In the Trenches: Choosing Our Tone With Unhappy Customers

BrettSnyder by Brett Snyder on August 14, 2013
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It’s tough — if not impossible — to please every single person every single time, so it’s pretty much inevitable that all small-business owners will have to deal with unhappy customers at some point. I’ve come to accept this fact, even though it bothers me tremendously. But what I still have trouble with is finding the right tone to take in conversations with unhappy customers who don’t seem to have a good reason for being unhappy.

For example, several months ago a customer in the U.S. signed up with us to book flights for a domestic trip. The family of four wanted to take one of those “ultra low-cost” airlines that charge for absolutely everything. The whole process seemed a bit daunting to them, so they hired us to explain all of the rules and restrictions and to help them purchase their tickets.

We did just that. We exchanged multiple emails with the customer, in which we explained all of the fees and answered a bunch of questions. In the end, we told the family that they could save more money than they’d paid us for assistance if they purchased their tickets directly from the airline at the airport (instead of having us book them). That’s because some low-cost airlines, such as this one, charge a convenience fee for booking online, knowing that most people won’t bother making the trek to the airport. The client chose to do that. It seemed like we had more than earned our keep on this one!

Thus, I was surprised to receive an email recently — months after our original exchange — asking for a refund. What was even more surprising is that this family said we hadn’t done anything wrong, and they just didn’t need our service. Yet, we’d provided them with the expert, money-saving advice we thought they had wanted!

I take pride in having a little-used money-back guarantee. When customers are unhappy, I refund their money. This doesn’t happen often, but I always honor the policy — and that’s what I’ll do in this situation, too. However, I can’t help but get riled up in a situation like this.

If we had made a mistake or hadn’t done much work, I would have offered a refund upfront. (Another client found a flight he liked before we’d done more than a preliminary search; I gave him his money back before he even asked for it.) But we did everything we could to really help this family save money, so I have an overwhelming desire to explain that we really did provide a service.

That won’t get me anywhere, I suspect, and either way I’m going to end up giving the customer a refund. But it’s just so frustrating. What would you do?

BrettSnyder

Brett Snyder is President and Chief Airline Dork of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. Snyder previously worked for several airlines, including America West and United, before leaving to create a travel search site for PriceGrabber.com. Snyder did his undergrad at George Washington and earned his MBA from Stanford.

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