Insights | By Howard Tiersky

Embracing the Disgruntled Customer

Every day, businesses find themselves faced with unhappy customers; if you're like most people, you might feel apprehension when an unhappy customer requests a meeting with you. 

Most of us are in business to make people happy and to create satisfied customers, so every unsatisfied customer can seem like a failure. Research has shown that the impact of praise and criticism are not equal. For most people the same volume of criticism is felt much more deeply than praise.

Actually, disgruntled customers are an absolute gold mine of potential insights about your product or services, and your overall business. But only if you mine them in the right way.

First, let me encourage you to ask a high quality question that I learned from one of the smartest people I know, Tony Robbins.

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What’s great about disgruntled customers?

When faced with any challenge, Robbins encourages people to ask, “What’s great about this?" or "What’s the opportunity inherent in this problem?” Take a moment and ask yourself that question in terms of your dissatisfied customers.

To get you started, here are a few things I jotted down that I think are great about disgruntled customers:

  • They care about your product. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be emotional and they wouldn’t be reaching out.
  • They are willing to give you their time. Those who complain typically want to engage in some sort of dialogue.
  • They chose you to begin with. They wouldn’t be customers if they hadn’t made a decision to buy your product.
  • They have knowledge about the overall product experience. They have experienced your marketing, your sales process, and what it’s like to begin using your product. They have been through at least part, if not most, of the product lifecycle.
  • They probably don’t want to leave you. If they did, they wouldn’t be disgruntled customers, they would be ex-customers!

Think of disgruntled customers as people who have selected to use your product or service, who care a lot about it, and who want to give you some of their time to provide their thoughts. Their negative feedback actually gives more opportunities to improve than a happy customer ever could.

   

Three Types of Disgruntled Customers

There are three types of unhappy customers, and it's helpful to determine which type you are talking to.

Type 1. Customers who should be happy.

This is someone who signed up for your product or service for reasons that are consistent with the intent of your product, and is basically trying to use it the way it was intended. 
If the customer represents your “typical” customer and isn’t happy, then you really want to understand what the problem is and how to fix it. There are probably more people with similar dissatisfaction, who may not care enough to complain. Your disgruntled customer is not your worst customer. Your worst customer is the one who doesn’t care enough to complain but simply leaves and you never know why. Whatever problem these unhappy customers have is likely the same problem that some prospects have — a problem that kept them from becoming a customer in the first place. Understanding these customers and making them happy has to be a high priority.

Type 2: Customers who shouldn’t be happy.

This type of customer is trying to use your product for something that really isn’t what the product was designed for.
Customers unhappy with the results of using oil paints meant for works of art to paint furniture fall into this category. It might be easy to dismiss these customers. They shouldn’t have bought you product in the first place, right? But they could represent a massive new market opportunity. You might learn that your paint comes in colors not available in traditional furniture paint, or has a different kind of sheen that made that customer want to use it for an “off label” application. Although it didn’t work in its current formulation, it might clue you in to adjustments you can make to reach this new market. We call these types of users Lead User; “failed” lead users, like in our paint example, can seed ideas for product innovation.
 

Type 3: Customers who will never be happy.

These are the customers who, no matter what you do, never seem to be happy.
It's true that there are people out there who thrive on complaining, but it's important to hear them out to make sure that they are not actually a Type 1 or Type 2 Customer. For example, some people always seem to exaggerate the impact of their dissatisfaction. If someone tells you, “I spent 30 minutes waiting in line at the rental car counter and it ruined my vacation!” that sounds a little crazy. However, just because people might not be reasonably reporting the emotional impact of their problem doesn’t mean they aren’t cluing you in to real, solvable problems. Be grateful for these “complainers”. A lot of other people might just have been unhappy, said nothing, and gone to a competitor!

   

Questions to Ask Disgruntled Customers

If you want to get the most out of your meeting with a disgruntled customer, you need to ask the right questions to fully understand the situation.

  1. Ask who they are, and what their goals were in buying your product.

    There are several benefits to this. First, people like to talk about themselves, so it tends to be a positive way to start the conversation. Second, it takes their mind back to a time when they were happy with you, when they decided to buy the product. And third, it helps you understand what type of customer they are: whether their expectations were aligned with the product’s intent, they just like complaining, or they have legitimate concerns. This helps you understand what they care about most and what you did “right”, from a marketing and sales perspective, to get this person to sign up in the first place.
     
  2. Ask what the problem is (because they're dying to get that off their chests).

    The trick here is to let them blow off some steam, and then try to unpack the problem to find some clear actions to take. For example, “I can’t believe how bad your restaurant is  —  it was horrible!” doesn't provide any actionable feedback. And sometimes a customer wants to tell a long, convoluted story, after which you need to probe for the one key thing that's the root cause of the dissatisfaction. Where did the person’s expectations fail to be fulfilled?

    If they tried painting the chair with oil paints meant for portraits and three days later the chair was still not dry and the paint was dripping off, it would be ridiculous to ask “Is that not what you expected?” Clearly that’s not what they expected! But what did they expect? How fast did they expect it to dry, how long did they expect it to last, etc? 

    Tony Robbins’ has a formula which conveys this type of thinking:
     

    Satisfaction = Reality – Expectations


    If the reality is better than your expectations, you are satisfied. If the reality is less than your expectations, you are dissatisfied.

    This formula teaches us that reality isn’t the only place we can improve our offering — we can also improve the expectations we set. Ask your customers where their expectations came from in the first place. If the expectations were contrary to your actual offering, did something in your marketing or your sales process create that expectation? Is your distribution chain is making mistakes representing what your product can do? It can also be helpful to ask what impact the price of your product has on expectations. Sometimes people assume a product at a certain price point will have certain characteristics, even if that's not necessarily true.
  3. If the person is still using your product, ask why? Why haven’t they just switched to another product?

    You don't want them to switch to another product, but you might learn something interesting about your product by asking this question. Someone might say he hates the taste of your product, but stays with it because it's the only gluten-free protein powder available in his state. Your product may have differentiating aspects that you aren't even aware of, and that's good information to have.
     
  4. Ask how you can fix their problem.

    Generally, talking to disgruntled customers is more about learning how to improve our overall business than saving that individual customer (though sometimes in doing this, we can save the individual customer, as well.) Studies show that a customer with a major point of dissatisfaction, who complains and is able to be heard and get their issue resolved, will often become a far more loyal customer than one who never had a problem in the first place.

"That’s another great thing about disgruntled customers: they are offering you an opportunity to transform them into your most loyal customers!"

Remember, sometimes just being heard is enough to satisfy a customer. They may be able to live with the problem if they just feel validated and heard. Once you get customer feedback, a personal message letting them know that you understand the issue and are trying to resolve it, and that you appreciate their feedback, can be worth a lot. If the customer is experiencing an acute problem, such as a broken product, you want to address the problem and let the customer know that you are committed to solving the problem, what steps you plan to take and how you'll keep them apprised of the progress. Ideally you should have one problem "owner", who is accountable for its resolution.

Lastly, if disgruntled customers are Type 2 Customers and they want something your product or service can’t provide them with, thank the customer for their feedback and advise them on how to be successful in achieving their goal  —  even if it means recommending a competing product or service! While you might not always succeed, every meeting with a disgruntled customer is an opportunity to make and unhappy person happy, and that’s a great feeling!