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Take a L.E.A.P. When Dealing With Unhappy Customers

Here's what to do when dealing with unhappy customers!

2/18/2022 | Steve Woodburn, The Only Constant is Change

“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” Duke Ellington

Have you ever answered the phone only to hear an angry customer on the other end reading you the riot act, not letting you get a word in edgewise and threatening to ruin you and your company on social media? If you own a company or have ever been in sales, chances are this scenario is familiar.

How did you handle the situation? Their issue may not be due to something you did, but it’s easy to get flustered in the moment and not know what to say. Or to offer a discount or apology that may or may not satisfy an angry customer. If the first thing out of your mouth is, “I’m sorry” you’re setting yourself up for conflict by putting yourself on the opposite team of the person you’re dealing with. And when you’re on opposite sides, that usually means one side has to win and the other side has to lose.

While it’s not a cure-all, there is a better way and a method you might want to try the next time you have to deal with an angry customer, disgruntled employee, or any other scenario where it’s important to find a solution that’s a win-win.  And during stressful conversations, self-awareness is key…if you’re face-to-face, watch your body language and style under stress.  Your body speaks ten times louder than your words.

The acronym is L.E.A.P. and below are what each of the letters represent:

  • Listen: It’s so easy to get distracted by our own thoughts when others are talking or especially yelling! And our brains have trained us to solve the problem, however there is much more to do before you get to that point.  For L.E.A.P. to be effective, it's imperative you hear what the other person is saying because everything that follows is based on what you hear. You must listen for clues to understand what the issue or issues are and let the other person speak without interrupting them. Really listen, and let them give you the information you need to solve their problem. 
  • Empathize: Empathy is essentially putting yourself in their shoes and letting them know you understand their concerns. Rather than immediately saying,“I’m sorry” instead thank them for bringing this concern to your attention. Ask questions if you’re in doubt to ensure you understand exactly what their concern is without all the hyperbole they may use to make you feel bad. Credibility and confidence are earned in the question, not the answer.  “Tell me about…” is a great way to make the person feel heard. Understanding why you’re having this conversation and empathizing with their grievances will build their trust and take you to the next step.
  • Acknowledge: Let them know you’ve heard what they’ve said by repeating it back to them. Something along the lines of, “If I understand what you’re saying, you weren’t happy with the way our customer service rep handled this problems, is that right?” Don’t apologize, simply acknowledge you’ve been listening. This helps take away the feeling you’re on opposing teams and lets them know you’ve been in their shoes and can relate. At this point, they most likely will have calmed down and you can move on to the final step.
  • Problem-Solve: This where you simply ask, “What would you like me to do to make this right?” The majority of the time the other person will suggest something totally reasonable and you can agree and make it happen. Will some people take advantage by asking for something totally outrageous? Absolutely, but these people will be the exception, not the rule, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to placate them. It’s also reasonable for you to make a counter proposal that lets you meet somewhere in the middle and see how they react. There is usually never one right answer and my experience has always been reasonable people will work with you to find a mutually acceptable solution. 

Don’t dwell on what went wrong, and always focus on the positive when problem-solving. Let them know what you can do and do everything in your power to rectify the problem quickly. Realistically evaluate the feedback you get and determine if there’s a better way of doing something in the future to avoid this situation again. 

It’s true your most unhappy customers are sometimes your greatest source of learning. And while it’s never easy or fun dealing with unhappy and sometimes irate people, finding the right solution will many times lead to them becoming your most passionate and loyal fans.  

So embrace healthy conflict – don’t avoid difficult conversations. Be ready and remind yourself “I can handle this difficult conversation!”  And you can.

Steve Woodburn started hustling early in life, landing his first on-air radio gig when he was just 20 and spending the next 20 years as a DJ, news anchor, talk show host and traffic reporter. He found the promotional products business totally by accident (as do most) working 29 years on the distributor side and five as a supplier. Steve won multiple sales awards along the way and volunteered his time with his local association, the Regional Association Council (RAC) and served on the PPAI Board of Directors. He's currently the Chief Adventurer of Marvelous Moosey Adventures, a company he and his wife created, and pursues acting, writing and voice-over work. Connect with Steve on Linkedin or via email at
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