4 Steps to Win Back an Unhappy Customer

It doesn't matter if the customer isn't right, you have to make them feel like they are.

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By Susan Steinbrecher

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

No matter what business you're in, chances are you will find yourself faced with an irate or dissatisfied customer. As Warren Buffet once said, we can't just "satisfy" the customer; we have to learn to "delight" the customer. But many customer service representatives want to avoid conflict, trying to turn attention away from the issue at hand by deflecting the customer's complaint and routinely reciting "company policies."

Many representatives become so frustrated that they have a tendency to use an unapologetic tone when expressing regret for a mishap or oversight. Even more problematic is that some employees tend to become defensive when faced with a distressed customer. The bottom line is, the customer is ultimately left with the impression that no one is listening -- and that no one cares about their particular issue.

If you view these situations as an opportunity to win over a customer for life, you're on the right track. However, you must know how to take control of the situation.

Related: Dealing With That Unhappy Customer

H.E.L.P. is an easy-to-learn acronym that outlines four steps to follow when faced with an unhappy customer and it works like this:

Hear the customer out.

Empathize and apologize in that order.

Lead the customer to a resolution.

Provide a responsible course of action.

Hear the customer out.

Listening is an essential step. You must provide the customer or client with the opportunity to vent and allow them to get their frustration or anger out. Resist the temptation to say something or cut them off -- even if they are being unreasonable or saying something incorrect. If you cut them off at this point, the situation will escalate as they will feel that they are not being heard. Focus entirely on their complaint and demonstrate that you are fully listening, by maintaining eye contact and nodding your head (if the exchange is in person) to show the customer that you genuinely care. If you're on the phone, repeat what the customer has said to you, to confirm that you have heard and understood why they are upset, before moving on to a resolution.

Related: Why Customers Are Unhappy With Anything Less Than a Perfect ...


This is equally important and must come before the apology, or it won't feel sincere. We have all had experiences when someone has apologized, but instinctively you knew they didn't genuinely mean it. Even if you feel the customer or client is wrong, if you wish to diffuse the situation, you must show empathy toward them. This is not always easy but it is necessary.

Lead the customer to a resolution.

This can be achieved by asking questions. For example, "What can we do to resolve this issue for you?" "What would it take to make this wrong, right?" There are risks in asking such open-ended questions, but most people just want their complaint to be heard and acknowledged without any further action. The worst-case scenario is that the customer will request something that you are not able to deliver. In this situation, you can say, "I appreciate that you would like me to do that for you. I am, unfortunately, not in a position to do that. What I can do is…" And be prepared to follow through on your promise to the letter.

Related: Why Businesses Can't Afford to Upset Customers (Infographic)

Provide the responsible course of action.

This refers to what surfaced in the previous step. Be sure to take care of the issue right away. Follow up with the customer to let them know it has been taken care of.

There will be certain situations where further action is required, or a solution may not be realized. For the vast majority of people, however, once you have heard them out, if you empathized appropriately and apologized and sincerely offered to make things right, they will calm down and you can then arrive at a satisfactory solution.

Employees take their cue from management.

If you are an owner, leader or manager, remember that your employees will treat your customer the way they are treated. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you greet your employees each day?
  2. Are you polite in your dealings with them?
  3. Do you try your best to accommodate their needs and follow up on their requests?
  4. Do you sincerely listen to them when they speak?

Consistent discourteous customer service may be a reflection as much on management as it is on the employee, so follow the Golden Rules. Treat employees the way you wish to be treated -- and be mindful of the impact that your behavior may have on all those around you.

Susan Steinbrecher

Leadership Consultant and Author

Susan Steinbrecher is CEO of Steinbrecher and Associates in Hurst, Texas, and serves as a management consultant, executive coach, licensed mediator, speaker and leadership advisor. She is the co-author of Heart-Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well and wrote KENSHO: A Modern Awakening.

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