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The customer isn't always right: when to disengage

Posted by Jason Keith  November 18, 2011 06:00 AM

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Never has customer service been as important as it is today. With social media, online review sites and blogs, the customer oftentimes has more of a voice and influence than a company does. Budgets no longer matter as the power of influence has shifted. Customers have the power to shape the perceptions of a businesses brand, for better or worse.

But that doesn't mean that the "customer is always right," a long standing mantra for businesses everywhere.

Keeping customers happy is critical, but in many ways the pendulum has swung too far in their favor. What I mean by that is that because customers have so much of a voice and so many platforms to weigh in, their expectations are now higher and in many cases, skewed. Customers can sometimes become unreasonable in their demands, expecting to get whatever they ask because they have the leverage of a poor review or a nasty tweet. With small businesses this is even more pronounced, because in general they are less "well known." If someone says online they were unhappy with a company like Best Buy, chances are that's not going have the same impact that it would for a local dry cleaner. People are more likely to "move on" when it comes a small business option after one bad review.

The challenge is knowing how to navigate the tricky waters of a public spat with a customer on Facebook, a blog or Yelp, including when to finally give up and disengage when you've done all you possibly can. There are ways to step away from an angry customer and still retain a good reputation in the minds of others. Here are three tips on how to navigate a situation like this:

Gather all the information: Oftentimes a dispute is simply a misunderstanding, something that can be worked out with a simple conversation either online or in person. When notified of a potential problem reach out directly through whatever platform the customer used (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and try to get more information, while showing a desire to help rectify the situation. The details will be important to you as an owner, but also important for everyone else to see.

Show you truly want to help: No matter what the complaint or the dispute, make a good faith effort to help the customer right whatever was wrong. If that means giving a discount, refund or replacing something, those efforts should be made. Articulate what it is publicly that will be done for the customer and how it might work to regain their trust. Remember, the response is in public, be it Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, a blog, etc. So the response isn't just for the customer, it's for potential customers.

If your best isn't good enough, walk away 95 out of 100 times, the efforts made will be enough and a small business owner will succeed in having a customer stay a customer. But there will be times when no matter what concessions are made, it won't be enough. Sometimes disengaging in a professional way is the only option. Explain clearly what was done to come to a resolution, but if the customer demands something that's unreasonable, apologize and explain why nothing else can be done. Even if a customer has the "last word," take heart in ending the conversation professionally knowing you did all that was possible. Others will see that you put your best foot forward and hopefully appreciate that. And a public attempt is always better than no response at all.

Over a long enough timeline in business an unhappy customer is inevitable, you can't make everyone happy 100% of the time. But by spelling out clearly what has been done and the effort that has been put in, you're showing customer service is important to the business and potential customers.

Have you had to deal with an angry customer in a public forum? How did you deal with it? Was it a positive or negative resolution?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Jason Keith has been working for and with small businesses in the New England area for more than 10 years, specifically small, micro businesses. Born and raised in Massachusetts and a former journalist, he provides a unique perspective on the issues facing small businesses locally and nationally.To reach him directly email

This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone.

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