Making Unhappy Customers Happy - and Happy Customers Even Happier!

(Originally published in the November/December 2006 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness)

By William K. Pollock

Dealing with irate customers, making unhappy customers happy, and making happy customers even happier are all variations on the same theme - they typically differ only by degree. In fact, it may actually be easier to make unhappy customers happy, than to make happy customers even happier. Read on to see how you can best deal with the distinctions that separate one scenario from the other.

It may actually be easier
to make unhappy customers happy,
than to make happy customers
even happier.

Making Unhappy Customers Happy
Unhappy customers will probably want to tell you why they are unhappy - whether you already know it or not. They will typically want to get their "two cents" in, even before they allow you to speak. This is fine; this is part of their venting, and they will expect you to stop and listen as they do so. As such, this will be the proper time for you to listen and observe.

The best way to ultimately make unhappy customers happy is to convince them that you are working in their behalf to resolve any problems, and that you are not interested in taking on an adversarial position. The services world too often segregates itself into an "us vs. them" scenario; but, the quicker we show our customers that we are on their side, the quicker we can make them happy.

Some guidelines for accomplishing this are:
  • Listen to what they have to say, and listen attentively - if they do not believe that you are paying full attention to their "story", they will probably become even less happy.
  • Accept full responsibility for resolving any open issues, and be gracious in accepting blame wherever it is justified - customers will not tolerate any finger-pointing; especially at themselves.
  • Explain, to the best of your knowledge, what happened, why it happened, what you plan to do about it, when it will be resolved, and how you will ensure that it never happens again (i.e., if it is something that you can help to prevent) - provide them with the guidance and assistance to prevent such occurrences from happening again.
  • Just as machines sometimes require TLC (i.e., tender loving care), so do humans - treat your customers with the levels of TLC and "hand holding" they require in order to "soothe" their apparent frustrations.
  • From the beginning, let them know that you are focused on resolving any open issues as quickly as possible, and to their satisfaction - let them know that you are working in their behalf, and that you will not be happy until they are completely satisfied.
  • For any issues that temporarily remain open, assure them that you will be following-up and getting back to them with a final solution as soon as possible - and then, follow-up as you promised.
Customers only have reason to remain unhappy for as long as the problem remains open. However, the greater the problem, the longer it will remain "top of mind", and the longer it will serve to plague your overall relationship with the customer.

Making Happy Customers Even Happier
The main difference between making unhappy customers happy and making happy customers even happier is the point of initiation. At least with unhappy customers, even if you did not know why they were unhappy before speaking with them, you can rest assured that you will learn shortly thereafter.

However, once you know why they are unhappy, it is relatively easy to plot a course of action to convert them to a happy customer. Ironically, it may actually be more difficult to make a happy customer even happier - and you certainly would not want to accidentally do something wrong that might make them unhappy instead.

The best approach for making happy customers even happier is to focus on the following guidelines:
  • Make sure that you understand how the customer uses the products and services you provide - make suggestions occasionally on how they can improve efficiency, save some money, or reduce waste, etc.
  • Understand the difference between the customer's wants and needs - provide targeted information and advice they can use to concentrate more on what they "need" than on what they think they "want".
  • Understand the customer's plans for future utilization or expansion/consolidation - make the appropriate recommendations for updating or modifying their existing service level agreement, or upgrading to a newer or different model.
  • Keep track of the things you have done in the past to make them happy - do more of the same, and learn what other things or actions would also make them happy.

  • Customers love to feel they are getting something for nothing - any documentation or materials that you believe may help your customers to utilize their equipment more efficiently, or provide them with additional product or service information will generally be gladly accepted.
  • Customers also love to hear what other users like themselves are doing with their equipment - so, without divulging any proprietary information, occasionally provide your customers with examples of what some other companies are doing, again, to improve efficiency, save some money, or reduce waste, etc.
  • Provide your customers with new product or service information before it is otherwise widely distributed or disseminated - customers always enjoy receiving information before it is distributed to the general public.
  • Provide a more "personal" side of yourself to your customers in order to establish a closer, and less formal relationship - but, be careful not to get too "personal"; just close enough so they feel they can depend on you to act as their surrogate within the company whenever a problem becomes larger than what both you and they can handle by yourselves.
  • Strive toward making your relationship with your customers a true "partnership", rather than just merely a "vendor-customer" relationship - this is the true essence of customer relationship management, or CRM.
Of course, these guidelines are nothing more than words; the true test can only be exercised by you in actual contact with your customers - and you should always feel comfortable in turning to your own instincts in order to initially assess the situation, determine the appropriate course of action, and override any of these guidelines on the basis of your own expertise and experience. However, if you are truly going to succeed in establishing a real partnership with your customers, then you must first have both the capability and the confidence to use your own judgment in making your happy customers even happier.

William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at

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