You Will Piss Off a Customer

You will piss off a customer - enjoy it.

As the saying goes, “you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

This is true in every sphere of human interaction. For our purposes here, we’ll stick with how it applies to business.

My premise is simple: if you own a business, you will, inevitably piss off a customer. It can’t be avoided. The question is how will you handle it when you do? Assuming you care about delivering a useful product at a fair price, and that you don’t purposefully set out to cheat your customers – these situations will create a certain amount of angst when they happen. No one likes it when someone is upset with them, regardless of the reason.

Conventional advice and techniques for these situations don’t really get at the core of the issue. Implementing good processes around the Customer Experience is certainly necessary for the ongoing health of your business, and there are plenty of resources available for managing customer feedback. However, when a specific customer gets angry, processes can go out the window very quickly.

This is because anger is emotional. And when a person expresses a strong emotion, he can project it like high-pressured water from a firehose. When you’re aware that a customer is unhappy with your business, you need to quickly decide how to respond, as well as avoid making things worse.  These three simple steps will save you from wasting time and valuable emotional energy.

The first step is to measure the value the transaction. Yes, it really is about the money! You are in business to generate income, aren’t you? This should be a quick decision for any business owner who has confidence in the quality of her product.

The trick is to avoid imagining the worse-case scenario: that an angry customer will somehow generate a viral whirlwind of hate towards your business which will eventually lead the mob to chase you out of town with pitchforks and torches.

Unless your business has a half-million customers, and the one you pissed off is famous … it’s doubtful that anyone else will care.

Step back from the immediate reaction you may have from being yelled at; take a calming breath; and do the math. The solution then becomes a simple cost-benefit calculation. If the amount of revenue from this customer is small, you may choose to just give it up in return for never having to think of him again. If, on the other hand, the customer generates a large chunk of change for your business, it’s clearly worthwhile to put the effort into mitigating his anger. Either way, this is how to remain emotionally distant from the problem.

Next, figure out if the cause [of the customer’s anger] is systemic or personal. A systemic cause is one that originates from your sales and delivery process. It may be a misquoted rate – the customer was under the impression she was going to be charged less for a service you provided until the actual invoice arrived. Or maybe a product listed on your website was not actually available at the time of purchase. There are any number of factors within the sales cycle that can break down at the time a customer makes a purchase.

Systemic issues are critical and deserve your immediate attention because when there is one failure, more are sure to follow.

A personal cause, on the other hand, is unpredictable and generally immune to fixes. Someone on your team (maybe even you) could have been having a bad day when the customer called. Or the customer herself may have misinterpreted the information you supplied and developed an unrealistic expectation. No matter the origin, this is an issue isolated to one customer only and the corrective action is relatively simple: refund or re-do.

Finally, after you’ve figured out the value of the problem and the cause … move on. From experience I can tell you that there is little reward from harping on a customer complaint. If it was caused by one of your employees, assume he knows and won’t repeat it. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem for another day. If it revealed a process issue in your business; well, you’ve already fixed it, right?

Your business is a tool – it’s not who you are. The few customers who express dissatisfaction or anger with it don’t know you personally, nor do they care. Despite the marketing, businesses are merely platforms for transactional exchanges.

If you measure the customer experience objectively, you’ll recognize that your business can’t please everyone all of the time. And it will piss of a customer again. Have fun with it.