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How to Deal with an Angry Customer

Sometimes the customer isn’t always right – and it’s okay to tell them that.

A customer marches up to you, probably wearing glasses too big for their face. They bought a product a year and a half ago and now it’s expired. So, naturally, they’re demanding a refund.

Should you give them their money back?


Yet when I worked in the retail industry, I would see supervisors cave into these ridiculous demands in the spirit of making a customer happy. And sure, they would leave pleased to have gotten what they wanted after their public tantrum.

So pleased that they’d come back and try it again. And again.

Ultimately, those “happy customers” would steal hundreds of dollars from the company. How do you stop them?

Understand the policy

It’s much easier to get taken advantage of if you don’t know the rules that are in place to protect you.

Employees at the cash register probably have the return policy drilled into their heads, and you should too.

Marketing professor Thomas Robertson told the University of Pennsylvania that returns make up about 10% of retail sales and businesses lose billions of dollars because of it every year. Lenient return policies are great for keeping customers and increasing your conversion rate. But if you’re too lenient, you’re going to lose out on more money.

If your store doesn’t have a comprehensive policy, time to write one. Be clear about what kind of returns are acceptable and other restitution options.

It’s not bad to have a “the customer is always right” mentality, but don’t let your business be exploited. Using customer profiles can be a great way to build loyalty through points. They can also help you track who is a serial returner.

Back up your employees

An employee declines a customer’s request for a refund, calmly explaining the policy and what can be done instead to rectify the situation. But the customer still demands a return and gets aggressive. Eventually, a manager gets involved.

And the manager just gives them a refund.

Anyone who’s worked a cash register has probably gone through this experience at least once. The smug look on the customer’s face feels humiliating and the manager’s betrayal is infuriating.

If an employee enforces your policies, have their backs!

It’s unlikely that you’re building true customer loyalty by shrugging your shoulders and caving into an irate customer. Instead, you’re building resentment within your own team.

The inconsistency can also be frustrating for the customer and even encourage them to waste more of your company’s time.

“Very often [decisions are] left to the sales clerk in the store,” Robertson said. “So, you get inconsistency in it all, which is a big problem.”

If a customer thinks that requesting a different employee or manager will get them what they want, they’ll keep it up until they’re satisfied. It’s important that everyone stays on the same page about customer solutions.

Know what to say

Caving into a customer tantrum might feel like the easiest path. It’s hard to communicate with someone who is belittling you or making unreasonable demands.

But if you keep a level head, there are a few things you can do to communicate effectively and come to a compromise.

  • Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention and apologize – even if it isn’t the company’s fault. Don’t say “but” immediately after an apology.
  • Be an active listener, ask questions, and restate what they tell you. Avoid just saying, “I understand.” Show the customer that you do through what you say.
  • Keep the conversation on track. Stay calm while keeping the conversation focused on a fair solution.

For example, if a customer is upset that a coupon is expired…

Instead of saying, “I understand, but I won’t honor this coupon.”

Try, “I’m so sorry. I know this was a great deal. Unfortunately, I can’t give you the full discount anymore. Can I offer you 10% off instead?”

You can calm the customer without giving into their full demands by staying level-headed and solution-oriented.

While it’s good to minimize how much money you’re losing, it’s also important to admit when you’re wrong. If your company made a mistake, own up to it fully and ensure any wrong is set right.

“Your return policy helps define you as a retailer,” Robertson said. “If it is fair and equitable and consistent, that may very much be to your benefit. If consumers perceive it to be unfair or inconsistent, that may be damaging to your reputation.”