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91% of customers say they won’t willingly do business again with a company that left them unhappy.

In customer service, dealing with the "Karens" of the world is inevitable. Even in the face of the most unreasonable demands, it’s in your best interest to win over unhappy customers and turn a negative customer experience into a positive one. As someone who spent over 12 years doing this for brands like Apple and Starbucks, I can assure you that even disastrous customer situations can be turned around—and even win you loyal customers in the end. In many cases, how you as a service team react is everything, and fulfilling customer expectations can be easier than you think!

The impact of unsatisfied customers

Unsatisfied customers almost always adversely affect your business. Because of them, you:

  • Lose money: Because of a canceled service or the need to offer a refund
  • Lose time: Believe me, dealing with upset customers can be time-consuming!
  • Risk your reputation online: Today, posting a bad review is a cakewalk, and market research shows your reviews are a vital factor for many potential customers. 91% of US consumers say positive reviews make them more likely to use your service. Negative reviews have the exact opposite effect.

So as much as the words may I speak to the manager might activate your fight-or-flight reflex, you can’t afford to neglect those 'squeaky wheels.' Here's how to—as the saying goes—give your unhappy customers the 'grease.'

An example of how not to handle customer complaints

No one likes handling upset customers, but don't forget, we've all been unhappy customers ourselves at one point or other. You have two options in these scenarios. You can try to win your customer over, or exacerbate the situation. Sometimes, the latter option is really tempting, especially when dealing with a bonafide Karen.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Pigalle restaurant in Boston decided to do some time ago:

Was it a good decision? Frankly, it’s challenging to think of a worse answer. Such a negative reaction surely won’t help you get more customers. On the contrary, an aggressive response to customer feedback (even if it was far from perfect) automatically tells others exactly how you deal with a less-than-ideal situation. Just saying, that pie also sounds rank.

And what if you want to stay on the light side of the Force, and customer satisfaction is your goal? That’s definitely commendable! However, handing angry people is a skill that must be honed. You have to know exactly how to deal with dissatisfied customers to provide an exceptional user experience. Here’s what you can do.

How to handle customer complaints the right way

If you want to turn a negative experience into a positive one, you have to stick to several rules that consider customer needs. It all starts with the right approach; imagine that this angry person in front of you can be turned into a happy customer, even though it may require some effort. How? There are ten elements to consider; let’s have a look at them!

The basics

First of all, you should stay calm no matter what. And I admit, it’s extremely challenging when this is going on in your brain.

But if you let your own anger take over, the situation will immediately get out of hand, and the way to solve a given complaint in a positive manner will suddenly become extremely slippery.

Secondly, you must listen to your customer (like, really listen!). Active listening not only shows respect to your customer but also enables you to understand the true root cause of the problem. Sometimes, the real problem can lie somewhere else (emotionally-charged people are not always great at explaining their problems), and you have to get there to know how to deal with it.

Thirdly, practice empathy. You must stop looking at the problem as your customer vs. you, and instead look at the situation as you and the customer versus the problem. Offer the customer service that you would like to get, and treat everyone with respect (even if you think they don’t really deserve it).

Solving, not calming

When an annoyed customer enters your establishment, don’t trivialize their problem or tell them to calm down; that works zero percent of the time. The customer is upset because he or she got something else than expected—that’s a legitimate reason to be on edge, right?

The best way to handle this situation is to show your customer that you treat their problem seriously and you want to solve it as quickly as possible.

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Have a formal complaint procedure

You need a specific complaint procedure depending on your business profile and the service provided. Dissatisfied customers should have a way to voice their concerns. If you take that away from them, they will immediately go to social media or Google reviews, and you want to avoid this scenario at all costs.

Such a complaint procedure should be as straightforward and quick as possible. In general, you should:

  1. Provide a way to complain about your product or service (online, over the phone, or in person).
  2. Record every complaint you get (the best solutions here are your CRM, your customer service software, dedicated complaint management software, or even an Excel spreadsheet will do). These records will come in handy in the future—especially when dealing with serial Karens.
  3. Prepare the answer to a given complaint. You can prepare some templates beforehand, but always personalize the reply; address the customer by their first name and offer a sincere apology. Copy-paste doesn’t work here very well.
  4. Go the extra mile and offer a solution that will truly satisfy the customer. This way, you will sometimes even be able to turn an unhappy customer into a loyal customer. Success in these situations is defined by both how you handle it and the outcome.

Additionally, based on your company’s experience, you can list common customer complaints and prepare good answers to them. This way, you will streamline the process in the future.

Document every complaint

Ensure you carefully document every complaint using feedback management tools that capture customer interactions in detail. No one likes to hear them, but it’s an opportunity for your company to improve the product or the procedures you follow. Perhaps there’s something wrong with your product, and you should deal with it immediately. Or maybe a customer spotted a weak spot in your purchasing process (e.g., a faulty payment gate), and theirs is just the first of many complaints to come.

