How to Win Over Dissatisfied Customers


We’re told that we should love customer service. We’re told that, as entrepreneurs, our passion should be to make people happy. We’re here to serve, to solve problems, to spread joy! And that’s all true. Good customer service can also be good fun. It’s a blast to help someone enjoy the thing you’ve made.

But let’s be honest: Sometimes customer service is not pleasant. Because sometimes people are not pleasant. And that’s when we, as entrepreneurs, need to kick into a different gear. We need something to help us stay focused — to not get dragged down by frustration.

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In short, we need a reminder of what people really want.

When I hear from an angry or unpleasant customer, I play a little game. My goal is to disarm them — to rid them of their anger so thoroughly that, frankly, they’re embarrassed to have been so angry at all. This is possible! It’s not even that complicated. All I have to do is make them feel heard, because that is what they want most. When you hear them, they will transform. It’s magical.

I’ll give you a recent example. After the previous issue of Entrepreneur magazine, a reader sent me a terse note to complain about a story he didn’t like. This happens with some regularity; it’s impossible to please everyone. And this person’s email followed the typical format from an upset reader: He insulted the magazine, stridently made his point, and then capped it off with a threat: “I won’t be re-subscribing,” he wrote.

I have a theory about emails like this. Yes, sure, sometimes a person is genuinely unhinged, and there’s no point in trying to reason with them. But most people are reasonable. They’re not boiling with untamed rage. Instead, they simply don’t expect a response. They don’t believe that I (or you, or anyone) will actually listen to them, and they’re preemptively frustrated by that. Imagine it this way: They’re walking up to a door, and they’re convinced they won’t be let in. So what do they do? They bring a battering ram.

This is why, whenever I see an angry email like the one I just received, I drop whatever I’m doing to respond. I want to catch them off guard. They don’t expect me to reply, and they certainly don’t expect me to reply quickly. So I do — and I always write an email that acknowledges what they said, and then, in a nondefensive way, explains my point of view. I never say they’re wrong. I just explain why I made the decision I made.

“Thank you for your feedback,” began my response to that upset reader. “We work hard to make a magazine that we hope will be enlightening and informative and surprising for entrepreneurs, and, in doing so, we take our cues from entrepreneurs themselves: We know that entrepreneurs are great risk-takers and experimenters, and so we, too, want to try out new ideas and see how they land.” Then I explained that we took a risk by making the story he didn’t like. Some people liked it; others may not have. I can appreciate that, I said.

A few hours later, the angry reader wrote me back. “Thanks for your reply,” he began. “I didn’t expect one.” (See? Told you.) Then he reiterated his point, but softer this time. At the end, he wrote: “Thanks for listening.”

I asked the reader if he was otherwise satisfied with the magazine. He said he was. So then, curious to see what would happen, I asked him why he was going to unsubscribe simply because there was one story in one issue that he didn’t like. I told him I was genuinely curious; I wanted to understand him, as our customer. His response: “Sometimes I use hyperbole for effect.”

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In other words, he’s not canceling. Maybe he never planned to. Maybe I talked him out of it. Either way, I succeeded. And he seemed a little sheepish for coming at me so hard.

I have to admit: I find this very satisfying. It’s fun to disarm someone! But more important, it’s valuable to see how many bridges can be crossed, and how many gaps can be filled, simply by listening. We live in a world full of loud, angry voices. We’ll never win by adding another loud, angry voice to the mix. But hearing people out? Opening the door, even when they’ve brought a battering ram? That’s where change really happens. And that matters.