Complete Guide to Handling Customer Complaints

Complete Guide to Handling Customer Complaints

Keep your customers happy and loyal by handling complaints like a pro.

Complaining customers can seem like our worst nightmare, especially if they’re angry. But, if you handle them right, they can be your company’s best friend. Because when you do listen to angry customers, you get a lot in return. Complaining customers often have valuable information about how you can improve your business. And, when you listen sincerely, you make it more likely they will stay with you.

Here are seven steps to help you handle even the most difficult customer situation. Use these suggestions to build your service recovery skills and before long you’ll become a master at turning customer complaints into more loyal customers for your business.

1. When handling a customer complaint, listen completely.

The number one thing customers tell us they want is employees who LISTEN. This is in ALL customer interactions, not just those involving complaints. But it’s even more important when a customer is complaining. This is make or break time. How well you listen (or appear to listen) will determine if that customer ever returns.

Give them your complete attention. Don’t multi-task. Don’t “half-listen”. Focus only on them. Let them say everything they have to say. Let them finish before you start saying anything. Write down what they are telling you and get specifics from them. Then confirm that you understand (and clarify if needed).

For example: “Mr. Smith, if I understand you correctly…”

Do this part well and the rest of the complaining process is much easier.

Here’s something that can help improve anyone’s listening skills. Download the Listening Assessment form from this page. First, use it to evaluate yourself. Then have people you work with evaluate you. (Do the same for them.) Compare notes and talk about it.

Put it into Action Idea

To improve your listening skills, make a copy of how others rated you. Look at it every day before and after your work day. Then in 30 days do the evaluation again (with the same co-workers). You should notice an improvement.

2. When handling a customer complaint, let them vent.

When you deal with a customer who is complaining (or as I prefer: “offering feedback”) often they’ll be angry. And even if they’re not visibly upset, they still want to have their say. They want to tell you something they feel is important. So let them.

Don’t interrupt. Don’t explain, defend or justify. They don’t care why the problem occurred and they don’t want your side of the story. They are angry and they want to vent. Give them space and time to do exactly that.

Remember most customers will never give you feedback. They’ll leave and not come back. If someone gives you feedback it’s because they want to help you improve your business. Sometimes the price for this is to put up with a little venting. But it’s a good deal.

Put it into Action Idea

As you work with customers who are complaining, make a mental note of how you handle these situations. And pay attention to how you feel during them. Then remind yourself, it’s feedback, it’s necessary and it’s not personal.

3. When handling a customer complaint, apologize and mean it.

After listening sincerely, the best thing you can do is apologize. Don’t waffle and say “I’m sorry if you feel that way”. That’s not really an apology and it might make them angrier.

Make it real and genuine. “Mrs. Jones, I’m really sorry this happened. I can understand why you would feel like you do.”

This is often hard especially if you did not cause the problem. When you apologize in this situation you are not necessarily taking blame for causing the problem. You are apologizing for the customer having a bad experience. Put yourself in their shoes. Be sincere.

An apology is a bridge-builder. It can mend a broken relationship faster than anything else. And it shows the customer you are willing to take responsibility for helping them get what they want. This helps them move past anger to a solution.

Put it into Action Idea

Pay attention to how you (and your colleagues) apologize to customers. Are the apologies sincere or just going through the motions? How would you feel if you were the customer? Would it move you to a resolution?

4. When handling a customer complaint, ask them how you can make things right. Then do more.

Here is where most companies fail when handling complaints. They automatically respond with a generic offer of compensation (or they offer nothing). They might take 10% of the bill. Or they offer the customer a 50% discount on their next visit. Or maybe they just give them their entire meal for free.

The problem is if you don’t know what they want, you can’t give it to them. And responding with a stock offer tells them you don’t care enough to meet their needs. It might even offend them. Not everyone who complains is looking for a freebie.

A better strategy is to ask them what they want. You have be genuine and polite. Most people don’t want much. They usually just want you to listen. But whatever they say always do it and more.

Ask them how you can “make it right” for them. Then (unless they’re completely unreasonable) do a little more.


Note: Once in awhile you might get a customer who makes an unreasonable request. Be prepared. Know how far you’re willing to go for any specific customer. Typically, the more they ask for, the less valuable they will be as a long-term customer. It’s okay to “fire” customers who don’t fit your business.

Put it into Action Idea

This week, make a special effort to do this whenever you are dealing with a customer complaint. Take note of how your customers respond.

5. When handling a customer complaint, assure them you’ll fix the problem.

Customers complain for a couple reasons. One is to be heard, because they felt wronged. Another is to help you. I know it does not always SEEM like they want to help, but they do. They want you to be aware of the problem and fix it. Loyal customers want to remain loyal. To do this they need to know you’re willing to listen to them and make changes when necessary. They are giving you priceless feedback about how you and your organization do business.

So, let them know the problem will get resolved. Otherwise they have less reason to come back.

Put it into Action Idea

For the next week, when you are the customer, listen closely when you (or those around you) have a complaint. Listen to how the employee handles it. How often do they say the problem will be fixed so it won’t happen anymore?

6. Follow-Up

If you are able to reach out to your customer, after you have fixed the problem, do it. Let them know you have fixed the problem. Tell them how much you appreciate their help. This puts you miles ahead of your competitors. It builds tremendous credibility for you. It shows them you listen, you act and you care.

7.  Thank them

This might sound difficult to do. But it’s just as important as listening and apologizing.  When a customer complains, they’re usually telling you they want to remain a customer but you need to make some changes. Or they’re trying to help you improve the quality of your business. Most complaints are extremely useful information, if you use it as such.

Too often we focus only on the emotional aspects of complaints. We get defensive and try to justify the source of the complaint. Or we turn a deaf ear and ignore the feedback. It’s too bad because when we do either we are almost guaranteeing that customer will go elsewhere.

Put it into Action Idea

Next time you get a complaint be aware of these two natural reactions, so you can prevent them. Replace them with the attitude that the customer is giving you valuable feedback (and doing you a favor). Then act on that and see what your response is.

Complaints don’t have ruin your day. They can (and should) be something you look forward to. Encourage them because they are gold for your business. Handle them well and you’ll have more loyal customers than ever before.

The article was written by Kevin Stirtz