In the Trenches: Choosing Our Tone With Unhappy Customers

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?

About Brett Snyder

Brett is the Founder and President of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. He also writes the consumer air travel blog, The Cranky Flier.
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9 comments
HumbleOpinion
HumbleOpinion

My guess is that they felt they did all the work because they bought the ticket themselves instead of you buying it for them. All the advice you gave seems like common sense, after you told it to them, and it seems like they already knew it. Now that they look back, they don't remember the time and research you spent on their behalf. After all, you just looked up a few sites on the Internet and sent them a couple of emails.

 

Next time, buy the ticket for them - they will be happier

avignone
avignone

Brett - move on but make a note in their file that they did this and be very, very careful if they come back to you again for assustance. I would also caution you that people looking for this type of bargain are not likely to want to pay for anything they can avoid - such as your service!

Alex
Alex

Hey Brett,

You are a concierge service, thus it surprises me that you would entertain anything having to do with travel on Spirit or their ilk. A red flag should have gone up on this at the beginning. Why would some one who wants to travel Greyhound want to hire a concierge service to help them?

Sadly, there are asshole people like this every where. You will just have to suck it up and give them their money back. Do not deal with them again (although, I am sure they will never call back).

Keep your standards high and do not deal with the bottom dwellers who want to go Greyhound. 

Jim
Jim

They know fully well that you provided them with what they paid for, but they are taking advantage of you because they can.  There are people who shop at Costco for the entire year, take advantage of the money-back guarantee to get a refund of their membership fee the day their membership expires, and then renew it for another year.  There's not much you can do, other than give them their money and move on.

nbarnard
nbarnard

My take on a customer like the one you've described is to provide them with their refund, and then refuse to do business with them in the future. (Or offer to do business with them, if they expressly disclaim any rights to the money-back guarantee. 

crankyconcierge
crankyconcierge

 @HumbleOpinion Are you suggesting we should have driven to the nearest airport served by that airline and purchased the ticket for them?  Our fees are certainly not high enough for us to do that.  We were more than happy to purchase their tickets on the website but they wanted to save the money, as we had explained to them, by going to purchase themselves.

 

You may think this was all common sense, but that's not the case for everyone.  These travelers specifically signed up because they were confused by all the different options on that airline.  At least, that's what they told us and we helped them with what they asked for.

crankyconcierge
crankyconcierge

Alex - We've actually been pretty successful helping people with those ultra low fare airlines.  People hear stories about all the fees and get really nervous about it.  So they like having someone to guide them through the process.  It does seem surprising that people would pay for help in cases like that, but we're happy to provide it.  I always wanted to make sure this business was just an elite concierge service - I wanted to be accessible to everyone.

HumbleOpinion
HumbleOpinion

 @crankyconcierge Actually, I'm on your side, but your customer did not realize how much work you did for them and became unhappy after the transaction was completed. Hindsight bias occurs when people feel that they “knew it all along.” Once they believe that they knew it all along, they forget that they were confused with all the choices at the beginning. 

 

I was suggesting that you not tell them that they could save a little money by purchasing the tickets themselves. Your goal should be a satisfied customer, not the lowest price. If you had purchased the ticket on the airline's website, the customer would not have felt that they did all the work.

 

I realize there is an ethical question about whether to notify them about the option of going to the airport, but I believe that allowing them to have a good experience is worth more than the money they saved. Imagine their feelings; getting more and more upset as time passes, they forget their initial confusion and the answer becomes more clear and obvious, they finally become so upset that they feel they must demand their money back in order to have peace. I also realize it is easy to rationalize any decision about ethics, so if your ethics require honesty above happiness, you may decide differently than I have recommended.

crankyconcierge
crankyconcierge

 @HumbleOpinion Ah, I understand now.  We've discussed the idea of only booking through our systems before, but we would much rather provide our clients with the lowest available fares even if it means not booking through us.  That should win us more business than it loses us from people like this one.  

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