How NOT to Treat Your Customers
Thursday, August 16, 2012 at 10:40AM
Amber Battle, Marketing Analyst in Best Practices, Customer Loyalty, Customer Service, Professional Skills

We’ve all been through it…horrible customer experiences that have left us fuming and disappointed.  And we’ve told others about these terrible ordeals, hoping that we’ve convinced them that the establishment in question isn’t worth visiting or spending their hard-earned money at. 

If you have a business, it’s important that you and your staff know how to deal with unhappy customers, especially if your goal is to bring new and repeat traffic into your store.  After all, a lot of business is created via word of mouth, so being able to handle problems effectively is key.

Here are some important steps to follow when dealing with customers who have problems:

  1. Listen with empathy and respect
  2. Don’t make excuses or place blame
  3. Ask what you can do to resolve the issue
  4. Make things right, or find a good compromise
  5. Learn from the situation – find the root cause—and fix it forever

As a working example, I’ll use a dining experience my husband and I shared just this past weekend.  Because of the way our problem was handled, we will never visit this establishment again.  I’ll try to point out some big customer service mistakes made along the way…

As parents of a young toddler, if there is an opportunity for us to have a “date night”, we’re going to take it!  Thanks to a visit from my parents, we headed to a highly-rated restaurant and started our evening with a couple of good appetizers.  Our experience took a sharp nosedive when we received our entrees, a grilled trio of duck, shrimp and steak, all served with various accoutrements.  After eating the duck and shrimp, we both noticed that our steaks, which we had ordered medium, were actually well done and virtually inedible (WE could grill steaks better than this at home—and at a quarter of the cost of our entire meal!).  After flagging down our waiter, we politely asked him if we had ordered them medium.  He assured us that we had and confirmed that they didn’t look like they were prepared correctly.  He said he would go to speak with the manager.  After quite some time, he returned and told us that the manager had told him to offer us a free dessert.  My husband asked if they were going to replace the steaks and he said that he couldn’t and he was sorry. 

Okay, this was an opportunity for our server.  Instead of relaying information, he should have brought his manager to our table to speak with us directly, especially when he himself acknowledged the problem.  The manager could then see our dishes first-hand and possibly have solved the problem.

Dumbfounded, we sat there, silently fuming, knowing that we were paying a lot for a meal that we were unable to finish (to make matters worse, I didn’t like the taste of one of the other components of my trio, and had only eaten one of the three items; I was hungry!).

When our meal was done, we again waited for our server.  When he returned, he plopped a small dessert plate and two spoons in front of us, announcing it was on the house.  Yes, this was a dessert of THEIR choosing, and only ONE dessert, when they had messed up TWO orders.  By this point, we were really upset.  My husband quietly expressed his disappointment, to which the server responded, “I’m sorry, but my manager…” 

Not good enough, folks. Making excuses is not the way to interact with disgruntled customers; it only makes them more upset and doesn’t solve anything.  He still had an opportunity to put us in touch with his manager, even though he deemed this situation “out of his hands”.

We paid our bill, leaving a meager tip and a note about our bad experience, and just happened to pass the manager on our way out.  We calmly told him what happened and he immediately stated that there must have been a miscommunication between him and the server—he didn’t realize it was such a big deal to us.  He then stated that he had seen our plates when they came out of the kitchen and they were indeed cooked to order.  He then inferred that we had let them sit too long and should have spoken up sooner because the steaks had continued to cook, which was why there were well done.

I’m not sure if you caught that, but in addition to making excuses, the manager was blaming US for the problem, rather than listening with empathy.  These are all big no no’s with regard to customer service.  What he should have done was apologize and ask what he could do to help us; how could he make things right.

We took the initiative here and explained that we weren’t looking to get a free meal or cheat the restaurant out of anything.  We only wanted what we had paid for:  we wanted to have the steaks replaced and cooked how we had ordered them.  That hadn’t happened.

As we were already leaving, doing this was no longer possible.  But what could have been done to regain our trust and respect?  He could have offered us the same meal at a discount on another visit.  Or something to that effect…something to bring us back through the doors to give them another chance to win us over and make us loyal customers.  But this manager was more concerned about being right than treating his customers well—and the concept of customer loyalty didn’t seem to be of concern to him.

He really had nothing else to say at this point and didn’t seem interested in helping us, so we decided to just leave.  As we were walking away, I heard him say, “Have a nice life…”

Now, would anyone in their right mind, after being treated this way, have any desire to return?  Would they recommend this business to others?  I think not.  In our case, we’re going to warn people away so that the same thing doesn’t happen to them.

As a business owner, it’s important to be prepared for situations when your customers’ expectations are not met.  How are you, and your staff, going to handle customer complaints in a manner that allows you to continue to gain loyal patrons?   Have you trained your employees on what to do, and say, if they encounter unhappy customers? 

Following the steps above is a good start.  I highly encourage you to make step number five a part of your regular business practice.  Identify what caused the problem in the first place and fix it.  Whether it is a training issue, or a process, ensure that it is corrected so that it doesn’t happen again.  In the long run, you’ll be glad you did.  After all, statistics show that many customers who have problems resolved effectively actually become even more loyal customers in the end.  

Article originally appeared on CarterEnergy Blog (
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