How to Turn an Upset Customer Into Your Company's Best Advocate The secrets of turning upset customers into raving fans, courtesy of the scientifically proven principle called "the service recovery paradox."

By Micah Solomon

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Here's the bad news: an angry customer is breathing down your neck or tearing you up over the phone, shooting daggers at you via e-mail. Worst case, they're threatening you with the words every business owner dreads, "I'll never use you again, and I'm telling everyone I know not to use you as well."

So, is there any good news as well about this scenario? Surprisingly, there is! The heavily tested psychological principle called the "service recovery paradox" has demonstrated that a customer who is initially unhappy, whom you later make things right for, is more likely to become a lifetime loyalist and advocate before your company.

That's right: one of those desirable customers who not only do business with you but are interested in telling all their friends about you in a good way!

Why would this be? Well, now the customer knows that you're more than a fair-weather friend, and they can count on you even when things have gone sideways. The two of you have now gone through a shared, challenging experience together: you've got your hearts pumping simultaneously, and you're both feeling the relief of getting to the other side.

Related: Why Customer Service Is Your Get Out Of Jail Free Card For Business Success

How do you successfully satisfy an unhappy customer?

Now that you know the potential upside of turning around a customer, here are the four elements involved in service recovery success.

  1. Start selecting future employees based on personality strengths that make them well-suited to this work (to the extent this is possible, considering your organizational constraints).
  2. Regardless of the psychological makeup of your existing employees, begin to offer customer service training in "situational empathy," the ability to put oneself in another person's (in this case, a customer's) shoes.
  3. Adopt and embrace a service recovery framework. Decide on, train on and rehearse a specific service recovery framework. Which particular framework you choose (a few are circulating out there, some of them company specific) isn't as important as your commitment to adopt it companywide, train on it and rehearse it before the next upset customer comes into view with all the negative energy that that situation can engender.

If you don't already have a service recovery framework, let me offer you mine.

The service recovery framework I recommend to my clients is called "the MAMA method," and it's my own, although it owes a lot to the pioneering work of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in service recovery.

Related: Stellar Customer Service Starts with the Hiring Process

The MAMA Method of service recovery

  • Make time to listen.
  • Acknowledge and, if appropriate, apologize.
  • (have a) Meeting of Minds.
  • Act! And follow up.

Here it is in more detail:

M: Make time to listen

  • Immediately stop whatever you're doing.
  • Don't interrupt the customer with questions or explanations.
  • Only then, strive to learn more about the situation by probing for what the customer is specifically upset about.

A: Acknowledge and, if appropriate, apologize. Acknowledge the situation and, if you sense the customer feels it is called for, apologize sincerely. (Note: Every customer is different! Not all customers want an apology, and some are made uncomfortable by one. This is something you'll learn to sense as you practice.)

M: (have a) Meeting of minds. This is the step where you strive to marry what the customer wants and what you realistically can accomplish for them, considering your organizational constraints and realities.

A: Act! And follow up. Get busy taking care of the issue as promised in the prior "Meeting of Minds" stage. If you end up delegating any part of the service resolution, follow up with those you've handed it off to ensure it was handled appropriately and completely. For organizational growth, also document what went wrong so that patterns of failure and their causes can be addressed systemically later.

An important alert and disclaimer: This service recovery sequence and approach are not intended to guide you if you're confronted by an individual who is armed or threatening violence. Handling that situation is a different discipline, typically called "de-escalation training"; it is not what I'm covering here and is not within my professional expertise.

Why have I chosen "MAMA" as a name and mnemonic? The overarching idea of the MAMA method is that you should treat unhappy customers as a caring mother — or father! — would treat a child with a trivial injury rather than how a "just the facts, ma'am" litigator might.

A caring parent would acknowledge the child's feelings rather than try to minimize them; this, as parents know, is the fastest route to getting their kid to dry their tears and go back out to play. If, in contrast, they dismiss the child's feelings, the crying will escalate, as the child needs to prove to the parent that they're injured.

With customers, you're not here to prove that they haven't been injured or are wrong. Rather, you're here to comfort and listen to them tell their story without interruption. Being sure that you do that, you will hear your customer open up and tell you what they are looking for as a resolution, thus giving you a chance to modify that in light of what can be realistically accomplished considering your organizational resources and realities.

Micah Solomon

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Customer Service Transformation Expert

Customer service transformation expert, consultant, author, keynote speaker, proprietor of Known in technology, patient experience, B2B, retail, hospitality industry, retail banking. Named "World's #1 customer service transformation expert" by Inc. Magazine.

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