How Your Small Business Can Profit from Your Unhappy Customers

As small business owners it is easy to find ourselves obsessing about customer satisfaction and positive brand awareness. After all, the opinions that customers form about our products and services can significantly impact sales.

We hear from experts (and tell ourselves) that these good vibes are all the more crucial now that businesses from all walks of life are increasingly being tied to and reliant upon the Internet 2.0 to drive consumer interest, traffic, and conversions.

For this reason, when we are faced with unhappy customers, it can be even harder not to give in to a knee-jerk, internal wince and either rush to make things better or defend our stance… and our name. But in both scenarios, we can easily let a valuable opportunity go by.

Whenever there is pressure or resistance that is where there is real growth. If you never experience that resistance, and if you never experience the outcome of a mistake, then you won’t go nearly as far. Just ignoring the negative messages that are coming at you- especially if they are coming from several different sources- can be detrimental to your business.

Realize this… Not all your happy customers will give you feedback, and if their experience was merely average then it is even less likely. Just consider the percentage of customers who take the time to leave reviews on location-based social services, such as Yelp, City Search, Google + Local, etc. It’s pretty small compared to the actual number of customers served.

But, many of your unhappy customers will go out of their way to let you know they are dissatisfied. They’ve got a bone to pick with you or your business, and they may not drop it so readily (or at least not so quietly). If at some point you can stop and realize that these people are voluntarily giving you feedback. In other words, you don’t have to go out there and collect it. Then it can change your whole perspective.

However, customers feedback is now more and more split across various channels: commenting, ticketing system, live chat on your website, phone calls, bots, traditional emails, Facebook, Twitter etc…
Integrated help desk software like Kayako group all most relevant channels conversations (live chat, email, Facebook, Twitter) in one place giving you a complete picture of your customer journey. Click here to get a free trial for Kayako.

As I mentioned above, these people will often put a spotlight on areas in your business that need improvement or tweaking. It may not feel nice to be the target of criticism, especially if some of these people are being blunt and/or offensive, but if they are pointing out a problem that needs to be fixed, then in a certain sense, you should be shaking their hands. Even if you don’t actually do this (and I some cases it’s not appropriate) just having this attitude can make a big difference.

Here are some other ways to capitalize on your unhappy customers that you may not have thought of:

  • You get to test your customer service response. Customer service is easy with a happy customer. The true test is when you are dealing with a customer who is upset.
  • You can generate a positive buzz. If you make an adequate effort to address your customer’s concerns, and yet the customer remains unhappy, then it could encourage satisfied customers to speak up on your behalf. Suddenly, you and your business can become the “underdog” that everyone is routing for.
  • If you manage to turn unhappy customers into happy ones, then they can become even bigger promoters of your business than they would have had they had a more positive experience from the beginning.
  • Being on the receiving end of criticism and other forms of resistance makes you realize what’s important by forcing you to focus inside, to know where to draw the line, and to determine where your priorities are. Maybe you need to learn that some customers are just not meant to be your customers, or maybe you (like most of us) need a reminder that our sense of value should not be dependent on the thoughts of a few

In short, dealing with unhappy customers at some point is an inevitable part of doing business. But they don’t have to send you running the other way. With the right attitude, they can be a driving force for profitable change and growth.


  1. says

    I have been running a successful small business for over 25 years and have been interviewed several times on the topic you address in your post. My rule of thumb as a business owner is to recognize that “no” is not a dirty word. When someone is asking for goods and services that are beyond your company’s means to deliver, say so. A realistic assessment of your company’s core competencies is a key to avoiding trouble down the road. Secondly, there are some clients that can’t be satisfied no matter what you do. After awhile you will be able to recognize these people/institutions before a transaction even takes place. Trust your instincts and bow out gracefully. However, this is not to say that you shouldn’t “go the extra mile” when asked. What I am saying is assess the race before you enter. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505143_162-40242557/clients-arent-always-right/

  2. Adam Gottlieb says

    I agree with you; the customer is not always right. Yet so many small business owners fall into this trap.

    It’s not the customer’s job to worry whether or not lines are being over-stepped; it’s the job of the small business owner. And that is precisely why such customers can actually be a good thing: they practically force small business owners to get in touch with the core competencies that you mentioned, to recognize the “good” customers from the “bad” ones, and to know when to just say “no.”

  3. Procurement Books says

    Hi, Adam!
    Running your own business can be really draining especially when customers test you all the time. Sometimes it seems like they just choose to be unsatisfied even if you have done everything that you could to help them. And you’re right. Other satisfied clients will often step in to defend you when they happen to come across negative feedback.

    But as much as possible small businesses should not be discouraged by unsatisfied customers; they are unavoidable. Instead, these customers should be stepping stones and not hindrances to the company’s development and credibility.

  4. Adam Gottlieb says

    I hear you about those customers who “test” you. But, once you have been in business for a while, you can learn to tell if a customer is giving you a hard time for reasons not really having to do with your business. In that case, just keep your cool, don’t be discouraged, like you said, and make the most of the situation.

  5. says

    You also have to make sure that you don’t let the unhappy, impossible-to-be-satisfied customers take over your entire schedule. There are some people who are never going to be happy and, therefore, will never allow you to create a point where you can tie things off and declare that you are done. You’d obviously like to screen for them beforehand, but going through this experience once or twice will also help you to craft your contracts in a manner that gives you points where you can walk away. Otherwise, these 20% customers (20% of customers take 80% of your time) can create the inescapable vortex.

  6. Adam Gottlieb says

    Good point… Here, through trial and error, you can learn how to set limits ahead of time so that this kind of thing doesn’t end up happening too often. But, like I said, it’s a learning process that you can only come to once you’ve had enough of those unhappy, time-sucking customers.

  7. says

    Great points.

    What might be equally as important as knowing how to make the most out of unhappy customers is how to actually handle them.

    Front-liners need to know how to handle unhappy customers in a manner that is emphatic and sincere. Chances are, that approach is what it takes to win them over.

  8. Adam Gottlieb says

    Definitely! Front-line employees could even be given a “script” that explains how to handle different kinds of customer complaints, and they could be empowered to offer various corrective gestures on the spot, such as re-sending a new item, or providing a discount on a future purchase.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *