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Ecommerce - dealing with complaints and aggressive online clients

Ever heard of anyone threatening to sue over a $2 purchase? Welcome to ecommerce!

There's something about the partial anonymity of online business that leads some clients to believe that rattling sabers is a great way to resolve conflict and the first strategy to engage.

I've been involved with bricks and mortar business since the 1980's and ecommerce since the mid-90's. I have noticed that customers have a greater tendency to come out swinging when online transactions don't quite go the way they expect. 

If you've experienced your share of aggressive online clients or are just venturing into ecommerce, I hope this article can provide some valuable advice for dealing with these unpleasant incidents. Some of the following principles can also be applied to non-aggressive complaint resolution.

The "customer is always right" myth

Like many people, in my pre-Internet days of retail, I was taught by various employers that the customer was king and always right. Sure, customers are king to a certain degree, but times have changed. We live in a more aggressive, "I want it now" type society. Business is now more competitive and client loyalty can be very fickle. Competition has given consumers more power, as has the availability of consumer advocacy groups and hungry lawyers.

Consumer protection is a very positive thing, but it has led some misinformed people to believe that they can demand beyond what they are entitled to from a merchant.

Regardless of whether the client is in the right or in the wrong, their aggressiveness can cloud the real issues and challenge rapid resolution. This scenario can be a real time-sucker, distracting you from attending to core business - they need to be dealt with quickly and effectively.

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Types of aggressive online clients

My experiences over the past few years in dealing with aggressive clients in a online environment has allowed me to categorize a person quite quickly. The "I'll call my lawyer" and "I'll tell everyone on the Internet" types can usually be broken down into 4 groups.

The clueless/illiterate client. 

These are people who shouldn't be using a computer to engage in online transactions without some further training. For these people, an Internet connection is a WMD - a Weapon of Mass Disruption.

These people have little to no online experience outside of browsing and believe that everything should be so intuitive that it requires no mental effort on their part at all. They are the ones most likely to order the wrong goods, record their delivery details incorrectly or repeatedly enter the wrong password into a client account interface :). Their email communications are usually poorly constructed and they expect the recipient to be a mind-reader.

Instead of acknowledging their own incompetence, they will invariably blame the technology. 

Here's a classic example. A client once contacted me stating that their access details didn't work. I couldn't find a record of them in our system. I inquired about this and they became a little impatient about it. I asked them to confirm the username and password - they sent me a blank email. I then asked them to send me a copy of a receipt. They sent me a photo of their house. After a week of back and forth trying to extract some sense from them, they sent me the receipt. It was from another company. They had signed up with *that* company, not ours and then proceeded to suck up several hours of my time in research and communications while we tried to resolve where the problem was. Of course, during this time they tried the "I'll take further action!" spiel.

The client with personal problems

Ever had one of those days where everything went wrong from the moment you opened your eyes? Online vendors make wonderful scapegoats for people who are experiencing personal problems. The anonymity of email or live chat can bring out the worst in those people. Instead of separating problems, they bundle them all together and fire the accumulated frustration at you.

The scammer client

These are the people that make a career of complaining and aggression. They do this in order to extract free services from ecommerce merchants - it's just schoolyard bullying brought into the adult world. They will kick up such a stink that you give them freebies or discounts just to get them off your back. Expect no loyalty from these people. Once they've squeezed you all they can, they'll just move onto the next target.

The exasperated client

Out of all the categories, this is the only type whom deserves your utmost efforts to assist. These are the clients who have experienced legitimate problems and have been passed from pillar to post within your organization without any resolution. In their frustration, they become aggressive - still not acceptable, but more understandable.

Dealing with aggressive online clients 

The way you initially respond to an aggressive client is so important. It sets up the battlefield for a rapid victory or a long and bloody campaign. Equating customer support to war isn't a good mindset and I usually wouldn't draw that comparison, but once the client gets unnecessarily nasty, that's just what it is - a battle of minds.

Get it right and you can resolve it quickly. Get it wrong and it can drag on for weeks and cause you all sorts of legal problems if you've identified the "type" of client correctly.

