Why being defensive can be offensive

By Rich Lindblom, Contributor

Let’s face it: Every dealer has dealt with more customer complaints than they’d like to admit. 

I always thought there should be a class on the best way to handle complaints. Today, with the Internet and social media in particular, a mishandled customer complaint can cause far more damage than you realize.  

Simply put, when a customer complains, they have a problem and want you to solve it for them. Ultimately, the key to remedying the situation is how you respond. 

Let’s look at the top two ways that customers complain, because they are completely different animals: 

  1. Over the phone/in person 
  2. Online 

Over the Phone/In Person

When a customer complains over the phone or in person, you need to be able to listen without getting offended. The odds are they are not trying to be mean or insulting, although they can sometimes come off that way. I know from my own experience back in my dealer days that when a customer said something negative about my company it felt like they were attacking me personally. But the last thing you want to do is get defensive because it is very easy to offend someone unintentionally through your facial expressions, your body language or the tone of your voice.

When dealing with an unhappy customer, it is how you react to what they say that matters. Let them talk and don’t interrupt, no matter how insulted you may feel.  Quite often people simply need to vent their frustrations to you. Once they are done venting, you can work on finding a solution to their problem. Show empathy and let them know that you truly care about their problem.  

Most important, never argue with an unhappy customer. It doesn’t matter if you’re right. The quickest way to lose a customer forever is to argue with them, because while you may think you’re defending your company’s honor, what you usually end up doing is offending the customer instead.

Related: The Customer Isn’t Always Right


The online complaint is an even bigger issue, because what’s said online is out there for everyone to see, and in most cases it’s out there forever. With the proliferation of social media and online reviews, handling those complaints properly is now more important than ever.  

My number one suggestion for handling online complaints is to not respond immediately. Instead, take some time, whether it’s a couple of hours or even a couple of days, to really consider how you are going to respond because it needs to be perfect. A poorly worded response could offend not only the complaining customer but dozens or even hundreds of other people who read your response. Remember, once you type it, you can’t take it back.

See also: Unhappy Customers are a Blessing in Disguise

Let me give you a real-life example: A customer was angry over what was really a minor issue with their new range and came to a dealer’s store to complain. The dealer did not resolve the issue to the customer’s satisfaction, so the customer posted something very negative on the dealer’s Facebook page. Feeling that his company was being unjustly attacked, the dealer angrily fired off a poorly worded response. That resulted in over a dozen people lashing out at the dealer on his Facebook page, leaving negative reviews and even accusing him of being bigoted. It got so bad that the dealer ended up shutting down his Facebook page forever!

Why did this happen? The dealer failed to resolve the customer’s complaint in person, and then horribly compounded the problem with a rash and poorly worded response on Facebook.

So be careful what you say when trying to defend yourself, because sometimes it can be far more offensive than you realize.

Rich Lindblom is a past principal of BrandSource member Advanced Maytag Home Appliance in greater Chicago. He now brings his 45-plus years of hard-won retail experience to fellow members through his YourSource News columns and as product manager of AVB Marketing’s SYNC point-of-sale system. You can reach Rich at rich.lindblom@avb.net.

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