How To Handle A Customer Dispute Like a Pro: Part 1

by Tom Kline

"The only difference between an ordeal and an adventure is your attitude," states the recent, popular internet meme I encountered, and I agree.

Customer disputes often begin when you hear from a third party. The customer may not complain because of their feelings: shame, embarrassment, or self-doubt, to name a few. You may instead hear it from a lawyer or regulator (i.e. a Motor Vehicle Dealer Board, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), State Attorney General, State Consumer Affairs Division, Better Business Bureau etc.)

There are some customers who will find something wrong with the vehicle and use that as a wedge to try and leverage you into some bigger action. This type of customer will not usually come right out and tell you they want out of the unit, but rather will go "on campaign" and send you emails and letters and phone calls demanding you fix the problem. This campaign may start with an internet posting complaining about the vehicle and the dealership. Ultimately, the customer will get frustrated and finally ask you to buy back the unit. Customer problems often begin with internet complaints and how you address those early on may determine your ability to successfully conclude the problem.

So, this is where opportunity begins.

Treat the customer using the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have done onto you." Always proceed as you would want to be treated in the same situation. Being nice and being kind is always appropriate. 

Over my 30 years, I have crafted a three (3) step model to manage these situations. I will detail the first step here as well as what not to do. My next article will address steps 2 and 3.

Schedule a meeting. Make it formal. Do not have these conversations on the telephone. The customer should have to "invest" in this mutually shared experience, which will require effort on the part of the customer. Invite the customer to come see you in the store.  

The First Meeting

customer dispute


  • Listen to the customers' story first.
  • Take notes, writing down everything the customer tells you. (I do mean everything.) Sometimes this can take more than an hour. Invest the time. At the end, show the customer your pages and pages of notes. Then tell the buyer you are going to read them back and you want them to let you know if you missed anything. Then read the notes and paraphrase what you have been told. This should take as long as it takes. (I've had these meetings last all day.) The net result is the customer will feel heard, which is part of the "disarming process." These steps are meant to show you were listening and the customer was heard. Do not skip any of this or try to do it quickly.
  • While you are taking notes, nod and say things like "I understand."
  • Label the customer's feelings. If they have a terrible tale of woe, use phrases like:
  • "That must have been frustrating."
  • "That must have been hard."
  • "That sounds really aggravating."
  • "I wouldn't want to go through that either."
  • Do not feel the need to create a solution during the first meeting. In fact, even though you can often solve the problem by snapping your fingers, if you choose this shortcut, the customer will often decline the solution as he is not yet emotionally invested in the process. It's frustrating, but it's true. 
  • At the first meeting, set a time for the second meeting and let the customer know that you are going to do some homework in between meetings. Setting multiple meetings and being "gameday" shows you care and you want to help.  
  • Set expectations before the end of the first meeting and let the customer know that you may not have any solutions by the end of the second meeting and you are going to work on their issues. Reassure the customer that he is valuable and important to you.
  • Do not be defensive as it will turn out negatively and the customer will feel you are trying to defend the dealership.
  • Be truthful. Half-truths will get you nowhere. When you add half-truths and caginess to this situation, you are going to get yourself and the dealership into trouble. Quickly correct any errors (or omissions) that another employee may have said, or a false perception that a customer has. If you set the customer straight and tell them the real deal, they (almost always) can deal with the circumstances.
  • Be realistic.
  • Assure the customer that you are going to work toward a satisfactory resolution.
  • Be true to your word.
  • Do not over-promise.
  • Emphasize that you want the customer comfortable and happy.
  • Follow-up properly and call back when you said you would. It builds trust. 

How To Listen

how to listen


  • Be quiet and let them talk.
  • Try to find common interests. Use the same bonding methods you use when selling.
  • Be relaxed.
  • Nod, as appropriate. 
  • Body language–do not cross your arms or your legs. "Be open" with your body language.
  • The customer is going to tell you how to run your business. Do not take the bait here.
  • Be patient and stay calm as "everyone else is an expert."  
  • Tell the customer that their problem is "Important."
  • Repeat: "I want to help you," multiple times.

Try practicing these items with team members. It may be hard to eliminate bad habits. 

Here's How To Irritate A Customer–Guaranteed

  • Not listening
  • Failure to set expectations
  • Bragging about your lifestyle, how much money you have, your personal experiences
  • Be inefficient
  • Be insensitive
  • Break promises
  • Pretend it's not your fault
  • Ignore the customer's issues
  • Use the words, "I'm sorry you feel that way."

Check out these 3 videos with quick steps for resolving a dealership customer dispute, complaint, & problem .

In Part 2, I will show you how to conclude the complaint.


Tom Kline

Tom Kline, a former dealership owner with 30+ years of experience, specializes in solving dealership problems through risk mitigation remedies, compliance, and dispute resolution for dealerships. Tom is the Lead Consultant and Founder of Better Vantage Point and has worked with publicly-held and private dealerships. Kline recently created AlwaysDoBetter.com/HowWeHelp, a digital comment box, to prevent employees and customers from posting negative reviews online while giving the dealer an opportunity to resolve the issue. Kline is a member of the Expert Panel for Dealership Marketing Magazine and an Endorsed Expert for the RVDA, VIADA, and the CIADA. Kline recently spoke at the national Digital Dealer Conference and will be presenting at the RVDA National Conference. Thank you for seeing things from a Better Vantage Point.


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