It happened right in front of us – Meredith and I were talking with a client when a customer came into the client’s shop to return a large but barely-eaten custom cake. She was obviously nervous and upset. “It tasted like chemicals,” she said, apologetically.  Even the one year old, whose birthday was being celebrated with this cake, spit the cake out, she explained. The customer admitted she was shocked, because she’d loved everything else she’d ever tasted from the shop. “I paid $80 for this cake, and everyone said that a Walmart cake would have been better.”

As Meredith and I waited for the magic words, what we heard instead was the person behind the counter, fork in hand, say, “I don’t taste anything different.”  They started debating whether or not the cake tasted bad and reasons why the customer might have thought it tasted wrong.  The customer was getting more and more frustrated and started cursing under her breath – she just wanted a $#&^@*) refund! – and the owner was trying hard not to lose her temper. Needless to say, the encounter ended with the customer storming out of the shop declaring that she was never buying anything from this shop again and telling all her friends to do the same!

We helped the client rescue the situation (you can read about that below) – but I was left shaking my head, because it’s not often you get to see the birth of a terrorist.

Not the ski mask, gun totin’, bomb-planting type of terrorist – I’m talking about the passionate, vocal hater of your products and services. Terrorists are different than the average upset customer. Most people who have a bad experience will just avoid you – they’ll go away and never darken your doorway again.  But the terrorist is another creature entirely.  In Quality Management, terrorist is the legitimate, technical term to describe a person who will tell everyone they can about how BAD you are.  They are the opposite of apostles – devoted customers who rave about your products and advocate for your success. Terrorist are usually a very small minority of customers, but there doesn’t have to be a lot of them for damage to be done.

See, it used to be that a business terrorist would tell only 10 to 20 people about how bad they thought you were.  But this is the internet age, and Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the hundreds of other social media sites can connect a business terrorist to a majority of the Earth’s population.   The customer who bought the cake back has at least two family members present during the birthday party. Suppose they wrote about it on Facebook. The average person has about 200 Facebook friends, so there are potentially 300 to nearly 600 people who could hear a first-hand rant about the event.  If even just 3% of those people Liked or Shared the story, there are another 1000 to 2000 people who could hear about it. What’s it going to take to overcome that much bad press?

Preventing the creation of terrorists should be a business owner’s first priority because the cost is so great. 

So what should have happened? There’s a simple process called the Service Recovery Process.   Here are seven steps to help you turn terrorists into friends.

7 Steps for Repairing Relationships 
with Angry Customers

1.  Thank the customer
That customer should have been thanked for bringing the cake back to the shop because she was motivated to tell her about her disappointment.  She had enough trust in the owner to believe that this was not what was intended – a cake that would destroy her baby’s first birthday party.  She giving the shop team the opportunity to restore her faith in them.  She needed to be thanked for her trust and vulnerability, and every other upset customer needs that, too. Because, underneath it all, an upset customer is someone who made themselves vulnerable by trusting you. They can’t fix the problem on their own, and they’re coming to you for help. Respect that trust, and thank them for it.

2.      Apologize for the personal consequences of their bad experience

Remember that you’re not apologizing for the product being bad – because customers aren’t really upset about that. They’re upset about how it affected them.  Learn to see beyond the product, and recognize that customers are really upset about how the product affected their life. Learn to take a deep breath before you respond. Think about how your product affects your customer’s life. That customer  needed to hear the owner say “I’m so sorry that your baby’s birthday was spoiled!”  If you’re a washing machine repair person, acknowledge how frustrating it must have been to try to take care of your clients 4 kids without a functioning machine! If you’re an accountant, apologize for the confusion and anxiety your client must have felt when they saw their taxes didn’t match their records. Whatever your business, whatever your service, make sure that what you say is authentic and genuine.  It won’t be easy – you likely have great pride in your product and or service and don’t want to heard anything bad – but get over yourself. It’s not about you, but the customer.

