In the age of the social media hissy fit, how to win back angry customers?

The disgruntled have a lot of power in the digital age. But you can convert their ire into affection

Illustration of people working online and pointing fingers

(Jutta Kuss)

Dwayne Stewart had just settled into his window seat aboard an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Vancouver when he noticed something disturbing. Airline employees were dropping carry-on bags from the plane into a cart 20 feet below. So the B.C. entrepreneur did what many peeved customers do these days: he whipped out his smartphone, shot a video and posted it on YouTube.

Nearly three million views later, Air Canada was confronting a full-on PR crisis. And the airline’s response—apologetic, yes, but also reactive and impersonal—became another high-profile example of how companies of all sizes mishandle complaints.

That’s a problem, because the digital age has made it easy for unhappy customers to publicly vent. Thanks to review sites and social media, clients can quickly and significantly damage a brand. (The millions who viewed “United Breaks Guitars,” musician Dave Carroll’s catchy YouTube ode to lousy service, will likely never fly that airline again.)

But take comfort: a loud, pissed-off customer doesn’t have to mean disaster. Consider the so-called service recovery paradox, which states that if a company acts quickly and decisively to resolve a beef, the complainant will end up more satisfied than he would have been had everything gone smoothly. “The beauty of irate customers is that when emotions bubble to the top, it’s a prime opportunity to create a customer for life,” says Philadelphia-based customer-service specialist Steve Coscia. In short: if you and your team react fast, you can turn your detractors into superfans.

Acknowledge promptly

Ignoring a customer complaint won’t make it go away—especially if it’s online. “If someone has a bad experience with your company, you’re guaranteed to find it on the Internet,” says Richard Cooper, CEO of Toronto-area firm Total Debt Freedom Inc. “And guess how most people research your company?”

Not long ago, Cooper did an online search for complaints about his debt-relief business and found some tough-to-read screeds. Instead of stewing, he opted to address them (with a little SEO help). Now, if you search for “Total Debt Freedom” and “complaint,” one of the first things you’ll see is a blog post on the firm’s site that breaks down the reasons behind—and actions taken as a result of—one highly viewed complaint. “If you’re transparent about what the complaint is and what you’re doing to resolve it, it’s really effective,” says Cooper, who has received good feedback to his actions. “It positions you as a company that discloses when things go wrong, and people respect that.”

Don’t get mad

There are many things that will upset a customer—and they’re not always your fault. Frank Cianciulli, CEO of Toronto-based business-services provider Wish Group, once had a client throw a fit because he had dropped his phone in a lake and it no longer could access the firm’s conference-call services. But even when you’re not to blame, don’t let your temper fly. “If you get defensive, it becomes an ego game, and when the customer calms down, he’ll leave you,” says Cianciulli. “But if you let him get it out, then calmly communicate what you’re doing to rectify the situation, you’ll regain his confidence.”

Cianciulli has trained all his customer-facing staff to stay cool when dealing with the disgruntled—a tactic that at times turned angry parties into fierce loyalists, he says. “If you handle yourself gracefully, you get bonus points.”

Make it personal

However irrational customers may seem, they ultimately want respect. “Whatever you do, don’t give a canned response,” advises Robert Bacal, CEO of in Ottawa and author of Perfect Phrases for Customer Service. “Don’t say anything that sounds stilted. That makes you appear like a government. People don’t react well to it.”

Instruct your employees to empathize, avoid management-speak and impart their personal commitment to make things right. “Diffuse the drama by being a decent human being,” says Sharron Jones who, as marketing director at Oakville, Ont.–based hygiene products supplier Healthwick, sometimes fields customer complaints. “If you can convince them you’re a real person who wants to help solve their problem, it immediately bursts their bubble of bitterness.”

Bring out the big guns

Few things impress a complainer more than getting the ear of the head honcho. At Montreal website-platform developer Bandzoogle, CEO David Dufresne will get on the phone himself to hear out and reassure upset users. “If someone is really mad, a message or note of apology from the CEO really does help,” he reports.

Kanata, Ont.–based customer service consultant Shaun Belding has frequently seen this approach in action. “It tells the customer that someone of importance is paying attention, which in turn sends the message that the customer is important,” he says. It may eat up executives’ time, Belding says, “but I bet they’d be pretty quick to deal with the root cause of the problems.” It’s a strategy Air Canada brass might consider in future instead of sending out a spokesperson.