Probably the best way to illustrate a handling process is via a fictional example:

Example ---------------


I purchased a downloadable flomble with my credit card and the download link didn't arrive. Your site is (expletive) crap and a scam. I don't have (expletive) time to deal with this - my dog just got ran over and I don't need this (expletive). I expect you to refund my money and give me access to the flomble to make up for wasting my time otherwise I'm going to call my lawyer and I'll sue your (expletive). Furthermore, I'm going to post complaints about your (expletive) (expletive) company on every forum and blog on the Internet and tell people never to buy from you!  Call me on my phone immediately as email confuses me and I've emailed you 20 times already without response.


End Example -------------

You can laugh, but I've seen this kind of email on occasion. In this type of complaint, it's difficult to categorize which type of aggressive client "John" is. He actually fits into quite a few categories; but we can't be sure at this point if he's also a scammer.

How to respond to aggressive complaints

John has threatened legal action, even though this is the first that you've become aware of the problem. Bear in mind that in most instances, the client actually has no intention of calling up their lawyer. In most cases they won't have one; but you must tread cautiously. The threat about posting negative feedback around the web is probably the one to take more seriously as it's easy and free for them to do and can have a massive negative impact on your reputation - whether they are in the right or not.

So, going forward, remember that the goal is to not score points for personal satisfaction or to retaliate for spiteful comments, but to resolve the issues as soon as possible. Also bear in mind that however you respond, it may be reproduced and published somewhere.

There is one of two outcomes you'll want to achieve

  • resolve the issue with view to getting rid of the person altogether.

  • resolve the issue with view to maintaining an ongoing relationship.

Personally, I prefer the first goal. I really don't want clients who are abusive and aggressive as it may be a habit for them; but in John's case there is a hint that perhaps the issue *may* have been a failing on my company's part.

Let's give John a response. Even though John has demanded a phone call, if you do not offer phone support, then there's no reason why you should have to call him in the initial response. Also, an email response provides a written record in case things should get out of hand so you can't be accused of saying something you actually didn't say.

Example response -----------------------


Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I wasn't aware you were experiencing problems until I received this email from you a few minutes ago. I have checked our support system and haven't been able to find any of the the previous emails you stated you sent.

I'm responding to you via email as we don't offer phone support and this way, we both have a written record. 

John, I'm sorry to hear about your dog; I understand this is a stressful time for you and I'm eager to resolve this issue as quickly as possible. However, I do ask that you refrain from using abusive and vulgar language as it's unnecessary; I'm here to help.

John, could you please provide me with some details of your purchase. Either please forward me a copy of the receipt, or if you didn't receive or no longer have a receipt, please provide me with the following details:

  • Your full name

  • The date that you purchased the flomble

  • The email address that you used when purchasing

  • The last 4 digits of the credit card you used.

Once I have that information, I will investigate with our team, check our billing systems and follow up with you within 24 hours. In the meantime, I'd also like for you to check something for me - is it possible the email that would have contained the download link may have wound up in your bulk email folder or in the deleted items?

John, I can assure you we aren't a "scam" business and there's no need for you to go to the wasted expense of contacting your lawyer as it's really not necessary. We've been involved with ecommerce now for nearly a decade and we're always more than happy to assist our clients when there is a problem.

While I also certainly recognize and respect the fact that you are able to post negative comments about our company around the Internet John, please do bear in mind that you'll also be accountable for anything you do choose to write about our company. Perhaps you may wish to give this situation a little more time before taking such an action because, as mentioned, we are indeed eager to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.



End of example -----------------

There's a number of points achieved in this style of response:

  1. Addressed the person by name in a number of instances, therefore giving the signal that they just aren't a "number"

  2. Shown that you responded quickly once you were aware of the problem

  3. Addressed each point made in the complaint

  4. Asserted that the issue will be resolved

  5. Gave a clear indication that vulgarities, aggression and threats will not be tolerated

  6. Liability for the problem has not been accepted as there isn't enough information provided to do so

  7. Asked for all the details needed to investigate fully without having to go back and forth with questions

  8. Defended the credibility of the business

  9. Haven't apportioned blame on the client.

  10. Made no offer of compensation at this point, just resolution.

In the majority of cases, a response like this will help defuse the situation if the clients' claim is legitimate. If they cannot provide the information, especially a credit card number or some sort of payment details, then it's likely they are a scammer. Never, ever accept liability from the outset if the circumstances aren't clear - this could work against you later.


