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Ten Tips for Handling Customer Complaints

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by Ron Kaufman, Founder & Chairman, UP! Your Se

Photo of Ron kaufman

Ron Kaufman

Dealing with a dissatisfied, disgruntled, impossible-to-please, irrational, and/or irate customer isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Often, you may seek to bring the interaction to a close as quickly as possible, even if it ends on a sour note. But it’s worth your time and emotional energy to turn what the customer perceives as a “wrong” into a “right,” whether that customer is an end user or one of your trading partners. Handled sensitively, complaints can be a catalyst for improving customer satisfaction and even capturing new business.

It’s a foregone conclusion that despite your best efforts, some of your customers will be dissatisfied from time to time, and one complaining customer probably represents many other customers who had the same problem but didn’t complain. (They just badmouthed your company to their friends—or to the entire Internet—and took their business elsewhere.) But you can transform a customer’s experience from a negative one to a positive one and turn the customer into an evangelist for your organization. Furthermore, you can use the complaint to gain valuable insight into what other customers think about your company and how you can improve your service.

To handle customer complaints in a way that will bring satisfaction to everyone involved, try these 10 tactics:

1. Thank the customer. Give positive recognition by saying, right off the bat, “Thank you for reaching out to let us know how we can improve.”

Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort, communication, feedback, and suggestions. Always keep in mind that the customer could have simply decided to do business with your competitor instead of contacting you.

2. Don’t be defensive. It’s easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line. Customers with complaints exaggerate situations; they get confused, and, yes, they may even lie about how things went down. It’s tempting to just say, “No! That’s not what happened. You’re wrong!” But that will only lead to more problems.

When you get defensive, you raise temperatures even higher. You don’t have to agree with what a customer is saying. But you do have to agree to hear the customer out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.

3. Acknowledge what’s important to the customer. Even if you think the complaint is unfair, there is something the customer values that your company didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value.

If a customer complains that your service was slow, then that customer values speed. Bearing in mind that what the customer wants is to feel right, you might say, “Absolutely, you deserve quick, efficient service.” Or if a customer says your staff was rude, you might say, “We do agree that you should be treated with courtesy and respect every time you call our office.”

When you validate what a customer values, you aren’t agreeing that your service is slow or that your staff is rude. You’re saying, “We agree with you on what you find important and what you value. And we want to deliver in those areas.”

4. Use judo, not boxing. In boxing, you try to punch your opponent to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else’s motions to create a desired result, using another person’s speed and energy to spin that person around and then end up together on the same side.

When you show customers that you understand what they value, you catch them off guard with your own movement. They don’t expect you to tell them that they’re right. Suddenly, you’ve avoided a defensive confrontation and you can spin them. In judo, you’d spin them to the ground. In customer service, you use the opportunity to show the customer that you’re now both on the same side and you can work together.

5. Explain the company’s desire to improve. When you understand what the customer values, show what your company does that helps you perform well in that area. For example, let’s say a customer is complaining because an order was delivered a day late. You would say, “We understand that quick, on-time delivery is important to our customers.”

Now the unhappy customer will probably say, “But you failed in my case! My order came a day late.” Then, you could calmly say, “Here’s what happened. On that day there was a storm that slowed our service. I’d like to reassure you that we are working right now to find a better solution. In fact, we’ve recently invested in an upgrade that will let us deal better with inclement weather and keep our deliveries coming to you on time.”

At the very least, you could say, “I’m going to make sure everyone in the company hears your story. We don’t want this to happen again.” When you express the company’s desire to improve, you start on the path to rebuilding its credibility with the customer.

6. Educate your customer. Part of hearing the customer out is answering questions about a specific situation. Provide additional, useful information. If a customer asks a question that you can’t answer, say you’ll find out and get back in touch. And then follow through. Contact the customer with answers and provide an interim update if the process is slow, even if one wasn’t requested. That way, you have additional opportunities to say, through your actions, “We care about you. We value your business.”

7. Contain the problem. Imagine that a family is shopping in a crowded, busy department store when the youngest child starts to have a meltdown. A staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find bottles of water, snacks, and a comfortable sitting area, but no connection to the store’s brand. That’s because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they’re having a more pleasurable experience. The room is also being used to separate the unhappy family from customers who are currently having a more pleasant experience. And finally, it is being used to separate the unhappy family from staff members who may not be well prepared to handle these sticky situations.

That’s just one example of containing a problem. But what if the problem is one you want to contain before it becomes a public relations disaster? Your policy might entail saying something like, “No matter what our rules or policies are, we see that your circumstance requires flexibility. We want to handle your special situation carefully. Let’s work together to figure out what’s best. But first, let me thank you for reaching out.” Whatever the situation is, it’s essential to keep the problem from growing. Only then can you work on defusing it.

8. If you can’t help, apologize. The customer is not always right. And even when the customer has a point, it’s not always within your power to completely rectify a situation. But the customer is always the customer, and you should apologize for inconvenience as experienced.

For instance, a customer might ask for a retroactive discount on a product that went on sale shortly after that customer purchased it. If company policy does not allow retroactive discounts, you might say, “Unfortunately, it’s not our company’s policy to give retroactive discounts because . . . But I understand why you’re frustrated, and I apologize.” In addition, you might offer a freebie or a different discount to further defuse the situation.

9. Recover. Show customers you care about them, even if you feel the company did everything right, by making them an offer. Don’t worry about being taken advantage of if you give vouchers, discounts, or freebies as part of your service recovery. That almost never happens.

Offer the customer something and then explain that you’re doing so “as a gesture of goodwill” or “as a token of our appreciation.”

10. Give serial complainers an out. Some people just love to complain. They complain not so that they can become satisfied, but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate the complainer from your brand.

These are the people who gripe that your company’s free-with-purchase giveaway is too “cheap,” for instance, or who attack employees personally for not doing what they want, even though company policy has already been politely explained to them many times.

Serial complainers are an especially strong drain on customer service providers, so it’s important not to let them run roughshod over you and your staff once they’ve proven that they don’t want to be helped.

To handle serial complainers, keep your wits about you. Don’t let their lack of manners bring your manners down. Don’t let their bad mood infect yours. And, in advance, work out when and how you and your colleagues will support each other when a serial complainer shows up. Being served by you in tandem with a colleague or two will cause many serial complainers to back down or at least calm down.

Finally, just before complainers depart, make it clear that you would genuinely welcome them back and want them to be happy. Most people—including serial complainers—will eventually reflect on their behavior and feel awkward or even ashamed. You want their final memory of you to be powerful and positive.

When you’re involved in a tense complaint situation, it can be hard to remember that your customer is not your enemy. But of course customers are essential to your business, and you really are both on the same side. Your customers want the product or service you provide, and you want to give it to them. When you treat complaints as opportunities to build loyalty, you can create customers for life and uplift your entire company in the process.

Ron Kaufman is the founder and chairman of UP! Your Service and the author of 15 books on service, business, and inspiration, including the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet. To learn more: Upyourservice.com and RonKaufman.com.

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