10 Ways to Turn a Difficult Customer into a Promoter


July 2021

Isn’t it always the way that the unhappy customer tends to shout the loudest and which organisation dares risk a negative online review?

Whoever it was who originally said that a complaint is just a marketing opportunity in disguise was quite right! Happy, satisfied customers don’t tend to shout from the rooftops, after all, they are just receiving the goods or service they paid for so why write about it.

Going the extra mile is what gets your business noticed, this could be for a happy customer, or it could be for a complainant that you need to win round.

When a potential customer scans through your organisation’s reviews they’ll accept any glowing reviews and take real notice of informed, authentic reviews that tell them something they really need to know about a product or service or, reviews which point out a drawback, serious disadvantage or bad experience.

Turning an unhappy or difficult customer into a brand promoter first of all requires an understanding of how to turn any customer into a brand promoter.

When you start to ask your customers for feedback using email or SMS or QR code surveys, or add the ability to provide feedback on your website, you will get good and bad feedback.

NPS or other metrics such as CSAT, help you understand the trend – ie are you gradually improving the customer experience – and also get detailed information to deal with very specific issues from unhappy customers.

Passive brand promoters

Passive brand promoters are around us all of the time, but sometimes it’s hard to spot. Here is an obvious and familiar example – branded coffee cups, Starbucks is one example, McDonalds is another, customers walk around promoting their brand all the time and this promotion and is effectively helping post sale loyalty.

Savvy companies work hard on their overall branding which permeates every aspect of their range of goods or services. Marketing campaigns are tailored to target audiences which the company will have researched down to every fine nuance. Every marketing decision relates and is relevant to that target audience. In the business, these are known as passive promoters.

So, that’s the easy bit, what about the difficult or unhappy customer?

Turning a difficult customer into your company champion

The first thing is to have a recognised and detailed pathway for dealing with an unhappy or difficult customer. This should be known by, and familiar to, all employees and staff. Here is a ten-point plan to get a company’s worst enemy on side and singing their praises from the rooftops. One action won’t cut it, this needs to be a well thought out and effective protocol to turn that person around.

  • Hear them out – let that person have their say, if they are frustrated or angry then they need to be able to vent this, better that than an online rant. One of the biggest frustrations for many consumers in the 24/7 digital age is faceless organisations and lack of accountability. Most angry customers want their point to be heard by someone who can understand it and act on it. Listening to the customer is the first step in creating a rapport with them, essential if you are to convert them into a brand champion – it’s all about the empathy
  • Remain calm – don’t polarise the conversation into something that is both defensive and confrontational, easier said than done if you are dealing with Mr Angry! Stay calm, try and empathise, put yourself into their shoes, what happened might not bother you but if they are perhaps elderly or vulnerable in some way, then it could be a really big deal to them. If they get louder, you can become quieter, never try and match their levels when it comes to volume and emotion
  • Don’t take it personally – this is easier said than done as some people can be just downright obnoxious. Not many people separate their complaint from the poor person on the end of the phone, it’s not their personal fault but some people do just have difficulty keeping their anger under control
  • Don’t feel pressurised into an immediate response – the complaint may require some investigation or research, or you can use this as a way to buy some breathing space if you feel you are not handling the complaint very well. Always be clear about how and when you will respond and if you can’t respond because you don’t have that additional information then still contact the customer to tell them this – they don’t have a crystal ball and blanking them, even for legitimate reasons, will just add more fuel to their fire. Manage their expectations clearly and fairly
  • Allow them to vent – don’t interrupt a ranting customer and try and talk over them or calm them down, just listen but make sure they are aware you are still there if you are on the phone with a few well judged ‘I see’s’. Never interrupt because that can give the impression of devaluing what they are trying to say and that what you are countering with is more important than what they are saying
  • Never tell the customer they are wrong – even if they are! They might be wrong, but this could be because they didn’t understand something or made a genuine error. An angry customer won’t want to hear that they are wrong, if you need to make that point, then it comes down to that old saying of, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” and, in the case of a complaining customer, when you say it. If they have made an error on an order system for instance, then after you have resolved the matter, it could be worth tactfully pointing them towards a better way to order again in future
  • Try to agree with them – empathize and share common ground, if you were in their shoes then you would feel just as angry, this form of empathy is hugely powerful and can often defuse even the toughest of customers. Sometimes, it can be hard to find anything rational to agree with but just hit on a point, anything that gives you some common ground. It could be as simple as a bad customer experience you have had although don’t try and position it so that your situation appears worse than theirs, you are just looking for a point of common humanity
  • Ask for their help – this is a gamechanger in the conversation, turning it around and asking a complainant to help you to solve their problem, providing them with what they think is the best outcome. How many times are complainants offered a standard trite offering of a gift voucher…from the retailer they have just complained about, more of an insult than a peace offering! Letting the customer set out the solution will empower them and give them a feeling of control; one of the reasons they are angry and frustrated is because they usually feel out of control. Letting the customer have their voice will be reflected in their glowing feedback later on, there can be no greater testament to a good business than a customer saying that they felt they were listened to, and their opinion mattered
  • Your solution – their suggestion may not be workable for a number of reasons; it could be unreasonable or just down right impossible so have a decent alternative ready. You don’t have to communicate this with them immediately, there is no point asking the customer what they would like to see happen to resolve their complaint if you then inform them, they can’t have it. Try not to enter into a protracted ping pong match, try and offer them something they just won’t want to refuse and that will clear the matter up cleanly and quickly
  • The final line – no staff member should ever feel anxious or threatened so don’t be frightened to stand up to customers who really are being wholly unreasonable. This line should be clearly demarcated for the benefit of your staff.

A difficult customer won round will always be your best promoter, worth a dozen happy customers or an even greater number of passive promoters. And a difficult customer won round will always remember that positive experience and is likely to share that with others. Just take a look at social media to see how the average member of the public likes to credit people who have gone the extra mile or companies and organisations who have messed up and come good. You can’t get better free publicity than that!

Giving your team a comprehensive strategy to tackle difficult customers inspires confidence in staff, creates a culture of ownership and pride amongst employees in the business and is positively the best form of free marketing there is.