Here are some tips on how to deal with unhappy customers and where to draw the line in resolving their problems

By Christopher Freeburn


Small business owners understand the necessity of attracting customers to their business. But keeping those customers happy and coming back means more than just offering good products and services at reasonable prices. It means properly dealing with the inevitable complaints from customers who have a problem with your company's products or services, or with the way in which they were delivered.


Knowing how to properly resolve customer complaints is crucial. According to a recent study by the Technical Assistance Research Programs Institute, 91 percent of customers who have an unsatisfactory experience at a business while making an expensive purchase will not do business with that company again. And even when the item purchased was inexpensive, the study found that more than half of the customers surveyed indicated that they would shop elsewhere after an unresolved complaint.


In most cases, losing a customer over a complaint is unnecessary, says John Tschohl, president of the Service Quality Institute. "Nine times out of ten, just a little bit of effort by the business to address the customer's complaint would have soothed the situation and probably kept the customer coming back." Indeed, if your business handles the situation properly, not only can a customer's dissatisfaction be remedied, but you can also build additional loyalty to your business. "If a customer sees that your business is responsive to his or her problems, they are actually more likely to come back to your for additional purchases, since they know that they can count on your to help them through any future issues," Tschohl adds. Not only does this make for repeat individual customers, but it can help spread a positive image of your company through word of mouth, since satisfied customers ar

Steps to address complaints



Listen carefully. "The most important thing in handling a customer complaint is making sure that the customer feels that he or she is being heard," says Tschohl. Nothing increases customer anger more than the impression that the company doesn't care. "Whether it's the business owner himself or a salesman or representative talking with the customer, it's important to make sure the customer knows that someone is listening." Tschohl advises empathizing with the customer and reassuring him or her about the importance of their complaint and your desire for continued business.


"When customers feel that their complaints have fallen on deaf ears, they will probably take their business elsewhere in the future," says Tschohl. "Worse for your business, they are very likely to tell their friends and family about the experience," he adds. A disgruntled customer can spread his or her dissatisfaction by word of mouth in a way that can turn a potentially large number of prospective customers away from your business. If your business happens to be in a small town, this effect can be magnified, since small communities have limited customer bases.


Admit any errors on your part. Even the best companies sometimes make mistakes and even small errors can irritate customers who were counting on you to deliver the right goods or services on time. If your company did indeed make a mistake, the best thing you can do, Tschohl says, is to admit the error and work toward correcting it. If the wrong product was sent to the customer, for instance, ship them the correct product without charge. If you can't correct the error itself, offer some form of compensation for the customer's lost time or inconvenience.


Apologize. "Say your sorry that they've had a bad experience and that you want to make things right. Just saying you're sorry-even if you admit no blame-goes a long way toward cooling off someone who's upset," Tschohl notes. Customers want some acknowledgement of their distress, and in some cases Tschohl says that just providing that acknowledgement may be enough, even if there is nothing else you can do for the customer.


Offer solutions. In most cases, customer complaints can be resolved by offering something small like a discount on future purchases, or by granting a refund. "It's better to lose some money settling a customer complaint than to lose additional business," Tschohl says, "because 87 percent of angry customers will tell their friends about what happened, and that could cost you a lot more in potential business."


Follow up. Once you have reached a solution with the customer, be sure to follow up after a little time has passed. Not only does this allow you to see if the complaint has been fully addressed, but it reinforces the customer's impression that your company really does care about keeping their business. That will go a long way toward moving your company's relationship with that customer beyond the problem and toward future purchases.