Don’t Poke the Bear! How to Respond to Angry Customers

Arguing, doubling down and refusing to negotiate could make matters worse, so it’s best to aim for a win-win solution. And if that doesn’t work…

An unhappy customer has steam coming out of his ears.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Our recent article about the restaurant patron who “lost it” when his steak was served rare instead of medium and threatened an online defamation campaign unless he was paid $500 (What to Do When an Unhappy Customer Threatens to Ruin Your Rep) got a very large reader response about how to respond to angry customers.

Richart Ruddie, founder of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Profile Defenders (opens in new tab), emailed, “Great story! Here is a list of things management must avoid that will help prevent a bad situation from becoming worse when faced with an actual or threatened bad/defamatory online review.”

These Are the Things He Said NOT to Do

1. Poke the bear by responding publicly online, attacking the customer and saying they are wrong.

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Consequences: All issues and problems have now become public. It is far better to quarantine the customer and their complaint to a one-on-one session so that you can work to resolve the problem and lessen exposing your company to further embarrassment.

2. Pour fuel on the fire by doubling down on why there is no basis for the customer’s complaint.

Consequences: Mass negative publicity, including damage to employee morale, lost sales and potentially damaged relationships with your vendors.

A perfect, recent example of this kind of behavior are Kanye West’s anti-Semitic statements on a podcast after a similar incident on Twitter. He claimed that he could say anything he wanted to say and that Adidas could not cancel his contract.

The result was that what he boasted could not happen actually did (opens in new tab)!

3. Refuse to take responsibility for something that you might have indeed done incorrectly. Never admit fault, just like many of our politicians, when caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

Consequences: Even if the original basis of this dispute was primarily caused by your customer, by refusing to admit obvious fault, you characterize yourself as a business not worth patronizing. Saying “I’m sorry” goes a long way.

4. Give in to the temptation of filing suit immediately against the customer for defamation and seeking a gag order preventing them from further broadcasting or publishing their complaints.

Consequences: This makes the customer much more irate and may add weight to their contentions. The more you try to shut them up, the harder they will work to cause embarrassment to your company.

Instead, hear the customer out about their complaint and work with them toward finding a workable solution. Ask: “What can I do to make you happy?”

A good example was a dental office that needed to reschedule a patient’s teeth cleaning five times. She posted a very uncomplimentary review of the dentist’s office. Our recommendation was for the dental office to apologize and offer that service at no charge in exchange for removing the negative review.

5. Refuse to aim for a win-win outcome and try to discredit any statements from your customer.

Consequences: This will not help you in any way, and if you allow your anger to overrule sound judgment, you run the risk of going too far and possibly getting sued yourself for defamation!

Instead — and hopefully in an office setting or over the phone — encourage the customer to vent and voice their complaint. Ask them, “How can we resolve this in a fair manner?”

Don’t close the door to anything reasonable!

And If None of That Works?

Richart recommends that if you have not been successful, and the customer is threatening to post even more defamatory information online, “It’s time to retain either experienced Internet defamation counsel, or a company that specializes in reputation protection that you have vetted! And it is critical to use a United States-based company,” he underscores.

“There are many fake firms that will promise you the world but take your money and do nothing. They may even have what appears to be a U.S. telephone number,” so you’ve got to be extra careful.

“Whoever you retain, make sure they provide you with an actual contract showing clear deliverables and terms of service. Billing is customarily monthly or up front.

“Legitimate firms will have the know-how that provides a better chance of removing/fixing damaging posts. The better firms have excellent contacts with the major websites and can get to the right people. But it is impossible to guarantee an outcome, as that is in the hands of the website. If you are told, ‘We can guarantee removal of that post,’ RUN!”

Richart concluded our interview with this practical advice: “Google Alerts is an excellent service that constantly scans the Internet, looking for your name or your company’s name. Your best defense to online defamation is being aware.”

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com (opens in new tab).

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC (opens in new tab) or with FINRA (opens in new tab).

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."