Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
-Bill Gates

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
-Charles Darwin

It is not uncommon for companies to overlook their most valuable assets. Recently I discussed how employees can prove to be a great resource for identifying issues within an organization and how great leaders utilize their employees in order to foster positive change. In this article, I will discuss another commonly overlooked asset – your disgruntled customers.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with the public may have a hard time viewing a disgruntled customer as an asset. They are usually irate and sometimes outright rude. Some won’t let you get a word in edgewise – but if you recognize this asset for what it is you’ll realize how important their feedback really is.  The dissatisfied customer who is willing to give you feedback, however angrily, is letting you know what you need to do to increase your service to most if not all of your customers.  Listen closely to them. Don’t just placate and pacify; listen actively, non-defensively and let them know you really want their feedback and will do (pretty much) whatever you can to turn them into a raving fan.

When a customer is unhappy, it is usually not without reason. Most people are not simply looking for a fight.  They wanted something from you,, hoped you could provide it and you did not.  Whether it was the quality of your product or the level of your service, something about your company has brought about a strong emotional reaction – and not a positive one.

I recently went into a local, high end jewelry store.  I was ignored by the staff for about five minutes and finally left.  I called the regional Vice President for the store to give her feedback.  When she asked me how she could help me, I told her there wasn’t anything she could do for me; the fact was I was trying to help her.  She was defensive and argumentative about the poor service I received and offered no solutions or ideas that might win be over to be their customer.  I have lots of other places to shop.

Contrast that to an experience my wife and I had at a local Red Lobster restaurant.  We were greeted warmly and the service was friendly and engaging.  However, the fish my wife received was a bit shy of mediocre and we asked the server to return it.  She did and she brought the manager over.  He gave my wife a free glass of wine, a free shrimp cocktail and took her entrée off the bill, even when I told him it was not necessary.  He said that his job was to make sure we had a great experience.  Wow!

Let’s take Sears as another example. For years the company flourished, but gradually their customer service started to decline. On the website,, Sears scores about 29 out of 200 points. There were even reports in the media of one customer service associate saying “chill out lady” when a customer came to him with her complaints. Sears did not allow its customers to have a voice. They may have taken customer complaints, but they apparently didn’t listen to them. Sears lost sight of the fact that customers are the ones who best know what a company needs to provide in order to thrive and as a result they are now experiencing significant financial turmoil. They can try to blame it on the economy, but Macy’s, Target and Kohl’s seem to be doing just fine. If I had to place a bet on what the issue was, my bet would be on the fact that Sears had stopped listening to customers quite a few years ago.

Yes, it is hard to envision an irate, angry and sometimes rude person as being an asset – but they are. Your customers can tell you what you need to change about your company in order to achieve success, but you have to be willing to listen.   Every company will have customer service failures.  However, what happens after the failure, when the customer is upset, is critical.  Can you recover the relationship with the customer or do they still leave upset?

If you do not perceive dissatisfied customers as a major resource, you are overlooking one of the greatest assets your company has. Do not look at unsatisfied customers as problems that need to be dealt with or pacified. Look at them as opportunities to improve upon your business and actually listen to what they have to say. You might be surprised what you learn when you begin to see your company through your customer’s eyes.

Or, as Peter Drucker, one of the greatest business thinkers of all time, said.  “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”

Does every person in your organization believe in this philosophy?