How to Turn A Customer Disaster into Customer Delight


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During a recent business trip, as I wrapped up dinner and asked for my check, the waitress must have noticed the only-half eaten plate she was removing. She asked if there was anything wrong with the meal. I replied that the salmon was a little undercooked for my taste but that it was no big deal. I’ll just take the check please.

The waitress then apologized, saying she was sorry the meal was not to my liking. I replied again that it was not of any real concern, and how it was really my fault, as I failed to mention my preference for well-done salmon. We danced around the issue for another 30 seconds or so before finally letting it go.

Then something interesting happened. The manager of the establishment walked over, introduced herself, and said “I understand you were not happy with your dinner tonight.” Yet again, I explained how I had failed to provide the waitress with my preference, if anything it was my fault, and it’s really just a minor issue anyway. I thought to myself, I can’t believe all this fuss over a simple piece of salmon!

The manager went on to thank me for bringing it to their attention, and informing me that they welcome customer feedback. She then apologized (yet again!) and offered me a small gift card for my next visit. I explained that it was really not necessary, but she insisted and I finally relented and accepted the envelope.

Prior to the waitress clearing my table, I had planned on never returning to this establishment again. Not out of spite, of course, but I figured there are plenty of other restaurants to try so why go back to one where the experience was less than stellar. But in the course of 5 minutes or less, this restaurant turned me around 180 degrees, so much so that I am now raving about their customer experience.

So what did they do right? Here are three rules to keep in mind the next time you have an upset customer:

1) Acknowledge the issue: It is really a simple thing to do, but so many companies fail at this. For some reason, they think being defensive, or offering reasons why your experience was sub-standard, is a better route. How many of us have heard excuses, such as “well, we never received your email” or “I’m not sure who you spoke to but that is not our policy.” Customers want to be heard and simply accepting some responsibility and acknowledging the problem goes a very long way.

2) Apologize sincerely. A sincere apology is worth its weight in gold. Once again, it helps the customer know they are being heard. But an empty apology can be worse than none at all. I hate when I hear a company say – presumably off a script – I’m sorry YOU feel that x or y happened…” Nothing is worse than pretending you care, and phoning it in, which leaves the customer feeling frustrated. But a sincere apology lowers the temperature and builds a bridge from disaster to delight.

3) Make a gesture. Attempting to remedy the situation shows that your apology actually has meaning, and the customer’s experience is important. The minor dollar amount of the gift card did not change my perspective. But the very act of presenting it and insisting they wanted to provide a positive experience next time, proved to me that they cared about me as a customer. This is Psychology 101. Show you care. It does not even have to be of any monetary value. I once had a truly dirty and disgusting hotel room. The manager gave me his direct line and email, and asked me to reach out to him if I ever have a similar situation in the future. Just knowing he was available, and cared enough to provide his information, helped turn my experience around.

Brian Solis recently stated that “customer experience is becoming more important than the product itself.” I could not agree more. In this new world of short attention spans and commoditized pricing, the experience you deliver is what makes or breaks your business. Companies like Nordstrom and Zappos have proven that time and time again.

So the next time you screw up with a customer, remember the Three As: Acknowledge, Apologize, and Award. It just might help you turn an angry customer into an evangelist.

Allan Fromen, PhD
Allan Fromen is a research consultant, who uses market insights to help companies grow their business. He is currently a Vice President and Consulting Partner for IDC's Global Buyer Behavior Practice, and has held leadership positions at IBM, Thomson Reuters, and GfK. He holds a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a recipient of the Great Mind award from the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF).


  1. Another side of Customef Service, and a marketing method.
    Use these principles and turn your unhappiest customer into one of your best!!!!

    Nice work!


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