Article

Customer dissatisfaction: A guide to handling difficult clients

Dissatisfied customers can affect your company’s reputation. Learn how to identify the various types of unhappy customers and adopt methods for defusing their anger.

By Susan Lahey, Contributing Writer

Published December 6, 2021
Last updated December 6, 2021

Customer satisfaction has been dropping in the US since about 2018, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The question is why, especially when so many companies are trying hard to meet customer needs on a variety of fronts.

There are some general trends that offer clues—for example, customer expectations keep rising. Customers have become much more critical of everything, whether it’s product quality, delivery, or customer service. But ACSI’s data shows companies have managed to keep up with that in general; the gap between customer expectations and customer satisfaction has remained stable, even as customer dissatisfaction rises.

What causes customer dissatisfaction?

A recent Wall Street Journal article suggested a few possible explanations for the spike in customer dissatisfaction: the increase of channels by which people can complain (including various social media platforms), an increase of purchases of complex technological devices that customers struggle to use, and those rising expectations—for instance, many dissatisfied customers don’t only want a refund now, they want an apology.

But the real issue, according to the ACSI, is that companies need to sift through all the information and find out exactly why their own customers are dissatisfied, rather than just guessing from larger trends. They need better tools for collecting data on a granular level, and they need to make changes in response to what that data is telling them.

Most companies think of the cost of customer dissatisfaction in terms of the cost of retaining a customer versus losing one, and having to win another customer to replace them. That’s valid—the Wall Street Journal article noted that dissatisfied complainers tell an average of seven people about their negative experience, while satisfied ones tell only 3.7 people.

But one study discovered there’s value beyond those metrics. Utility companies never have to worry about losing customers—they’re often the only game in town, so it doesn’t matter if someone badmouths them, right? Wrong. A recent study showed that even when it came to monopolies like utilities, making customers happy meant that employees endured fewer unpleasant experiences and less time-consuming customer service calls that left them in a bad mood, which helped lower employee turnover. Having satisfied customers makes life better and smoother for employees and reduces operational costs.

Understanding customer dissatisfaction

So, how can companies optimize their customer satisfaction and collect and respond to data regarding customer dissatisfaction? In the interest of not demanding too much from customers, many companies have gone to one-question surveys to gauge satisfaction levels. But that alone obscures the source of the dissatisfaction, which could be found in a variety of areas:

  1. Dissatisfaction with product quality

    This pertains to such things as the materials used, whether seams and joints show, whether parts fall off or threads are loose. If you sell an article of clothing online that looks like silk and it turns out to be an inexpensive fabric, purchasers won’t be happy.

  2. Dissatisfaction with usability

    Could a buyer quickly learn how to use the product? Do all the functions operate as they should? Customers might perceive there are too many steps to accomplishing the goal they purchased the item for. Or perhaps the parts don’t operate as they should—such as a touchscreen you have to poke several times to get a response or batteries that wear out after a short amount of time. The item should serve the purpose it promises to serve. If it doesn’t, the end result will be customer dissatisfaction.

  3. Dissatisfaction with performance

    A vacuum cleaner that works great for the first few months but then grows progressively weaker is an example of poor performance. Every product or service has performance metrics, whether those are speed, power, durability, appearance, and so on. Customers will measure your product or service against others in the same category and also against their own expectations, which leads to the next issue.

  4. Dissatisfaction because of expectations

    Customer expectations aren’t only informed by your marketing. They’re informed by reviews of your product, previous experiences with your company, and other industry leaders. If company A can deliver my product in two hours, customers think, why will it take you two weeks? You can help your case by clearly setting expectations—being transparent about the specifics of your product or service (size, materials, performance), your pricing, delivery, and other areas where customers might have expectations that you want to meet.

  5. Dissatisfaction with customer service

    How simple was the transaction? Were customers able to ask questions before making the purchase? How responsive and empathetic are customer service agents? How easy are returns and refunds? Customer service is largely a function of human nature. When people feel cared about, and not just as a source of money, they tend to be happier. New tools have both increased companies’ ability to meet customers’ needs and reduced some of the human touches that make a huge difference. It’s complicated.