3.      Listen and empathize to the customer

It will take practice and self-control, but hear what the customer is saying! Once you are sure that you understand, then you need to empathize with the customer. Empathize means to “understand and share the feelings of another.” As the saying goes, put yourself in the customer’s shoes. That customer wasn’t really upset that the cake tasted bad. She was upset that her baby’s party was ruined. She was probably embarrassed that the cake from the bakery she’d raved about drew “Disgusting!”s from her guests. This customer was probably embarrassed in front of her family and in-laws. She’d probably spent years dreaming about her baby’s first birthday cake smash – and no one dreams about their baby spitting out their birthday cake! What was supposed to be the high point of their baby’s birthday party was the worst. Tell them you empathize, that you recognize how your product affected their life – again be authentic and genuine.

4.      Fix the problem quickly and fairly

In this case, the customer was repeatedly asked for her contact information – but the shop owner didn’t expressly say what she was was going to do to resolve the matter. It’s not wonder the customer got so upset – she was left thinking the owner was blowing her off and there wouldn’t ever be resolution! Don’t leave the customer hanging. Tell them directly and clearly what you are going to do to fix their problem. Whether it’s a full refund, a year’s supply of cake, or having the baker stand on her head for an hour – let the customer know as soon as possible what the resolution options will be.

5.      Offer atonement

It sounds religious, but it’s not. Atonement simply means to make reparations or amends tor damage done. This is more than resolving a problem – because that can only go so far. There is the hurt, turmoil, time and effort that resulted from the problem occurring. It is for the hurt, turmoil, time and effort – as well as their willingness to give you a chance to redeem yourself –  that you offer something to make up for the trouble.

6.      Deliver on your promise

To successfully prevent a terrorist from being born, you have to deliver what you said you would. If you’re going to replace their product, do it – NOW! If you’re going to do more research to come up with a solution, schedule a time to call them and update them on your progress – and DO IT! If you promise a money-back guarantee, give them their money back – NOW! So many business owners are resistant to giving refunds because they’re scared that it will unleash a crowd of people coming in and demanding their money back just to score a free product. But that attitude isn’t fair to the customer with a genuine problem standing in front of you.  Whatever was promised, make sure it happens. This is what will convince people that they can trust you, and that your promise is good.

7.      Follow up

Want to really put the frosting on the proverbial cake? Follow up. Call a week or a month after you have delivered on the promise. Tell them that you were thinking of them. Offer them a special that is theirs alone – no one gets that offer – except those that you’re trying to keep from becoming terrorists.


What happened with the upset cake customer?  As soon as she left, we sat our client down and explained to her – honestly and bluntly – why the exchange went so badly. Then we talked her through the seven steps. With a few questions, we helped her see the assumptions and emotions and fears that had prevented her from making a genuine connection with her customer and acknowledging her problem. We laid out what she needed to offer the customer to make amends – both for the disappointing cake, and for the horrible experience a few moments before.

When we were done, the shop owner was scared and upset – but acknowledged that was because she’d disappointed herself most of all. And then she took a breath and went back into her office to call the customer.

A few minutes later, she came out crying – and smiling.

She explained that she’d apologized for her behavior. She’d taken full responsibility and asked for forgiveness. She’d committed to giving the customer a full refund, PLUS offered to bake her a replacement cake. And she’d said that if the customer didn’t want one of her cakes, she’d pay for her to have a replacement cake baked at any bakery of her choice.

But the customer didn’t respond. There was silence. So she repeated the offer and asked what the customer wanted to do.

Still silence..

Then, she heard sobs. The customer was crying on the other end of the line. The customer said she was so glad the owner had called because she felt so horrible about what happened. She admitted that she was embarrassed by her own behavior, embarrassed that she’d lost her temper. She said how much she loved the baker’s cakes and had felt like she’d never get to enjoy them again. And she said that she’d love for the owner to bake her a cake – any cake! – and that she completely trusted her judgement. They were both crying by the time they hung up the phone.

The terrorist was dead – and the shop owner had made a friend instead.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.