and Instigators

This is a specific type of customer that you will likely only see within your online channels such as social media and forums. They are the types of clients that thrive off fueling the biggest audience possible around support or product issues.

If left unchecked, these customers can create chaos in your community. It requires moderation. In any scenario, you should default back to your community guidelines and craft an email communicating the issue and why the member’s actions violate your community guidelines.

Legal Issues

These are typical 1:1 crisis issues, such as ongoing lawsuits or legal threats. Even if you have tremendous trust in your support team to do right by your customers, you should escalate these concerns to your legal team right away. This isn’t something your support agents are going to be equipped to handle. The actual response process should be detailed in full in your crisis communications plan. (see above points)


These are the customers, who are quite frankly just bad (note: not just challenging) customers. These are the customers who:

In these scenarios, it’s absolutely in your best interest to nicely part ways with the particular customer. Here’s a great blog post for how to fire a customer with grace.

Regardless of how dicey the situation may be, all scenarios can be made so much better by simply listening, acknowledging and emphasizing with the customer. This can go the longest way even when you are giving the customer an answer they don’t want to hear.

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About the Author

Jessica Malnik is a community manager, content strategist and an avid blogger. She can be found writing on her blog and helping entrepreneurs grow their communities. Her work has been featured in a variety of online publications, including The Next Web, Buffer, Convince and Convert, PR Daily, Spin Sucks, CMX and MSN UK. Sign up here to download her insanely actionable tips for building your blog’s audience.

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