A Startup's Guide for Dealing With Disgruntled Customers


So you’re starting up. Woo hoo! It’s an exciting time. However, as you get bigger and stronger as a business, there are going to be a few hiccups. It’s ok! It’s normal! But it doesn’t always feel good, especially when you’re experiencing pushback from customers for the first time. The reactions can vary from denial, anger, and even an intense need to please. How you handle these first situations will define your customer service experience moving forward, so it’s important to get things right…. And this is how you’re going to do it.

Don’t downplay the complaint; take ownership

A normal first reaction when someone calls you out is to get defensive, to try and explain away the situation. But here’s the tough love: no one cares if you were training a new staff member or if your kid was sick or if you got busy and didn’t have time to do the thing you said you would do. Running a business can be difficult, but that’s not really your customer’s problem.

Never make excuses when things go wrong. It only reflects poorly on your leadership skills and your business as a whole. Own the mistake, even if it might have been something that was out of your control. Customers are far more likely to respond in a positive manner when you fully acknowledge their grievance instead sidestepping it.

Always leave the negative comment

I can’t tell you how many business owners have asked me how they can get a bad Google review taken down. (Spoiler alert: you can’t. And if for some reason you manage to do it, it’s not helping your brand.) There are several reasons you should always leave the negative comments….

First and foremost, negative comments give your brand authenticity. Getting all five star reviews and people singing your praises all over the place tends to make your reviews look fake. There is not a company on this green earth that has been able to deliver an exceptional experience 100% of the time, so if you want to appear like you have, you may just come across looking like your reviews aren’t real.

Next, understand that every business will experience a dissatisfied customer or even a troll at some point. What defines the brand is how they deal with it, and censoring comments is not dealing with it. Negative comments are an opportunity for your brand to step up and show concern, empathy, and positive action.

Make a strong effort to go above and beyond

When you receive negative feedback or have a disgruntled customer, how you respond shapes that relationship—and sometimes other relationships—moving forward. For example, I am a full time business owner who is raising four tiny humans. I don’t have a ton of time for domestic activities so I always order my groceries online, and WalMart used to be my choice for this. I had one or two experiences where my order was delivered without all the items, but none of the items were big enough that I felt compelled to make a fuss. Then finally an order came with almost $30 of meat missing from it. It was unclear who I had to call to fix this, so after 20 minutes of being transferred from department to department, I finally got on the phone with someone who could help me. They refunded the money for the missing items and gave me a $10 credit on my account. That’s it. Let me put this into perspective….

I had already paid a $10 fee to have the groceries delivered, so this credit just covered the fee for another delivery. Because time slots for delivery fill up quickly, there was no chance of getting another delivery before dinnertime. The entire point of using a grocery delivery service is the convenience, no? So now I was faced with taking the kids for fast food because I had nothing to cook for dinner or dragging all four of them into the grocery store after a full work day to pick up items I had already paid to be delivered. Neither was a good option, and I was so thoroughly disgusted with WalMart’s bland response to their blunder that I stopped buying groceries there altogether.

How you, as a business, respond to negative feedback matters. You should always aim to do something empathetic, unexpected, and highly valuable in response to customer concerns or bad experiences. Losing one customer won’t mean much to a corporate giant like WalMart, but in a startup business, every customer truly counts.

Stand strong in your convictions

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the days of “the customer is always right” are behind us. Seriously. If you messed up, by all means, own it. But there will be situations when you’ve clearly outlined your policies and delivered completely on your promises and they still aren’t satisfied. These things are unfortunate, but you’ll do more harm than good if you make a practice of giving in.

The best solution here is to empower yourself and your team members by having clear policies in place for multiple situations. If you messed up and you can make it right, do it! If the customer is determined to be unhappy, remind them of the policies they agreed to and stand your ground. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be an advocate for your employees, your brand, and yourself if you wish to succeed in business—so stand your ground.

Live and learn

And our takeaways for today? Live and learn! Anticipate what you can and build policies around how each situation should be handled. Be smart about acknowledging the customer’s complaint and so everything you can to make it right. Don’t make anyone feel like they’re not being heard. When you know you’ve done your best, stand strong in that fact and move forward in confidence. It can be scary when customers aren’t completely happy, but you can’t change what has happened, you can only control your response. Make the most of it.

Shauna Armitage.png

Meet the Author: Shauna Armitage

Shauna is a Marketing Director or Fractional CMO helping early-stage startups scale with effective strategies, creative solutions, and unparalleled integrity by making the most of small budgets for maximum impact.

As a vocal advocate for women in business, Shauna is on a mission to redefine what it looks like to be a working woman and to support other women doing the same. She spends her free time traveling with her husband and four kids while drinking Coca-Colas. Connect with her on Instagram at @shauna.armitage.

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