Four Steps to Turn Angry Members into Lifelong Fans

angry members

Here’s a secret for taking your brand to a new level: Work on how you handle dissatisfied members and situations where you or your team screw up.

Research shows most strong, committed members don’t get that way without going through some negative event. Learning to manage these appropriately is crucial to building a strong, devoted base.

I’m not suggesting you go out of your way to create problems, but I do challenge you to look at problems that arise from a different perspective.

It’s not always easy. The snafus that become customer killers often don’t start out as full-blown crises. There may be a simple mix-up; maybe a staff member gets caught cutting corners, an account is overcharged or a call isn’t returned. As an owner or a manager, the first instinct is to deal with these things quickly; just make them go away.

For the aggrieved member, though, the little things you think you fixed often are not the issue. It’s not the money – it’s the lost sense of trust. It’s not the cancellation – it’s the disregard for my time. It’s not the broken equipment – it’s a question of your commitment to quality.

And this is where the opportunity comes in.

The most effective problem resolvers follow a four-step process you can remember by the acronym U-G-L-Y:

Step 1. Understand

Let the customer tell you what went wrong, and how it looks from his or her perspective. And do this before you say anything on your behalf. Often you’ll be surprised to hear their narrative of events is different than yours would have been. By hanging back and not imposing your perspective you accomplish two things. First, you focus on what’s important to the customer, and second, you don’t open any worm cans you don’t need to open.

Step 2. Let them Grieve

Often the most important thing for the customer is to let you know how angry, hurt, disappointed, inconvenienced and disrespected the whole situation has left them. Open a space in the conversation for this to happen with a statement such as, “I know that this is about more than the money,” or “If it were me, I wouldn’t have wanted to be kept waiting.”

Be prepared for a blast and make sure to give them time to let it out without judgement or counterargument. The more completely they vent, the more likely they’ll be to move on to a productive resolution.

Step 3. Learn

This is where you demonstrate you understand what went wrong, and that you recognize what needs to change going forward. Apologizing only goes so far before it becomes annoying. Angry customers want to see that you get it, and are competent enough to correct it.

Step 4. Yearn

While the previous steps are important, it’s critical not to wallow in the problem. Understand, grieve, learn and then turn the focus to moving forward. Ask the customer what he or she would see as a reasonable resolution. You can even horse trade a little as long as it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to diminish the issue. From a business standpoint, I find compensation in-kind is the best way to provide value while keeping the customer in the boat. Offer to extend someone’s membership, provide guest passes, or invite them to participate at no cost in a special class or event. Overcome feelings of neglect by proposing the person take on special responsibilities or a new project so they feel more involved.

The bottom line is that problems happen in even the best managed, most professional organizations. When they do, remember they are not just your problems, they are problems you share with the affected members, and everyone needs a role in the shared resolution. The UGLY process helps you do this in a way that can lead to better relationships and a stronger brand image.

Michael McLinden earns his road rash as a serial entrepreneur, and consultant to health, wellness and fitness related companies in the U.S. and Europe with a focus on market analysis, branding and value creation. He has held executive management and strategic planning responsibilities in a number of regional and global advertising and marketing firms, including Mc|K Healthcare, which he co-founded and ran until 2014. He holds an MS from Purdue University and an MBA from TIAS Nimbas business school in the Netherlands. Email him at