Your impulse to immediately placate unhappy customers is understandable. But may actually be a missed opportunity.
As a small-business owner your ideal number of unhappy customers is probably exactly zero. In this networked world where social media has given every disgruntled customer a soap-box and a bull horn, you're right to want to please everyone who walks through your business's door.
But despite all your efforts, you're almost guaranteed to have at least a few less than perfectly satisfied customers. Is there a way to put their complaints to use?
Yes, argued blog the Frugal Entrepreneur recently. Given your desire to please and the destructive power displeased customers can wield, it's understandable that entrepreneurs have "a knee-jerk, internal wince, and either rush to make things better or defend our stance… and our name," when confronted with a complaining customer writes blogger Adam Gottlieb. But before you unthinkingly rush to patch things up, he suggests, see if you can actually put your unhappy customer to some positive use. How? Gottlieb offers a few suggestions:
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."
Generate buzz. "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."
Learn your values. "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."
Of course, managing to wring the most value from your unhappy customers requires you to master the knee jerk defensiveness in the face of criticism that nearly all of us suffer from and actually listen to what this angry or upset person is telling you. How can you tame your natural instinct to defend yourself and your business? U.S. News & World Report's Angela Haupt recently offered some advice. Among her nine tips to cope better with criticism were these ideas:
Breathe. Do what you can to remain calm. Slow your breathing and take a long, deep breath before speaking. When you're on guard, your nervous system quickens, interfering with your ability to appropriately listen and respond.
Ask for specifics. Doing so helps clarify the other person's point of view, and shows that you care about understanding where they're coming from. If criticism is vague--"You're not a good team player on the job"--request a concrete example. Once you more thoroughly understand the complaint, you can weigh it and decide how to respond.
Say thanks. Even if you don't like what the other person has to say, you can thank him or her for initiating a difficult conversation. Expressing gratitude when defensiveness is expected can soothe a tense situation. In addition to calming the situation, it signals your commitment to open communication.
Identify your values. "The closer I am to living according to my own values, the less other people's criticism bothers me," says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. If a co-worker criticizes what time you leave each day, for example, you may feel guilty or defensive. "But if you think to yourself, what are my values, and why am I choosing to leave at this time, it matters less what other people think. You've decided for yourself what's important."
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel