How to Defuse an Upset Customer

By Steve D’Antonio, April 27, 2017

As the guest blogger for the PierVantage monthly boatyard and boat builder’s blog, I wanted to come up with a topic that was relevant, interesting, and one that you encounter as a leader in your business.

During my tenure as a boatyard/boat building manager, I learned as much about the management of people, both staff and customers, as I did about repairing and building boats. One of my greatest challenges, and sources of satisfaction when I managed to turn an encounter around, involved dealing with irate customers.

The upset customer

The first thing to remember is…forget everything that comes naturally when being confronted with someone who is angry at you, or the organization you represent. Your goal is not to win the argument or to prove yourself right. Your goal is to be profitable, which means you want the customer to be satisfied, return and continue to patronize your business, and hopefully tell others how well you dealt with a difficult situation.  When customers are upset, they often subconsciously want you to resist and give them the fight they are itching for. Your resistance reinforces their belief that you just don’t get it, so do your best to avoid this pitfall.

Listen and body language

Your next step is to LISTEN and let your customer get…it…all…out. Don’t interrupt, don’t appear impatient or reluctant. Show empathy with your body language and facial expressions (we often don’t realize how much one can read into these subtleties; showing empathetic signals, the right signals, comes naturally to very few).  It is important to avoid crossing your arms, keep your eyes on theirs, shake your head up and down signaling you understand where they are coming from.

Your words

When you feel as though your customer has finished venting, say, “If you are finished, let me begin by saying how sorry I am that you are dissatisfied” (and do so with conviction). By saying this you are not admitting guilt, yet. You are simply acknowledging his/her level of frustration, anger and disappointment which is the first step in letting them know you understand and feel their pain. Next, you say, “Let me make sure I understand the issue”; then give them a synopsis of your understanding of what they said.

If you or your organization is genuinely at fault, continue with a heartfelt apology, which must include acknowledging what went wrong, what you will do to correct it, and why it won’t happen again. Again, it is important to be sincere and let them know it was not your intention to make them upset.

If you or your organization is not at fault, cushion his/her stated concern by saying, “I understand how you feel and I am sorry you are upset, however, it is important for you to understand the steps we took in your particular situation.” Then, state the sequence of the events you and/or your staff took, pull out the documentation you hopefully have to back up your process, and come to a fair resolution where both sides come away with a feeling of resolve.

Employing these techniques almost always yield positive results. Good luck trying these best-demonstrated practices in dealing with (hopefully very few) upset customers this boating season…you can do it.

About the Author

Steve D’Antonio is a well-known marine industry writer, speaker and small business owner. Steve owns and operates a Marine Consulting business with his daughter Katie, located in Wake, VA. With years of practical experience managing boatyards and boat building operations, today, Steve works with boat builders and owners and others in the industry. He is an ABYC-certified Master Technician. The above column is adapted from a lecture entitled “Effectively Dealing with Your Most Difficult Customers.”  You can more read about Steve’s lecture offerings by visiting