Stay ahead of dissatisfied shoppers by developing a strategy to ease their unpleasant experience.

During last year’s holiday craft night, we knew that one of the attendees was unhappy. Several things didn’t go as she’d expected that evening. The wreath-making table was too busy, and when she and her friend joined the group that was making centerpieces, the type of flower she wanted to use was gone. We had been caught by surprise at how popular the crafts tables were, so we weren’t set up with enough materials, and hadn’t billed the event as “while supplies last.” She complained to several people that night and came into the store the next week to voice her displeasure to the general manager. “The friend I came with says that she’ll never shop here again!”

Most who work in a retail business have dealt with similar situations. Sometimes the unhappy customer is right to be so aggrieved. If an employee has been rude, or the shopper was otherwise treated badly, an angry response is understandable. In other instances, that extreme reaction doesn’t seem to be justified. “What?” you find yourself thinking. “You’re going to boycott our business because we were short on some materials and out of your favorite flower?”

It’s so tempting in these circumstances to respond from the gut, without a plan and often with equal frustration. “Fine! We’ll be very pleased to never see you again.” On the other hand, others rush to apologize, especially when the shopper’s aggravation is justified. After all, we want to avoid bad word-of-mouth or online review. And sometimes we bumble through the conversation, later to write off the entire incident. “Some people are never happy,” we reassure ourselves before moving on.

All of these responses are understandable but might not be taking the best advantage of the situation. In truth, when a customer says they will never patronize your business in the future, it presents an opportunity. Those words, “I’ll never shop here again!” are an occasion to go beyond smoothing things over and affirm your company’s core mission and values. With some advance planning in the off-season, you’ll be prepared with your strategy when that unhappy customer approaches in the busy season.

What is the goal?


Most retail businesses aim to provide customers with positive shopping experiences. We understand that people move toward pleasure and away from pain, so we aim to create pleasing interactions so that customers will want to return. If this is indeed the goal, all interactions can be viewed from that perspective; we want all encounters to be helpful and pleasant from the moment the shopper arrives on store property until they leave.

So when things go wrong, it’s important to look at our response through the lens of meeting that goal. How can the situation be turned around so that things end up as positive as possible?

Develop a policy

Before you’re forced to deal with an unhappy customer, it’s smart to develop and practice a response. If the shopper has indeed been wronged, of course an apology will be your immediate reply. But aside from the expected “I’m so sorry this happened,” plan to take time to fully hear what the person has to say. Have that consumer tell you in detail about their experience, look them in the eye, and respond with sympathy so that they know that they’ve been fully heard. Phrases such as, “That must have been so frustrating,” or “I can understand why you’re so upset,” can be useful.

Brainstorm with your staff about unhappy customers they’ve encountered, and what language could have been used in response that would truthfully honor the client’s experience even if their reaction was extreme or even unjustified. Role-play with the employees about what words they can use to defuse such situations.

A tangible apology


As part of your store policy, decide in advance if you want to defuse such situations by offering the outraged shopper a gift card. Most people have had the experience of being given a free dessert or glass of wine at a restaurant when something has goon awry with the meal. If you’ve gone though such an incident, you know that although the complimentary sweet or beverage didn’t totally repair the situation, it was appreciated as a concrete gesture that went beyond a verbal expression of regret. A garden center gift card functions in the same way, but also gives the angry shopper a reason to come back in the future.

Our customer on the craft night might have overreacted to our lack of preparedness and the fact that we ran out of her favorite color flower.

She and her friend were the only attendees who were unhappy that night, so it would have been easy to dismiss her as being difficult or determined to be confrontational.

Yet it didn’t serve our business well to brush her off as being unreasonable. Our general manager listened to her complaints at length, apologized sincerely, and gave her a twenty-dollar gift certificate.

I don’t know if she ever shopped in our store again…but I do know that we chose to act in accordance with our goal of giving every customer a positive experience. We did our part to heal the situation, and there is satisfaction in that.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at