Meeting the Demand – Do we Support the Culture of Complaining?

Customers can be demanding.  I am not referring to the typical customer interaction wherein the customer calmly expresses their needs and we do what we can to accommodate those needs.  I am thinking of the customers who outright demand an action or service.  These customers may threaten escalation or legal actions, or may angrily tell us – rather than asking – what we will do for them.


The question of how to handle these customers is a difficult one.  Should we deny their demands to prove a point or to discourage this type of attitude?  Should we acquiesce to their demands to avoid confrontation?  Some people may view this approach as “giving in.”  Others may consider it an unfortunate necessity of doing business.  There is not a definitively correct answer to this question.  There are many factors that must be considered when making this determination for your organization.

Customers have power, and the depth of that power is continuing to increase as technology and social media expand.  A single individual with a strong enough voice or a wide enough audience can do lasting harm to your business.  Comments, posts, tweets, and videos travel across the world instantly.  The 2013 Accenture Global Consumer Pulse Survey found that 48% of U.S. customers use official online review sites and 25% use social media to learn about a company’s products and services – and an even more significant 71% use word-of-mouth from friends and family for the same purpose.  This means 3 out of every 4 of your customers are making decisions about whether or not to do business with you based on the positive or negative perceptions of their acquaintances!  And technology has dramatically increased the ease and speed with which customers are able to gain this information.

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

                                                                                                              – Bill Gates

With this in mind, it may seem that making all customers happy regardless of their attitude or approach to your employees may be the best idea.  After all, one negative review of your business can drive away a potential 80% of customers, and it takes 10 to 12 positive reviews to offset the damage caused by one negative.

Is this truly the best approach?  The world is full of people who choose to express themselves in horrible ways.  (Anger management is an actual thing, after all.)  Some people express themselves in ways that are worse than others – and some of these people are your customers!

The danger in granting customer demands (versus requests) is that you can quickly teach your customers that complaining is the path to success.  When a customer is demanding and/or threatening and is then rewarded with having their demands met, this reinforces the behavior.  The action supports a “culture of complaint” in which customers realize that the key to getting what they want is complaining hard enough.  This is in no way a novel concept.  It is, for example, the overwhelmingly predominant persuasive tactic of 2-year-olds.  When the habit is encouraged among adults, however, a life-long customer may become a life-long complainer – and is that the type of customer your business wants?

Unfortunately, the opposite hard-line approach presents its own challenges.  When a customer’s demands are denied they may very well take action on specified threats.  While your business may have little to fear from the direct financial fallout of customer actions, you are guaranteed to lose a significant amount of an equally valuable resource – time.  It takes significant time and effort to communicate with demanding customers, to escalate issues as needed, and to find and respond to negative comments online.  The time savings alone may be reason enough to grant customer demands and move on.

Is it possible to meet customer demands without contributing to the customer’s belief that complaining works?  Perhaps not, but for those seeking a potential middle ground here are some techniques to consider.

When a customer has made specific demands and you have decided to grant those demands, make it clear to the customer that their statements or attitude had no impact on the eventual outcome.  Perhaps the customer made a demand that you would have been both willing and able to readily grant had it been presented as a request.  Let the customer know that their specific request is common and that you would be more than happy to grant their wishes.

One of my customer service representatives recently had a customer who fell into this category.  The customer demanded a service that we routinely provide and threatened litigation should the representative deny her demands.  Not only did the representative grant her demands, she made sure to emphasize that this service was a significant focus of our team and the majority of our time was spent addressing her exact request as received from other customers.  The customer’s needs were met and the belief that success was due to aggressive complaint was mitigated.

When you have decided not to grant the customer’s demands, treat any threats seriously. Let the customer know that, unfortunately, you will not be able to grant their requests. Provide basic reasons for denial as appropriate, but attempt to avoid unnecessary detail unless the customer specifically requests it.

Once a customer has presented with an angry disposition, it is very difficult for them to alter that presentation to a calm, reasonable disposition without appearing weak – especially in the face of denial.  When they hear ‘no,’ they are essentially forced to double down on any previously issued statements.  Make sure your customer service representatives are prepared to address standard threatening approaches in a non-confrontational manner.

Respond to threats of lost business with understanding.  You may go so far as to prepare your representatives to propose potential alternate solutions outside your own organization – though this is still frowned upon by many senior leaders.  Prepare to respond to threats of litigation by referring the customer to the appropriate party in your organization who handles these issues or asking the customer if they would like this individual to reach out to them.

In these situations, it is important to refer to the customers’ demands as ‘requests’.  The purpose of making demands from the customer’s perspective is not to be seen as demanding, but to support the strongest possible chance that their needs will be met.

The topic of customer demands and threats is not easy to address and does not have a simple remedy. Many business will decide that the path of least resistance is the best option available to them out of a bucket of bad options.  For those who determine otherwise, however, I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

How do you handle customer demands at work?  Should we all as members of society make a more concerted effort to change the ‘culture of complaint’?  Leave a comment below with your thoughts!


About davidbernst

Hello! My name is David Ernst and you've reached my blog. I've spent my professional career as a teacher, customer service supervisor, and pediatric office manager.
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