An upset customer is an opportunity

Were you the same person you were one year ago? How about ten years ago? Can you remember what you valued ten years ago? Is it the same today? Can you remember what you were doing on a typical day, ten years ago? Is it the same today? If ten seems the same to you, how about answer these questions for twenty years instead.

The person you were ten years ago shares much in common with who you are now but in many ways that person is someone else entirely. You aren’t the same person you were ten years ago.

Your beliefs have evolved, your hobbies have changed, and the work you do is probably different. You have new friends and you’ve lost touch with friends. Hopefully, what you contribute has grown. The way you look at the world is not the same.

Change has an impact on the relationships you have with the people around you. That change can lead to conflict. It’s no surprise that the relationships you have with your customers will change too.

After all, you do business with individuals, not organizations. Those individuals may come and go over the years. And even if it’s the same person, they too, like you, have changed.

If you’ve had a long relationship with customers, it can be much like a marriage. Inevitably conflict will arise. Conflict in marriage is an opportunity to strengthen the bond.

Marriage requires individuals that are willing to work through conflict. Conflict can also lead to divorce in extreme situations if individuals come to an impasse.

It will fester by default

But there’s a third possibility, if you do nothing about it—if you chose to ignore conflict—it will only get worse. It may not happen right away but eventually it will explode. And when it does you’ll be in a much more precarious position.

Conflict elicits an emotional response. Emotions nag at us. They eat away at our subconscious. When conflict arises it’s easy to fall into the habit of assessing fault and placing blame. Fairness is a powerful emotion.

Just as easy as it is for you to assess blame, it’s also rather automatic to assess how your customer feels about the situation. And this is how emotions can get the better of us. Because you really don’t know what the other person is thinking, through assumptions you come to conclusions.

Conclusions that start to paint a coherent picture in your mind. When in reality they may be the last thing on someone else’s mind. Conclusions beget conclusions and before you know it you can cook up some rather absurd stories.

Something as simple as a snarky email from your customer can lead to a flurry of reactions.

This happens because that’s just the way our minds work. We’re emotional creatures. It’s the blessing and curse of humanity. Fortunately, there’s a way to overcome the festering and it starts with changing how we approach conflict.

And you definitely want to address the issue and not let it fester. You don’t have to immediately respond, in fact that would likely be unwise, but you do have to have a plan to address.

It’s in your best interest to address conflict because if you look at the sanity of your own conclusions, you can only imagine what your customer is cooking up in their mind.

Find the gap

Addressing the problem isn’t as simple as thinking about it. You’ve been thinking about it and that thought process has led to some rather interesting conclusions.

What you need is an objective framework to help assess the situation. This will take the emotion out of the equation, as much as is possible.

The framework you need is rather simple. I refer to it as finding the gap. When conflict arises, there’s a gap between what your customer needs and what they have. Why the gap exists is secondary to identifying it.

So, step one is to identify the gap. Find out what your customer needs. Don’t just assume what they need now is what they needed in the past. It’s likely something has changed and they need something new now.

Once you identify the gap, figure out why it exists. But do not assess blame and do not assess fault. You’ll be back at square one if you do. Watch the way you talk about the subject. Be careful with words, they influence how you think. Words like the following are opportunities to further explore what might be an emotional assessment:

  • Should and should not, i.e.: they should have, we should have
  • Right and wrong, i.e.: they’re wrong, we’re right, we’re wrong
  • Good and bad
  • Fair and unfair, i.e.: that’s not fair for them to expect that

For example, a customer may have sent a snarky email because they haven’t seen progress on a project for a few months. That email might contain conclusions they’ve come to and not even address the lack of visible progress. They might say they doubt your competence and they think it might be time to find someone new to work on the project. That might be all the email contains.

What your customer needs can be described as the ideal or desired outcome. That doesn’t mean that’s possible, but it does give you something objective to focus on.

It won’t always be obvious what your customer need. Chances are you’re going to have to do some investigative research. You have to bite your tongue when you do this, or find a neutral party, and get at the heart of what they need.

Arm yourself with the power of one question: “Why?” You’ll be surprised how objective you can remain and what you’ll uncover.

Step two is to figure out what your customer has now. Part of that is what you contribute. Part of it is what they contribute.

If your customer is upset about progress, find out why progress isn’t visible to them. If you’re sending an email, maybe the customer isn’t getting it. Maybe they aren’t reading it.

Maybe the indication of progress doesn’t align well with what they need, there’s a gap in what you’re measuring and what they need. It’s not a predictive indicator of success.

Once you know what your customer needs and what they have now, you have identified that gap that needs to be filled. Just like a pothole in the streets of Chicago after a brutal winter, you want to find a way to fill this gap before more cars fall in.

