10 Tips for Effectively Handling Customer Complaints

For every customer who actually comes to complain to you, there is a quantum number that won’t. They are the ones who go off and tell somebody else, complain about you online, and take their business elsewhere.

Let’s say one out of 100 of your customers actually come to you with their complaint. Shouldn’t you really value that person times 100? Because they’re representing all the other people who never came to you, you should be happy—or if not happy, at least very appreciative—when someone actually takes the time to give you a second chance.

There are ways you can use customer complaints to uplift your service and improve the experience for all your customers in the future.

1. Thank them for their complaint.

Give positive recognition by saying, right off the bat, “Thank you for reaching out.”

Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort, communication, feedback, and suggestions. Always keep in mind that the customer didn’t have to come to you at all. He could have simply taken his business to your competitor. When a customer gives you the opportunity to recover their service, be grateful.

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 blow off the customer, but getting defensive will only lead to more problems.

When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher. Think about the last time you had a disagreement with your spouse. How did it make you feel when he or she told you that you were wrong about something or completely denied that a set of events happened the way you said they happened? You were probably not very happy.

When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel they were wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying, but you do have to agree to hear them out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.

3. Acknowledge what’s important to them.

Service providers must find out what is important to the complaining customer. Even if you think the customer’s complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your company didn’t deliver on. Find out what they value and embrace it.

What the customer wants is to feel right. When you agree with their value dimension, you’re telling them they are right to value this specific thing. For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. 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 come to our store".

When you validate what a customer values, you aren’t agreeing with them that your service is slow or that your staff is rude. Instead you are 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 go right after your opponent, trying to punch him to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else’s motions to create a desired result. You use another person’s speed and energy to spin him around and then end up together on the same side.

When you show a customer you understand what they value, you’re catching them off guard with your own movement. They don’t expect you to tell them that they’re right. Suddenly, just as you might do in judo, 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. Apologize once, upfront.

Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer. You don’t have to tell the customer you were wrong, but you should apologize for the inconvenience they’ve experienced. When you do so, you’re showing understanding and empathy for their discomfort, displeasure or inconvenience.

6. Explain the company’s desire to improve.

When you understand what the customer values, show them things your company does that helps you perform well in that area. For example, let’s say a customer is complaining because an equipment repair took longer than expected. You would say, “We understand that quick, timely repairs are important to our customers”. The unhappy customer will probably say, “But you failed in my case and the repair took a long time”.

Calmly explain to the customer what caused the repair to take so long (waiting on a part that wasn’t in stock, a rush of repair orders, etc.). Then reassure the customer by explaining how you are working to find a solution (more parts in stock, hire an additional technician in peak months, investing in a Business Management System for better scheduling and tracking of repairs, etc.)

Show you are sincere about your commitment to do well in the areas the customer values. At the very least, you can say you will make sure everyone in the company hears their story and won’t let it happen again. When you express the company’s desire to improve, you start on the path to rebuilding its credibility with the customer.

7. Educate your customer.

Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they ask about their specific situation. It's important you can provide additional, useful information. If they ask a question that you can’t answer or don’t know the answer to, tell them you’ll find out the answer and quickly get back to them.

Actually follow through on this promise. Contact the customer with the answers they requested, and even if they might not have requested an update about their situation, get back in touch with them with one anyway. These are additional opportunities for you to show through your actions that you care about the customer and value their business.

8. Contain the problem.

Let’s say a family is at a crowded theme park on a hot day. The youngest child in the group starts to have an all-out meltdown. Suddenly, a theme park staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find an air conditioned room with water and other beverages, an ice cream machine, a bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, etc. The only thing missing in the room is any connection to the theme park’s brand. That’s because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they’re all—parents and children—having a more pleasurable experience.

The room is also being used to isolate the unhappy family from the families outside the room who are enjoying their day at the theme park. And finally, they’re being isolated from some park staff who may not be as well-prepared as the staff member who brought the family to the room to handle these sticky situations.

That’s how you contain a problem. Have a knowledgeable employee who works well with customers pull the individual inside an office to address the individual's concern. It shows the customer that they have your undivided attention while at the same time keeping their discontent off the showroom floor and away from other customers.

9. Recover.

Show the customer you care about them, even if you feel the company did everything right, by making them an offer. Companies worry that they’ll get taken advantage of if they give vouchers, discounts or freebies as part of their service recovery, but the reality is 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 appreciation. Sears takes recovery seriously. The company now has a "blue ribbon team" of specially educated and empowered staff to handle recoveries. Once an issue goes to them, anything they recommend is what gets done. They have full support from the top down. Sears does this because the company understands that a successfully recovered customer can become your most loyal advocate and ally. Develop a protocol with staff for handling vouchers or compensation for customer complaints.

10. Give serial complainers an out.

Some people just love to complain. These kinds of customers complain, not so that they can become satisfied, but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate them from your brand. Apologize for not being able to meet their needs and suggest they try another dealer.

Your customers are not your enemy. It’s sometimes hard to remember that when you’re involved in a tense complaint situation, but they’re essential to your business and you really are both on the same side. Your customer wants 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.

About the Author:
Ron Kaufman is the author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet (www.UpliftingService.com). He is a thought leader, educator and motivator for uplifting customer service and building service cultures in many of the world’s largest and most respected organizations. He is the founder of UP! Your Service, a global service education and management consultancy firm. Ron is also a columnist at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of 14 other books on service, business, and inspiration.