Types of dissatisfied customers and what to do about them

Dissatisfied customers are definitely more work for the company than satisfied ones, but there are different kinds of dissatisfied customers, and they don’t all have the same impact on the company or require the same treatment.

There's a difference between a dissatisfied customer and one who is angry or rude. A dissatisfied customer has a problem in that they aren’t happy about a product or service. For these customers, polite treatment and a remedy, such as a refund or replacement, can keep them from becoming an angry customer. One of the most important steps a company can take is to provide customer service personnel with the power to find solutions.

But other customers are tougher. Here’s a look at what drives those customers and what customer service agents can do to change the narrative.

The angry customer

Angry customers might have a lot of reasons to feel angry, including that life shouldn’t be turning out this way and people shouldn’t treat them the way they do. Angry customers may have a personal narrative that no one respects them, and the product or service being unsatisfactory is just the latest straw on that camel’s back. Others may not have been angry when they initially reached out, but 20 minutes into a lengthy customer service interaction where they get shuffled from bot to hold to one representative after another who explains that it’s their problem, not the company’s, may inspire them to become angry. Angry customers might yell, blame the agent, threaten, and be rude.

What to do: As an agent, it’s not about you, but it feels like it is about you. Bottom line: No agent should have to deal with abuse, but agents need to be prepared for angry customers. Always show empathy, employ a calm voice, and adopt a troubleshooting mentality so you can identify the source of the problem and find a solution.

Let’s say a customer purchased an airline ticket thinking that “no change fee” meant there would be no cost for choosing a different flight. But when they tried to reschedule it, the cost of the new flight was twice as much. Their anger might be covering fear that they can’t afford to travel when they need to for an important meeting, family emergency, or something similar. In this case, it helps to become an ally for the customer as much as possible. Maybe there’s a different flight the customer didn’t see that won’t raise the price.

The vague customer

The vague customer really doesn’t know what they want. They may think it’s part of the service for you to intuit what they need. This approach doesn’t work in any relationship, but many people keep trying. The vague customer asks for something like “a professional website design” but then goes ballistic when what you deliver doesn’t meet some unspoken standard they may not even have known they were harboring.

What to do: The first thing is not to assume you understand what a vague customer is saying. Ask questions, request examples of what they’re looking for, and then repeat it all back to them. If they want something you know will be a problem—such as a design that will be unspeakably ugly or not meet their needs—warn them in advance. You may want to create a draft version or have photos of the product or service and a description of what it will deliver (which you should both agree on before performing any work). For the vague customer, it’s all about managing expectations.

The demanding customer

Maybe the demanding customer thinks they’re special and everyone should treat them with deference—give them what they want in the right color, size, and price the instant they ask for it. Perhaps the demanding customer secretly fears they’re not special and perceives everyone’s behavior as an indication of their value. People have a lot of secret motivations. The demanding customer doesn’t care how many other people you’re dealing with or that you can’t get the product to them any faster. They want what they want when they want it. They may have seen that another company is capable of delivering something quickly, for example, and assume you are able to do the same thing.

What to do: The demanding customer requires clarity. Ask them what they want—“I want you to throw in this part of the software package for free because I’m spending a lot of money”—and ascertain whether it’s possible or desirable. Often the best course is to empower customer service agents to use discretion to keep a customer happy by giving them something of little relative value. But if the customer is asking for something unreasonable, explain your company’s policies and do some deep breathing exercises while they’re venting about it.

The more your agents can use these difficult calls as a source of data about what drives dissatisfied customers, the more you can reduce their frequency. If agents are tracking, for example, what aspects of the transaction the customer is dissatisfied about and what the resolution was, it’s much easier to pinpoint your efforts to mitigate customer dissatisfaction.

Naturally, that means you have to not only collect the data but also use it for decision-making purposes. However, it’s worth the effort—dissatisfied customers take a toll on customer service agents and the bottom line. It’s worth it to invest in finding solutions.

Make the message count

Learn eight ways to transform your support strategy with messaging—from WhatsApp to live chat and everything in between—to improve customer satisfaction.