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Resolving the situation

It's important that once you have received the information that you follow up as promised. Failure to do so will only incense the client further and give them greater basis for a case and an excuse to become abusive again. How you resolve the situation depends on the scenario.

If your company is at fault

If the fault does turn out to be on your end, it doesn't mean you need to give the client exactly what they demand if they are asking for more than what they are legally entitled to. Give them some choices:

  • A full refund

  • A partial refund, plus the product

  • A credit on their next purchase

  • Another companion product for free

The idea is to give the client some power, but not all of it. This will give them a clear signal that you while you are meeting your obligations in the transaction, you aren't a doormat. Sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, but don't grovel - mistakes happen.

If fault cannot be determined

If it's not clear who was at fault, you may still wish to provide one of the above. If you do provide a discount or freebie, ensure you record it somewhere. This is for tracking purposes so that you can identify repeat "offenders". A number of major fast food restaurant chains keep complaints books, not just as a QA (Quality Assurance) tool, but to identify freeloaders. 

If the client is at fault

If the client is at fault, then they should be gently advised as such. There's no use not addressing the fact as they will learn nothing and probably continue making the same errors. A gentle rap on the knuckles is sufficient:

"John, the reason you didn't receive the download link was because you entered www.john@kdfjkfdjl.com instead of john@kdfjkfdjl.com in the order form"

In these instances, it is suggested that you only provide the client with what they ordered; there is no need to provide the product for free - they received your attention for free when the problem laid squarely with them.

Continuing aggression

If the client continues to be aggressive in their responses, tell them in a professional way again that while you want to assist them, you will not tolerate abusive or vulgar language; and if they should persist, you will cease communications until such time that they can behave in a civil manner. Any direct physical threat made to you and your staff should be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency immediately. Ensure you keep a copy of all communications.

Remember, that regardless of the tone of the client and how much it may hurt you - do not match their aggression, just be assertive.

If they *should* call their lawyer and their lawyer contact you, you can then show your attempts to resolve the situation and also point out how aggressive and abusive their client was. That should earn them a slap on their wrist from their lawyer and minimize the possibility of further legal action.

Your staff and aggressive clients

It's important that your staff be trained in dealing with aggressive clients. In fact, wherever possible, aggressive communications from clients should be immediately escalated to you or to a senior manager. This shows the client that someone in the upper ranks of the organization has taken special "interest" in them. This "interest" works in your favor in two ways:

  • It shows the client that you feel their complaint is important.

  • It shows the client you don't allow your staff to be bullied or abused.

Prevention as a strategy

The old saying of "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure" is very relevant in online business. Ensure that your ordering/delivery systems, faq's and help documentation are spot on and you'll have less of these sorts of issues to deal with.

Set up your site to require as little mental effort on the clients' part as possible. It's a sad fact that most of us don't like to think too much these days. Live chat/support software and effective shopping cart software can also be of great benefit in heading off complaints.

Aggressive clients in ecommerce are not a passing fad. In fact as time goes on and our world generally becomes more aggressive, you'll see more of them. It's important for all of us as ecommerce merchants to send a clear signal to our clients - we want to deliver the best possible service to them, but that abusive and aggressive behavior will not be tolerated.

By the way, it doesn't hurt to have an online-savvy lawyer of your own on stand-by for dealing with continually unreasonable clients who just don't "get the message". A brief "cease and desist" letter from a lawyer to them can save you many hours and much stress. Plus there is a degree of satisfaction without having to sink to the level of the person :).

Related learning resources

Online reputation management

Choosing the best shopping cart software

Live chat software for ecommerce

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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