How to Handle Customer Complaints

Mary Gormandy White
Complaining Customer

While it's best to avoid circumstances that lead to customer dissatisfaction, it's important to be prepared to deal with complaints effectively when they do arise. Every professional should know how to use problem resolution strategies when faced with customers who are less than pleased with your organization's products, services or personnel.

Complaint Response Strategy: Four Steps

When a customer brings you a complaint, it's important to avoid becoming defensive or argumentative. Use this message structure to ensure that your responses are structured in a manner likely to lead to effective problem resolution.

1. Demonstrate Empathy

Before you start to answer, take a step back and try to look at the situation from the customer's perspective and allow that to determine how you respond. Maintain objectivity, focusing on the customer's feelings rather than passing judgment on what did - or did not - happen. Doing this will get you in the right frame of mind to demonstrate caring rather than defensiveness when you respond.

2. Acknowledge the Situation

Recognize the validity of the customer's complaint to establish common ground before proceeding. This does not mean that you necessarily have to agree with what the customer is saying, but rather that you are respectfully acknowledging that the customer has brought you a concern - something that he or she certainly has a right to do - and that you want to make progress toward getting it resolved to mutual satisfaction.

3. Provide Reassurance

Respond in a manner designed to reassure the customer that you truly care about his or her satisfaction with the organization and that you are committed to restoring confidence in the organization. Keep your tone sincere and positive, realizing that it's up to you to make sure that the customer knows that he or she matters to you and to the organization.

4. Take Action

Do something that is focused on solving the problem, realizing that the problem may lie with the fact that the customer feels dissatisfied or disappointed, or that there may truly be a situation that needs to be corrected.

Depending on the situation, you may need to take action by asking more questions to gather information if the circumstances are not clear or to find out what the customer would like to see happen, or you may need to take corrective action to fix something that should not have occurred. Your focus should be on determining what you can do to improve how the customer feels rather than on what cannot be done.

Sample Conversation

To see these four steps in action, review the following example:

  • "I can see that you are disappointed with the information I've just told you." (empathy)
  • "I certainly understand your request and see why it's important to you." (acknowledgement)
  • "Let me make sure that there haven't been any changes that I'm not aware of." (reassurance)
  • "Let me bring one of my colleagues in on this conversation so we can find out her thoughts on alternatives. I know I'd like to hear what she may have to offer. Do you have any objections to this?" (action)

Problem Resolution Examples

Customer complaints often arise from billing errors or dissatisfaction with available options. Examples of effective responses to these types of complaints include:

Erroneous Charges

  • Situation: A customer is upset because a company error results in an overcharge on her account.
  • What to say: "I can understand how upset you are that these additional charges have shown up because of our error. I'd be upset about it too. Here's what I can do about it."
  • Why this works:
  • - It demonstrates that the service provider has been listening and understands.
  • - It shows that the service provider has taken a personal interest in problem resolution.
    - Options for resolution are presented in a positive manner.

Displeasure with Alternatives

  • Situation: A customer seems unsatisfied after hearing options for problem resolution.
  • What to say: "I can understand that you are disappointed, and you have every right to feel that way. I'm also disappointed that we cannot resolve this. What do you suggest we do next?"
  • Why this works:
  • - The service has provider already exhausted every suggestion he or she has.
    - At this point, it becomes necessary to find out what the customer sees as an ideal solution.
    - The customer may come up with a viable solution, or simply request an apology.

Problem Resolution Language Tips

There are a number of phrases that are best avoided when interacting with dissatisfied customers. When people are already upset, saying the wrong thing can escalate a situation rather than making it better. Avoid statements that could trigger customer anger or annoyance, instead using customer-focused alternatives.

Trigger phrases to avoid:

Alternative statements:

It's our policy.
  • Here's what we can do.
  • Here's how we can handle this.
We cannot do _________.
  • What we can do is ___________.
  • We are able to do __________.
What seems to be the problem?
  • How can I help?
  • How can I be of assistance?
I don't know.
  • I can find out.
  • Let me find out for you.
You should have done _________.
  • Let's do _________.
  • