Shep Hyken\'s Customer Service Blog

Complaining Customers Aren’t Looking for Excuses

The other night, I was out with some friends. We were at a well-known place, listening to music and relaxing. One of my friends said she wanted something chocolate, so she ordered a piece of chocolate cake. A few minutes later it arrived, and she took her first bite. You could tell by looking at her facial expression that she was not happy. She said it tasted very dry. Not what she expected. So, I tried a bite. She wasn’t kidding. It was worse than dry. It tasted like chocolate flavored sawdust.

The server eventually came over, looked at the cake that was barely touched, other than two small bites missing from the corner, noticed two forks laying on the plate next to the uneaten cake, and asked if we were finished. I said, “Yes, and by the way, it was very dry.”

Without batting an eye, the server responded, “It’s a European-style dessert.” She picked up the dessert and walked away.

I looked at my wife and asked, “I may be out of line here, but I don’t think she handled that very well.”

My wife, who knows that I’m acutely aware of customer service issues (Of course I am! That’s what I do for a living!) said, “I see an article in the making!” That meant she validated my thoughts. This server showed no empathy, wasn’t really listening and felt that an explanation versus an apology would cover for why the food was bad. And no, there was no offer to get us something else or take the dessert off the bill.

Two big lessons here:

  1. Read between the lines: When a customer says something negative about your product, it is more than just a statement of fact. It’s a complaint. When I said the cake was dry, I was actually complaining about it. Good servers – or anyone who is dealing with a customer and hears a statement like the one I made – would recognize that I wasn’t happy.
  2. An excuse is not a substitute for taking action: When customers complain, they aren’t looking for an explanation or an excuse. They are looking for some type of reaction that then leads to action. It might be an apology, an expression of empathy or understanding, and/or an attempt to fix the problem.

So, keep in mind that when a customer says anything negative about your product or service, don’t just listen. Take action. It’s your opportunity to prove you’re listening and can give the proper response, fix or eliminate the problem or complaint, and, as important as anything, prove that you are in sync with your customer.

Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, keynote speaker, and New York Times bestselling business author. For information, contact 314-692-2200 or For information on The Customer Focus™ customer service training programs, go to Follow on Twitter: @Hyken

(Copyright © MMXVII, Shep Hyken)

  1. I strongly agree with the article. I believe some customer service ‘reps’ take things personally and thus block out the opportunity to make the customer happy. You weren’t saying, I don’t like YOU’. You were saying, ‘This didn’t meet my expectation.’

    I feel this happens in the work area as well. When a coworker needs something from me, they become my customer. It is my responsibility to be courteous, professional and helpful. When I need assistance from another coworker, I in turn, become their customer. The only problem is getting those coworkers to understand and react that way.

    • Hi Lori – You get it. Everyone who depends on you, either an outside customer or an internal customer (someone you work with), should get your best effort. And, it’s important not to take things personally. Typically, a complaining customer isn’t mad at the rep. They are mad at the company. It’s the rep’s opportunity to turn a rant into a rave and restore the customer’s confidence.

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