The list can be quite long, but one thing is certain—it never serves you to ignore customer complaints. Inversely, it always pays to ensure you make the most of every negative customer experience and use this knowledge to improve the way your company works.


Your whole team should know how to deal with angry customers and how to react to negative feedback. Prepare training to teach your customer service reps and other employees working directly with customers (e.g., help desk consultants) how to talk to and work with dissatisfied customers. Such training ought to be tailored to your company’s profile and the various types of customers you work with.

If you find this objective challenging, consider hiring a company or a consultant who will help you analyze the current state of your customer service (including customer reviews), see how your customer service team performs in different situations, and prepare a comprehensive strategy to enhance your customer support. Such a consultant will also help you create a tailor-made training program for your team.

For more on this, you can also read how to improve your team’s soft skills.

Short response time

When it comes to handling customer complaints, you need to be quick. Don’t de-prioritize dissatisfied customers and make them wait a long time—it will only make things worse. Treat these customers as if they're at the front of the line. If you're in a brick-and-mortar location, ask them to move to a quiet, calm area of the facility and allow other representatives to help other customers without distraction.

By the way—what does “quick” mean? There is no universal answer. If you run a small business, and the customer comes to your office or store, you should assist them immediately. If you receive an email from a dissatisfied customer, try to answer the very same day, even if you can only ask them to give you some time to resolve the issue—again, it’s a good way of showing respect and good intentions. If you see a negative comment on social media (just like it happened in the example mentioned above), try to respond within several hours tops.

Things get tricky if you run a 24/7 business. In such a situation, people usually expect you to react quickly—especially when they are, say, stuck at the airport without their luggage:


This point is crucial, so crucial I'm bringing it up again. Empathy is absolutely vital when dealing with all customers—it shows that you are on your customer's side through the good and bad. Empathy starts with acknowledging the issue. You can even paraphrase what your customer said to make sure you understand what caused the bad customer experience but be natural about it. Repeating their every word verbatim is not a good move, it comes off as minimizing and condescending. Try to say something like this:

  • I realize this [customer’s situation] must be very frustrating for you.
  • If I understood you correctly...
  • I would be frustrated too if [poor experience] happened to me...

A sincere apology is always welcome (don’t over-apologize, though). If you don’t feel like your company actually did something wrong, you can just apologize for the bad experience (“I’m sorry this happened to you”) or for the situation in general (“These things should never happen”).

Empathy also means being thankful for the feedback. Thanking your customer for sharing their issue shows that you are willing to improve your product or service. It also showcases your readiness to solve the problem, which is always a good thing.

By adopting this pro-customer approach, you build a connection with them and show that you care about what happened to them. You demonstrate that both of you have a common goal—solving the problem in a positive way.

Ask the right questions

Asking questions helps you grasp the situation, understand the customer’s standpoint, and see what they expect from you. Don’t make assumptions about the true problem or what the customer really wants; it can be deceiving!

Here are some of the questions you may want to ask:

  • Can you tell me what happened so that I fully understand the situation?

After asking this question, be ready to ask some follow-up questions based on the initial response, just like JetBlue Airways did in this situation:

Follow-up questions should help you get a clearer context for the issue and surrounding circumstances. If the issue has to do with a real or perceived technical issues, ask things like how long the issue has been occurring, how frequently it happens, and what they've tried already to resolve it. If it's a matter of dissatisfaction with a product or service, ask if the negative situation has happened before, or any question that can uncover whether there's a pattern or legitimate problem that needs to be addressed.

These questions help to ensure you're really hearing the scope of your customer's issue, including whether there are other barriers at play. It could be the customer has very misaligned expectations, or they might just be having a really crappy week.

Asking questions also yields one more important benefit. You can understand what your customer REALLY wants. And the fact is, sometimes, all they want is an acknowledgment of the problem and an apology. Remember—people want to be heard and understood. Believe us; these three magical words can do the trick or at least give you a chance to make things right.

Follow through

Whenever you promise your customer to do something for them, make sure you live up to your promise and do so without unnecessary delays. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to write or call the company again with the same problem because it wasn’t resolved, even though the manager promised to do so.

Going above and beyond

It sounds like a cliché, but what does this actually mean? Your company should always be determined to solve customers’ problems and help them achieve their goals. This approach requires everything I mentioned so far, especially empathy, but also a bit of creativity.

Truth is, sometimes your agents will have to come up with unique/non-standard solutions that can’t be found in the company’s customer service standards or guidelines. And that’s perfectly fine; in real life, going above and beyond means being flexible.

Tell your reps and consultants what they can and cannot do, but give them some autonomy to deal with dissatisfied customers in a less standard way. For example, you can work with your team to come up with a list of potential solutions to customer problems; let your team participate in the process and be open to suggestions and ideas, even if they sound funny or unorthodox.

