Angry, Irrational, and Empowered: Navigating Customer Service in the Internet Age

Even if a customer’s complaint is largely unfounded, you have to tread carefully because of the power and visibility of an angry online review. Take some lessons from the author’s personal story.

Anja Smith
Anja Smith

My strangest customer service story didn’t involve a customer at all. It was a customer’s neighbor. We’ll call him Mr. Neighbor.

Our customer and Mr. Neighbor live on a narrow road, practically an alleyway. A truck parked in front of Mr. Neighbor’s house blocked the road. Our driver slid onto the shoulder of the road trying to get around it.

Well, it had been raining for days and the ground was soft. Our heavy truck didn’t stand a chance and dug deep into the mud, which smeared all over the road in front of Mr. Neighbor's house. Mr. Neighbor wasted no time calling to tell me this was a problem. The issue was the party he planned to host later that evening. A dirty road just wouldn’t do for his guests.

He filled the conversation with colorful language and threats to smear our name all over the internet. Presumably, in proportion to how we had smeared mud on the road.

I can’t pretend I pay much attention to the condition of the road in front of my house, even when I’m having a party. But this guy had a different perspective and I respected that. Whether he would take time out of his day to go online and leave bad reviews for something this petty, I don’t know. All that mattered was that this person had a bad interaction with our brand and was revved up about it.

The impressions we make in passing — with our trucks, phone etiquette, uniforms, social media posts, you name it — affect our business. While these moments aren’t as important as the work we do, they become part of our brand story. That’s thanks to the incredible power of the internet.

Think of the quote from legendary basketball coach John Wooden: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Well, it seems like we don’t get that opportunity much anymore. The world is watching.

It was very clear to me that this guy was having a stressful day and maybe some long-term anger management issues. Would most people have read his reviews or listened to this story and thought he was crazy? Probably. But as a company built on word-of-mouth and reputation, I would not risk it. All that mattered was how we moved forward. Whatever the issue, you can’t change the past or how another person feels.

The incident is a footnote compared to how you rise to the customer service challenge. Onward and upward, as they say. Valid or not, hear them out. Give angry customers the space to talk about what is upsetting them. According to my therapist, humans really care about having their feelings validated.

Resist the urge to get defensive. Upset about price, your driving, appointment windows, your tone of voice, where a truck parked, the quality of a repair, or how blue the sky was at the time of service. This feedback is valuable. Listen. It will be painful, but listen. Don’t tune them out.

Once they run out of steam, ask how you can make it right. This part is critical. Don’t offer a solution before they do. People will often ask for less than you would offer.

I just listened to his rant with a confused face (and a few “Sir, that language isn’t necessary” comments) before asking, “How can I help make this right?” His solution was weird but doable: Clean off the road.

It wasn’t worth pulling my guys off of paying jobs to deal with this, so I went to sweep the road in front of his house. Once I completed my task, I knocked on his door. Partly because I would not leave without him acknowledging that we had done what he asked and partly because I wanted him to look me in the eye. He sheepishly nodded his approval. I don’t think he expected a woman in a dress and heels to show up. Not my normal work gear, but I’d had a board meeting that day. Either way, his anger was gone. Inside I fumed. But he never knew that. I smiled and thanked him. Yes, thanked him.

Every complaint has at least a kernel of valuable information or feedback. The situation reminded us that our trucks aren’t always welcome and we need to be extra careful with our driving etiquette. Mr. Neighbor’s fragile ego aside, it’s valid. Other than some scuffs on my heels and frizzy hair, going above and beyond cost me nothing. I appreciated that he brought these concerns to my attention and gave me the opportunity to make it right. That’s better than him stewing about it and spreading angry rhetoric without us ever knowing. That may have cost the company thousands of dollars. If he told 10 people how “awful” and “disrespectful” we were, and they bought the story, those are 10 people who might never call us for service.

Public image is under a microscope these days and the internet loves to rally behind righteous indignation. You have to work hard and rise above the fray or join it. I recently watched in fascinated horror as one of my competitors shamed an unhappy customer online. My competitor perceived his negative reviews as unfair and took him to task. A reply to his review wasn’t enough, though. The company posted a whole rant of its own on a separate social media site. It’s a brave tactic.

My preferred way to handle bad reviews is to post a public reply expressing concern for their bad experience. Show that you will reach out to them to resolve the issue offline. Don’t let that conversation play out on a public forum. We are privileged to have contact information for our customers, so use it. Show that you care enough to resolve the issue, which sends a fantastic message to anyone who reads those reviews later.

Don’t lose sleep over bad reviews. When outweighed by plenty of five stars, a few one stars lend credibility to your profiles. It’s weird, but true. Consumers don’t expect perfection, but they do look to how you handle customer service issues as an important indicator.

With any luck, the upset customer will remove or edit their initial review once you’ve discussed the issue. Even if they prove unreasonable, you’ve sent the signal to the masses that you did what you could.

Don’t get held hostage by a customer who threatens an online review if the price they ask is too high. Sure, I cleaned the guy’s street off. But like I said, that didn’t cost me anything. In hindsight, it’s even amusing and makes for a great lesson.

You never get the chance to make another first impression but, if you’re lucky, it doesn’t have to be the lasting impression.


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