How to handle difficult customer service situations and bad PR

Running a business means putting yourself out there… and guess what: You’re not going to please everybody. I could fill a book with times that I’ve pissed off customers (when I was an employee and as a business owner). Of course I don’t go out of my way to do it but it happens.

Clients have expectations and they don’t always mesh with what you do. Sometimes it’s your fault; sometimes it’s not your fault.

In spite of what the customer service gurus tell you, the customer isn’t always right and it’s not always possible to bend over backwards to please the customer. Along with keeping your customers happy, you have laws to follow and a profit to make. It’s a fine line.

So when things don’t go well (regardless of who is at fault), it’s helpful to be prepared with responses to the way your customers are likely going to react. Below, I’ve drawn out a spectrum of the most likely reactions a customer might have when things go bad…

THE CUSTOMER REACTION SPECTRUM

To elaborate on the above graphic…

  • Some customers don’t know something went bad.
  • Some customers don’t care; they’re extra forgiving or the situation was just not important enough to them.
  • Some customers care but don’t act… either because it’s just easier to maintain the status quo or because they don’t like conflict or because they think the situation was a one-off and it won’t likely happen again. (There might be other reasons, too.)
  • Some customers act defensively and do something about it to make sure it doesn’t happen to them again.
  • And some customers act vindictively and take a strong stand to make sure you’re aware that the problem occurred and perhaps to warn others away. I think the word “vindictively” might be a little strong but the other word I was going to use (“offensively”) seemed worse.

This is a spectrum, meaning that there are probably degrees of severity, and each of the 5 main points on the spectrum probably have several “sub points” beneath them. For example, someone who acts defensively might just warn you. But someone else (further to the right on the spectrum but still acting defensively) might actually switch to another service provider. And someone who acts vindictively might post something negative on Yelp to warn others. But someone else (further ot the right on the spectrum but still acting vindictively) might sue you.

Your job during a potential PR disaster (or, better yet, while you are contingency planning for these situations), is to look at each of the potential customer reactions along the spectrum and figure out an appropriate response. Some customers might deserve to be compensated. Some customers might just need some communication. And you might have to have to say goodbye to some customers when you simply can’t fix the situation.

It’s important to note that customers can move left and right on this spectrum based on several factors. You need to control those factors (as much as possible; you can’t control everything, though) and do your best to keep your customers from moving too far to the right.

For example, a customer might be in the don’t care part of the spectrum until they realize how much of a problem it is. Or another example: A customer might be in the care but don’t act part of the spectrum if it happens only once. But if it happens repeatedly, they might do something about it.

External factors (often outside of your control) play a part in their reactions, too: A customer might be in the don’t know part of the spectrum until a vindictive customer tells them. Or a customer might be in the care but don’t act part of the spectrum until they discover how easy it is to switch to another service provider.

I should also mention that people move left and right on this scale at different speeds. I don’t move right very quickly but I will eventually move all the way right if necessary. I have peers, though, who seem to live on the right side of this spectrum with every single business they work with.

Okay, now that I’ve explained the spectrum, I’ll give you an example of a negative situation and the customer reactions and the I’ll talk about some of the things you might do for customers in each part of the spectrum…

AN EXAMPLE OF THE CUSTOMER REACTION SPECTRUM

A great example of a recent negative situation, and the spectrum of customer reactions that went with it, is from GoDaddy’s epic fail last month. I don’t know what happened from a technology standpoint but from their customers’ perspectives, it basically seemed like everything (email, websites) went offline for an eternity. (Read about the details from GoDaddy).

So let’s look at the customer reactions to GoDaddy’s temporary offline situation:

  • Some customers don’t know: There were likely a large number of people who didn’t even know it happened. For example, they might have been at work or on vacation or busy doing something else.
  • Some customers don’t care: There were likely a large number of people who don’t care. They shrugged it off as a risk of doing business online.
  • Some customers care but don’t act: There were likely a large number of people were impacted and annoyed or even pissed off, but didn’t act. They maybe felt it was too much hassle to switch or they feel that it probably won’t happen again.
  • Some customers act defensively: There were likely a large number of people who started looking into switching their accounts elsewhere. In fact, a number of people said so on Twitter.
  • Some customers act vindictively: The twitter posts ranged from “I’m moving my service” (which is on the upper end of defensive and on the lower end of vindictive) to things that were far worse. Some asked for compensation. Some cursed. I haven’t looked but I’m sure we could find even stronger reactions elsewhere online.

HOW TO RESPOND TO THE SPECTRUM OF REACTIONS


Sometimes it’s okay to not say anything and see if you got away with it (I’ve worked for a company that used this method all the time!!!) but it can haunt you. So for customers who don’t know, I think it’s best if you let them know proactively. Don’t let them hear it from others. Tell them what happened as concisely as possible but tell them why it’s not a big deal. That’s the most important part. Keep the statement of facts short and truthful and then elaborate on how things are going to happen going forward.


I think there are a lot of companies who ignore this group of people, and instead adopt the belief that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But for customers who know about the situation yet don’t care, I advise that you do two things: I think you should tell them (in the same way you told the people who didn’t know) but you should also compensate them or reward them for their loyalty. This group isn’t thinking about compensation so they will be surprised to be offered something it this act of generosity can make them even more loyal because it makes you seem like someone who truly cares.


I’m alarmed at how often companies do nothing for these customers. As a consumer, I’ve received a barely sincere “our sincerest apologies” from companies who know that I’ve been inconvenienced by them. This group of people are really on the fence and could leave. This is a key group of people to reach out to. Compensate them! Reward them for their loyalty! Communicate (and even OVER-communicate) with them and let them know why the situation happened and why it will never happen again! Make them feel so special and extra smart for sticking with you while everyone else jumped ship.


This is the group, and the one that follows, often get the most attention from businesses. They’re people who are already on their way out but that loss of revenue or negative feedback becomes the squeaky wheel. Companies pour their compensation into these customers (often at the expense of ignoring all the people on the left side of the spectrum). For this group of people, compensation is definitely a need. But there are other things you can do too: You almost need to go into sales mode to explain why the situation will never happen again, and you need to remind them of the reasons that they first started with you anyway.


Like the previous group of customers, the customers in this category of customer reaction are the squeakiest of wheels. And frankly, at this point in the spectrum, it’s not likely that they are coming back to you. Offering them compensation is debatable. It had better be pretty freaking amazing to get them back, and then you’d better remember that you are “on probation” with them for a long time to come. I don’t think there is much you are going to do for these people. Additionally, your compensation has to be carefully presented because I’ve seen people in this category become indignant that the business is trying to bribe them for their silence. For these customers, I think the best thing to do is thank them for their years of service and let them go.

THE SPECTRUM WORKS FOR ANY NEGATIVE SITUATION

As a business owner, you’ll face innumerable challenges and potentially negative situations — some will be your fault, some won’t be. You can prepare by using this spectrum to anticipate customer reactions and to develop responses to each of those reactions.

Leave a Reply