Upset Customers? Here’s How to Tackle Complaints When There’s No Easy Answer.

Upset Customers? Here’s How to Tackle Complaints When There’s No Easy Answer.

Helping upset customers.Dealing with unhappy customers can feel like a thankless task. Things can go wrong at any moment, often with little advance notice. Customers write in and demand solutions, even when all possible solutions feel out of reach. Some complaints are seemingly unfixable.

If a package is damaged, or the wrong product is shipped, the customer has to wait for a resolution and they are categorically not getting what they paid for. When an upset customer contacts you about these issues, what can you do?

It turns out, even if you can’t magically fix a customer’s problem, there are still a number of approaches you can use to improve their perception of the situation. Let’s review some practical tips for helping upset customers and handling challenging scenarios, even when you have to make compromises.

Upset customers and the recovery paradox

Mistakes are bound to happen. What separates the good companies from the great is how they respond to them. Hearing from upset customers can be one of the most challenging parts of running your own business. It’s easy to take their frustrations personally, even if you know there’s nothing you could have done differently.

The good news is that mistakes are actually an opportunity to earn a customer for life. If you can recover from a service failure, your customer might actually end up more loyal than if the issue had never happened. This opportunity is known as the “service recovery paradox,” first coined by Sundar Bharadwaj and Michael McCollough.

Service recovery paradox.

Credit: Customer Thermometer

Think about it: If everything went according to plan, you wouldn’t have had a chance to talk to the customer, and they wouldn’t know how much you care about delivering amazing service. Every customer complaint is an opportunity to show the true colors of your company.

When an upset customer contacts you, they’re offering you an opportunity to make amends. They want to feel heard, and for you to show that you’re in their corner want to help them reach a positive outcome.

In the next section, we’ll cover five hands-on strategies you can use to turn a customer’s experience around, even when a perfection resolution is out of reach.

Fixing problems when there's no easy solution

There might seem like there is nothing you can do. But great customer service isn’t just about fixing the problem—it’s also about making the customer feel understood and like you’re on their side. Here’s a few ways you can do that, even when there’s no easy solution:

1. Ace the basics

Even when things start to go south, the basics of good service still matter. That means being consistently polite and friendly when dealing with customers, and getting to their questions quickly. Studies have found that these simple standards have the biggest impact on loyalty over the long-term—even more so than over the top surprise and delight events.

It’s natural to hum and haw and avoid confrontation over a difficult situation. But the problem isn’t going to go away, and delaying is only making it worse. Customers that have to wait for service will be more frustrated than if they had been helped quickly. Bad news now is always better than bad news later.

On a related note, it’s best to make it easy for customers who have complaints to get in touch with you. If they have to hunt for contact information, they’ll be even more upset when they do get to you.

2. Start from a place of empathy

Reading through an email from an upset customer can often generate feelings of defensiveness. “That’s not true” or “well, if you had just read the product description…” are justifiable feelings, but they aren’t going to resolve the problem and salvage the customer’s experience with your business.

Instead, lead with empathy. Understanding why a customer is frustrated is the first step to alleviating their frustration. Try to read beyond what they are saying, to understand the reason why they are saying it. Imagine how you (or someone close to you) would feel if this situation happened to them.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes to understand how they might be feeling.

Once you’ve put yourself in your customer’s shoes, express understanding for why they might be feeling the way that they are. Communicate that you’re on their side and that you’re going to work with them to resolve the issue.

Put another way, upgrade your empathy to “Advocacy” by showing your resolve to help through action already taken and action to be taken. As Gregory Ciotti, Content Marketing Lead at Shopify, writes, advocacy means making the customer feel like you’re on their side by championing their concern and being active in identifying potential solutions.

Even if there’s no actual solution to their problem, simply listening to the customer and expressing empathy can make a huge difference in the end result.

3. Apologize like you mean it

A genuine apology is one of the most effective tools we have in dealing with upset customers. Saying sorry costs nothing, but it can completely turn a situation around. In fact, it’s even more effective than offering a credit. As Nicereply reports, the Carey School of Business found that “only 37% of upset customers were satisfied when offered something in return for the issue. However, if the business said sorry on top of the credit, satisfaction increased to 74%.”

The secret is that the apology has to be genuine. Simply throwing out “sorry!” in every email isn’t going to work. In order to be genuine, an apology should be:

  • Specific and address the reason they are upset—not “sorry you’re mad,” which lays blame at the customer’s feet.
  • Followed by action. What are you going to do to correct the situation, or make sure it doesn’t happen again?

4. Experience engineering: Focus on what you can do

“Just because there is nothing you can do, doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.”
—Mat Dixon, The Effortless Experience

Pioneered in the book “The Effortless Experience,” experience engineering is a skill used by advanced customer support reps to manage a customer conversation with specific language in order to improve how the customer feels about the outcome. Even when the tangible outcome is the same, experience engineering can leave the customer feeling more positive about the company and their choices.

Experience engineering uses three techniques to mold the conversation:

  • Positive language: Focusing on what you can do, not what you can’t do
  • Advocacy: Demonstrating that you’re on the same side as the customer
  • Anchoring: Comparing a potential compromise to an objectively worse option to make it seem more appealing

For example, say a customer places an order a dress that is out of stock. There’s simply no way they can get the dress they want until next week. However, using experience engineering, you can position alternative solutions in a more positive light.

“Well, I can ship out the same dress in blue today, or if you want to wait until next week I can get you the dress in purple. Alternatively, if there’s another dress you have your eye on, I can give you free express shipping so that it arrives sooner.”