Do more

Once you’ve identified the gap, one way to fill it is to do more for your customers. This doesn’t necessarily mean more work or increased effort.

I was on the phone with my health insurance provider because I keep getting notices that my payment is late and that my medical claims won’t be accepted if my account is past due. At first I thought I made a mistake, but it turns out their invoicing system sends bills out before their auto-payment system charges my bank account.

They told me to ignore the notices. That’s not easy to do when the notice tells me my health coverage has lapsed. And what happens if I do miss a payment and ignore the notice and my coverage actually lapses?

Anyways I was on the phone with member services and the guy on the other end was trying to explain to me how the system works so that some how I would understand and just ignore the notices. I re-iterated to him what I needed, or at least wanted, was for the notices to stop.

After pressing for 15 minutes he finally looked at my account and said that there was a way to change my payment such that the notice would stop. He admitted their system doesn’t function the way it should and he couldn’t tell me when they would change it.

He had a way to switch to a fixed payment amount every month and magically the problem would go away. But there was one caveat, if my premium changes in the future, my fixed payment may be too much, or let’s be honest, not enough.

This wasn’t quite what I needed but it was much better than what I had—a delinquency notice. This was a good first step at closing the gap. It required the representative do more than try to explain why I should ignore the notices.

Sometimes doing more requires creativity.

For example, if it were my customer on the phone. I wouldn’t just warn them about the notice. I would probably do all of the following:

  • When the invoicing system is fixed, I would call the customer and get approval to switch their payment method back to what it was before switching to a fixed payment.
  • I would put a reminder in my system to call them when their premium changes and get their approval to change the fixed payment amount, if the system is not yet updated.
  • I would make a note of the incident so that if for some reason they are late as a result of the change in payment amount, that I would, without question, waive any fees. I might even flag their account for review any time a fee is incurred for late payment, that way I can change it without the customer ever knowing about it.

Every situation is unique, but by looking at the gap you’ll find ways that you can easily fill the gap without asking the customer to lift a finger.

I’m not saying that what the customer needs justifies any means to fill the gap, but what the customer needs does justify many means. Many more means than you might be willing to provide if you focus subjectively on fault and blame.

Do Less

Sometimes you need to do less.

For example, if you have a customer that you’ve determined needs training, it may be tempting to schedule three days of training when all they need is one day. You may experience push back at your proposed agenda.

If you haven’t assessed what your customer needs, you may have to talk for three days to hit on enough content to make the training worthwhile. But, by understanding their needs you can select the one days worth of content from the three to give them what they need.

You’ll waste less of their time and less of your own.

Watch out for any opportunity where volume of work seems to be the only measure of success. If that’s the case, go back to the drawing board and determine what is needed to cut out the waste.

Sometimes more is less, and less is good enough.


If there’s truly nothing you can do to give your customer what they need, to bridge the gap, it may be time to part ways.

I would qualify this with hesitation but you’ll do that just fine yourself. Especially if you’re financially dependent on customers that you need to walk away from.

Business isn’t about helping anybody that walks through the door. It’s about helping the people that you can help. And just like a relationship, it’s not always possible for you to help any one customer forever.

If you are at a point where you cannot provide what your customer needs, you have to renegotiate what it is you are willing to provide. And if that doesn’t work you need to part ways. This is about having integrity.

And it’s also in your own self-interest to part ways with the wrong customers. The wrong customers keep the good customers out. Make sure you have the capacity to help the customers you can, by not trying to help the customers you can’t.  


Obviously I’m trying to give you plenty of options to avoid premature divorce. Here’s one more. When you have a problem with a customer, especially what feels like a substantial problem, it may be a sign of another opportunity: innovation.

Opportunity lies at the heart of innovation.

It may be time to analyze the gap in what you can provide and develop new products and services to fill that gap.

It may also be the time to see how you can adapt your current products and services to meet the needs of new or existing markets.

Sometimes conflict is a sign that you’ve nailed it with the products and services you current offer and it’s time to create new products and services. Or make substantial changes to existing ones.

Innovation is a subject for another discussion. My only advice is to look for what’s changed. What’s changed with your customer since you first started working together? How have markets changed? Are there new markets? How could you change your products and services to fill in the gaps?

Healthy Relationships

If you want a healthy marriage with your customers, you have to be willing to work through conflict. Of course like a marriage this requires that everyone is willing to work through it.

You can take the lead by focusing on what your customer needs and finding the alternatives to bridge the gap. Don’t be discouraged if you slip into a myriad of emotions. Use an objective framework to guide you and you can turn any conflict into an opportunity for both you and your customer.