Unhappy customers are, sadly, inevitable. Things go wrong. Standards slip. Nobody’s perfect. There are reasons for optimism here, however; even in the depths of customer despair. Complaints are chances to put things right, to improve and renew. The worst kind of customer dissatisfaction is the hidden kind. Complaints that are never raised by unhappy customers who leave without telling you why.

How to deal with an unhappy customer

The key to stopping the rapid spread of dissatisfaction is speed of response. To ensure the best chance of recovering the relationship following a service failure, the critical priorities are as follows:

Catch the problem early

Giving your customers the opportunity to provide feedback is vital to finding out whether they’re happy. And if they’re not, feedback should tell you why not. 

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s good to encourage people to bring you their complaints. If you don’t know what the problems are, you can’t solve them. Bringing them to light like this reduces the risk of unhappy customers broadcasting their dissatisfaction.

Regular, timely customer feedback surveys ensure that you find out about problems before it’s too late to do anything about them.

Act quickly

It’s vital that you react as swiftly as possible. Any delay will only increase the customer’s annoyance, and trigger them to start spreading the word.

Contact the customer quickly, and apologize. Even if you don’t have a solution for them just yet, it’s important they know that you’re aware of the problem. And that you’re going to do everything possible to put things right.

A customer service alert and response system can be hugely beneficial in this scenario. If you’re notified as soon as negative feedback is received, you’ll avoid unnecessary delays. That’s crucial for preventing customers feeling like their feedback has been ignored.

Understand what’s gone wrong

Find out exactly what’s happened, and why the customer is unhappy. Try to understand the issue from the customer’s perspective. This will give you the best chance of solving the problem and saving the customer relationship.

If the feedback or complaint doesn’t give you enough detail, then actively seek more information. If possible, pick up the phone and talk to the customer. Depending on the problem, you might even be able to solve the issue for them right away.

Make sure you take action

Once you understand what’s gone wrong, take action to put things right. If the customer feels that you’re just going through the motions of acknowledging their complaint then this will only anger them further.

Get a head start by developing a readymade feedback response planner in advance. This will equip your team for jumping on different kinds of feedback.


If you can make things right for the customer, then do so…quickly. It’s also important to take steps to ensure that the problem won’t occur again in the future, both for this customer and others. 

How to respond to an unhappy customer email

An unhappy customer has the potential to be very damaging to your business. But if you have an efficient system in place for receiving feedback and acting on it swiftly, you can turn the situation around. You might even convert that unhappy customer into an advocate.

When unhappy customers are totally unreasonable

What about customers whose complaints are spurious or malicious? This framework advocates 100% for unhappy customers, but isn’t intended to allow malicious individuals to walk all over you.

Complaints that go viral can sometimes backfire on the complainant, if it’s obvious they are being unreasonable. Like this example of an angry patron of a Texas restaurant

You never can tell, so the best policy is to treat all complaints in good faith. And act with complete professionalism, politeness, courtesy and respect. 

Turn unhappy customers into promoters

Just because they are unhappy at the time, doesn’t mean they will stay that way. You need to give them an outlet to voice their opinion AND you need to listen to them. Once you resolve their issue you will have a loyal customer for life.

The powerful potential of an unhappy customer

There are many variations on the famed statistic: “an unhappy customer tells X others.” Did you know its origins come from a 1980 study for Coca-Cola’s consumer affairs department? Coke commissioned this groundbreaking research to determine the word-of-mouth impact of customer complainants. Read it here. The top level findings were:

  • Unhappy customers told a median of 9–10 people about their experience.
  • Completely satisfied customers told a median of 4–5 people about theirs.

Every other study says much the same – unhappy customers tell 9, 10, 11, 15 or 20 other people. Human nature makes bad news travel farthest and fastest. It’s because people like to warn others, particularly those they care about. Our collective instinct is to acknowledge that the blessing of a negative experience is to prevent others from having to go through the same pain.

Social media gives unhappy customers a megaphone

Social media has evolved this phenomenon out of all proportion. Posting content pertaining to a bad experience can instantly reach hundreds, if not thousands of people. And if it goes viral, your brand can have an out-of-control firestorm on its hands.

Just ask United Airlines, who got schooled in the damaging impact of viral negativity after how they dealt with a customer complaint. Musician Dave Carroll was prepared to be reasonable after witnessing a baggage handler trash his $3,500 guitar. But United’s customer service reps evidently weren’t. 

A cool 20 million views of Dave’s music video “United Breaks Guitars” later, and United learnt the hard way. At the peak of the global publicity that arose from the event, an estimated $180m was wiped from the company’s stock value. 


You need to embrace the hate instead of trying to avoid it. Give your customers a voice and they can tell you how they feel. Once you have overcome their issue they are more motivated than ever to spread the word about your company.

What to do now?

Start keeping tabs on all your customers and their feedback with a free trial of Customer Thermometer. Just fill out the form to kick off your trial today.