Notice that the reply never mentions “I can’t do that” or focuses on the dress being out of stock. Instead, an alternative is provided and anchors the customer’s original request against another possible option. Either way, the result is the same, but the experience the customer has is engineered to be a more positive one.

Finding a mutually agreeable solution should be the top priority. While an apology can go a long way, in the end of the day, a solution is what makes customers happiest. The Harvard Business Review explains it perfectly: “Employees should instead focus on demonstrating how creatively and energetically they are trying to solve the customer’s problem—that, not warmth or empathy, is what drives satisfaction.”

5. Don’t default to refunds

A common instinct is to refund upset customers for everything they’ve purchased, and simply leave it at that. But refunding isn’t always the best business decision. It won’t always make the customer happier, because the problem isn’t fixed, and it typically defaults to being the most expensive way to fix a small problem.

Ross Parmly, Customer Advocacy Lead at Buffer, explains why customers don’t just want their money back in a way we can all understand: “When you go into Best Buy with a broken TV, in most cases, you don’t want to leave with a refund. You want to leave with a working TV.”

Refunds often just place your customer back at square one.

The customer gave you the money for the thing. They want the thing. Even if you return their money, they still want the thing. Rather than jumping right to a refund, see what you can do to resolve the issue first.

But if the situation does call for it, and the customer requests it, refund if you can. Having a clear, forward thinking refund, return and exchange policy can prevent a bad situation from spiraling out of control. Is it worth fighting over a few bucks, especially if you were in the wrong and can’t find any way to make it right? Refusing to refund might save you money now, but it will cost you your reputation.

A system for helping upset customers

Wrapping everything together into one empathetic, helpful response is the final step. Once you’ve read through the email, compose a response that includes all the pieces of a helpful, empathetic solution.

If you like mnemonics to make sure you’ve covered everything, I’ve got one for you! Starbucks trains their baristas to LATTE, which is a very good method of turning around a frustrated customer.

  • Listen
  • Acknowledge the problem
  • Take action
  • Thank them, and
  • Explain what you've done

Some problems will come up more frequently than others, and they are worth creating a template to address. For example, most merchants will hear their fair share of “Where’s my stuff?” How do you want to respond to these questions? Once you have a response that suits your brand, save it for future use.

Mat Patterson recommends that businesses identify their common scenarios before rushes hit, so that they can prepare better. “For each scenario you should create, review, or revise your pre-written replies. An answer created during a quiet moment will likely be clearer and more thorough than one written under pressure.” And don’t forget to personalize any templates before sending them out again!

Here’s a few sample responses to frustrated customers that you can definitely borrow from.

❓ Lost orders:

Hi Geraldine,

I’m really sorry to hear your order hasn’t arrived yet. I’m sure you were really looking forward to trying out that new slip and slide with the warm weather coming in this week.

As the delivery company hasn’t been able to locate the parcel with our tracking number, I’ve sent out a replacement delivery that should arrive by Friday, August 3rd. I’ll check back in to make sure it gets to you! This isn’t something that we see happen often, so again, I’m sorry that this wasn’t a perfect experience for you.

Thank you again for bringing this to our attention. If there’s anything else I can help you with in the meantime, please let me know.


☹️ Customer unhappy with product:

Hi Stanley,

Thank you for getting in touch to let us know about the trouble you’re having with the Orange Peeler 2000. That sounds really frustrating. I’m not a morning person either, so I totally understand.

I can either do one of two things to try and make this right for you:

I can assist with an exchange to a different peeler and refund the difference. We’ll, of course, cover the shipping costs.

We can jump on a call today and I can help walk you through how to use the OP 2000. That way, you’ll be able to get all the benefits from the peeler right away.

Either way, let me know what you’d like to do, and a good number to call you at. We want to make sure all of our customers are totally satisfied with their kitchen purchases, so thank you for giving us an opportunity to fix this. I’m here to help!


📦 Package is damaged:

Dear Peter,

Thank you for sending in your feedback about the state of the packaging you received your product in. I want to let you know how much we care about the quality of our deliveries. This isn’t our expected quality standard.

We’re currently in the middle of evaluating our packaging and expect to make changes to our cartons in the next few months.

Going forward, you can expect to receive your order in much better condition, and I’m sorry that we didn’t measure up to your reasonable expectations on this order.

We appreciate you taking the time to write in. If there’s anything else we can assist you with, please let me know. I’m here to help.


Fix the problem for future customers

In the worst case scenario, maybe the experience has been ruined for this customer. But that doesn’t mean it needs to impact the next ten customers down the line.

Besides just apologizing and helping the current customer, take the time to dive in to identify the root cause of the problem. Are things commonly breaking in transit? Does your warehouse frequently ship the wrong product? How can your business improve from this experience and prevent other customers from running into the same issue?

By managing expectations, you can stop customer complaints before they happen.

By managing expectations, you can stop customer complaints before they happen, and prevention is always the best cure. If you’re consistently seeing customers upset about the same issues, take the time to fix the root cause. For example:

  • Update product descriptions and images to reduce misunderstandings
  • Offer order tracking so that customers can manage their own deliveries and see where their stuff is
  • Prevent stock sellouts by using an inventory management system.
  • Make it easy for customers to contact you for help before they purchase for clarifications

Finally, make sure you deliver on expectations on the customer’s next purchase. Keep an eye on them, and if they come back, knock it out of the park!

Even though customer complaints can leave you feeling a little helpless, you always have a few key tools in your back pocket. Armed with empathy, and a genuine desire to make it right, you can win over every customer and leave them an even bigger fan than before.

Want more advice on supporting your customers?

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