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Why I Love Unreasonable Customers

By | August 22, 2017 in Service Desk

Unreasonable customers

Call it human nature, politeness, or political correctness. Maybe it's just easier, but we humans, generally speaking, are kind when dealing with people. When the waiter asks how the meal was, we tend to say it was “good”, or “fine”, or some other polite, vague generality.

It makes for pleasant interactions, but, from a continual improvement standpoint, it does precisely no good.

The "Unreasonable" Customer

But there are also those rare, few “unreasonable” customers – those who are not happy with your product or service. They’re not just unhappy; they’re going to let you know what they think.

Sometimes, they have “unreasonable” expectations for your services.

Things like:

  • “It shouldn’t take two weeks to get a new PC. I want it in two hours!”
  • “Why should I have to call you to get software installed? I should just be able to add it like I do on my mobile phone!”

Unreasonable, right?

The fact is, any time you hear a customer say, “Why can’t I…?” it should give you reason to pause and ponder “Yeah, why not…?”

It might be that what they think should be, is truly unreasonable. But the very act of thinking through:

  1. Why they want what they want, and
  2. What would have to change to make what they want possible

can have great value. Just by merely asking the question, your “unreasonable” customer has done you a great service, by providing you with a perspective that you didn’t previously possess. That very perspective could open the door to radical improvements to your service that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought about.

Compare that to the customer who simply tells you the service was “OK.” While it's a whole lot “easier” to hear the OK, you're left with nothing to work on. No meaningful feedback to help you improve. No new perspective on your service.

Frustration to Feedback

How you approach an angry, frustrated customer makes all the difference. You really do need to listen. After all, that's why they're venting their frustration on you. But, in reality, the reason your customers get upset is because they have a clear idea of how they think the experience should be, and that's not what they experienced. In other words, the very fact that they are frustrated is an indication that they have valuable feedback about what they expect.

Satisfied customers cannot give you this kind of feedback. Likewise, unhappy customers who don't take the time to let you know can't help you.

Research shows (as cited in Why is Customer Service so Bad, so Often? by Rick Conlow) that up to 96% of dissatisfied customers will never tell the company about their dissatisfaction. And even worse, about the same percent will tell others about their dissatisfaction. That makes a frustrated customer a valuable source of critical feedback that you're not going to get elsewhere.

The trick, of course, is how to take advantage of the fact that this customer is angry and is going to tell you about it, whether you like it or not.

First of all, recognize this situation for what it is – an opportunity. It may not be pleasant, but you’ll have valuable information.

Here's my quick list:

  1. Listen. You know that old saying “you can't listen and speak at the same time”? While I suspect some obscure research project may show that you really can, in human interactions – you can't. A frustrated customer wants to be heard. And if you're going to get any usable feedback, listen more than you talk. Listen to understand; ask clarifying questions to get to the heart of the matter.
  2. Encourage them to tell you more. We really don't benefit from our own thoughts on the topic at hand, but might benefit from theirs. Within reason, the more they talk, the more likely you are to get something you can take action on. Give them reason to believe you care. Don't be defensive.
  3. Understand why they repeat. We've all been there – someone is angry, and just keeps repeating the same thing again and again. But rather than get frustrated, which only escalates the conversation, underline your notes when the topic is repeated. And if they repeat it multiple times, underline it again. This will help you recall the level of frustration when you're reviewing your notes.
  4. Acknowledge their frustration. Sometimes we're hesitant to acknowledge another's frustration in the mistaken belief that doing so will only add fuel to the fire. In my experience, the fire has plenty of fuel. Acknowledging their frustration, on the other hand, takes fuel away. Put yourself in their shoes and see it from their perspective (even if you don't agree.) It helps them understand that you really do get it. In many cases, acknowledgement is what they're looking for, and until they hear it from you, they're going to keep venting their frustration, repeating as necessary until they believe you understand. Use specific and personal language to summarize what you're hearing.
  5. Ask for their ideas for making it better. Don't tell them your plans, as that has the effect of telling them their concerns are old news. If you have plans in place that you think may be helpful, ask if they think (your plans) would be helpful, e.g. "would it help if my team sent you an email in these kinds of situations?" Ask if they have ideas from a previous employer, or elsewhere.

Recognizing that these are difficult conversations, I also have a list of a few things to avoid:

  1. Don't make the conversation about what you can't do for them. The very reason you're having the conversation in the first place is because they’re unhappy with your service. Don't add insult to injury by pretending to be open to feedback, while explaining to them why you can't do anything about it.
  2. Don't try to get them to see how your hands are tied, and it's more complex then they know. That just comes across as an excuse, even if it's completely true.
  3. Don't blame other people or departments. Again, even if it's true and frustrating, it comes across wrong. Blame is sometimes mistakenly used to create a common enemy, building trust between you and your customer. But it never works that way. If you'll blame someone else, your customer knows you'll blame him or her when it's convenient.

A New Perspective

If you’ve done it right, you’ll have some tough questions to ask yourself. Let’s go back to the “it shouldn’t take two weeks to get a new PC.” Obviously, there are reasons why it takes two weeks. But what if we changed the question to “what would it take to deliver new PCs in two days?”

  • Could we standardize on fewer, standardized models and configuration?
  • Could we predict demand based on history and pre-order?

My point here is broader than PC ordering practices. But, you get the point that the “unreasonable” customer gave us reason to question our current practices, and ask “what if” kinds of questions, which can be applied to any aspect of IT services and service delivery.

And you have those unreasonable customers to thank for it.

Not for the Faint of Heart

It takes a lot of courage and a thick skin to turn frustration into feedback. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but the payoff is huge. If you really want to improve, you need the real deal feedback that tells you the truth.

Next time you find yourself on the receiving end of an “unreasonable” customer, be bold and turn it into an opportunity to get valuable feedback.

See why I love unreasonable customers?

Greg Sanker

About Greg Sanker

Greg is an IT Service Management blogger, speaker, and practitioner with decades of global IT experience ranging from Fortune 10 tech giant to public sector. He lives in the Pacific Northwest (USA), where stunning natural beauty and high tech form a unique lifestyle. In his spare time, Greg hikes, bikes, and plays a bit of blues guitar. He blogs about Excellence in IT Service Management at

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