Dealing with negativity

I'm not going to pretend I love talking to upset customers, especially if they pull something like this:

It's daunting, but it's doable. Here’s what you can do to deal with negativity coming from the angry customer:

  • Listen carefully: I’ve already mentioned this point, but it is always essential, no matter what you d.
  • Don’t take negative feedback as a personal attack: The customer is angry with the company, not with you. Try to distance yourself from the problem—I promise this gets easier over time.
  • Don’t try to prove your customer wrong: I'll qualify that. If there was a misunderstanding, definitely seek to clarify the situation and acknowledge that you see how the misunderstanding happened. What you don't want to do is make excuses or get defensive.
  • If you need time, ask for it: You have the right to gather your thoughts and prepare an answer; don’t deal with the problem hastily if you’re not sure what to do. In this situation, tell the customer you'll need some time to be able to achieve the best outcome, take down their contact information, and give them a realistic timeframe for resolution.
  • Don’t let the customer insult or threaten you: Some lines cannot be crossed. If you find yourself in a situation where you are offended or—heaven forbid—physically threatened, you have every right to remove the customer from your office or stop the conversation. No one has the right to abuse you, ever, full stop.

How to handle typical customer complaints

Situation 1: The customer support team can’t solve the problem

This frequently happens with IT and SaaS companies. The customer, who is often also tech-savvy, calls for help, but none of the obvious solutions work, and your customer support team doesn’t know what to do. Obviously, the caller quickly assumes that your consultants are incompetent and perhaps unpleasantly expresses their opinion.

In such a situation, you should quickly ask someone more knowledgeable for assistance (e.g., one of the developers who worked on the product). Don’t leave the caller alone with the problem, even if you can’t solve it straight away. Show them you care and want to find the solution. Once the problem is solved, make sure your entire customer support knows what to do when the situation happens again.

Situation 2: The ordered product is damaged

If you run an online store, you have surely been there at least once. You receive a call from an angry customer who ordered a product, and it had been damaged when they opened the parcel. Of course, you should resolve this issue with the carrier, but don’t ask your customer to wait. Send another courier to pick up the damaged product and send the replacement immediately.

Situation 3: The ordered product is out of stock

Oh dammit, you accidentally offered a product on your website that was actually out of stock. Of course, someone ordered and paid for the product, and now they expect to get their order, especially given the fact they’ve sent you the email asking for a quick delivery because of some urgent matter.

What can you do? First off, don’t mislead your customer by saying the parcel is processing. Be honest and upfront, apologize for the website’s error, and, if possible, offer a similar product as a replacement. If you want to go above and beyond, try to find this exact product elsewhere and order it specifically for your customer. If none of these solutions work, send the money back ASAP and promise to keep them posted about the product availability.

Situation 4: The customer is dissatisfied with the quality of the service

Again, a very common situation. Let’s say the customer ordered a cake for their child’s birthday, and they received a cake that doesn’t match the order. There are a few options to choose from in this situation. Obviously, you can refund the cake and apologize for the problem. If there is still some time, you can quickly make another cake or ask a nearby bakery for help (always good to make friends in the industry!). Lastly, you can offer a different cake from your inventory (provided you have some ready-made cakes) for free. The key to success lies in making sure the customer is satisfied with provided options.

Of course, these are just examples; a lot depends on the details of the situation. Regardless, your main objective should be to find a solution that:

  1. Solves the customer’s problem (to the best of your ability)
  2. Gets their approval

Lastly, there is one more thing to consider.

Implement social listening to your customer service strategy

Estimations show only 1 in 26 customers will tell a business about their negative experience. Others will just leave forever or post online about what happened to them. And you have to be ready for this scenario. Of course, you cannot manually track all the possible places where customers can publish negative reviews, so you need a solution to automate this area of your business. That’s where social listening comes in. With a social listening platform, you can track all the mentions of your brand (or other related keywords) online.

As a result, if someone writes something bad about your product/service, you can react quickly, which is paramount to building customer loyalty.

Some of the most popular social listening tools you can use are:

  • Brand24
  • BrandWatch
  • BuzzSumo
  • TalkWalker

Turn those frowns upside down.

Unsatisfied customers are and have always been a part of doing business. Stick to the rules outlined in this article, use the right, and you’re on your way to winning at least some of them over.

There is one more defence against dissatisfied customers— positive reviews of your business. If you have hundreds of positive reviews, the occasional negative one won’t affect your business all that much. Take a look at our list of ten tips on how to get better reviews for your company.

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Hannah Clark
By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The CX Lead. After serving over 12 years working in front-line customer experience for major brands, Hannah pivoted to a career in digital publishing and media production. Having gained a holistic view of the challenges and intricacies of delivering exceptional experiences, Hannah aims to help CX practitioners 'level up' their skills by amplifying the voices of today's thought leaders in the space.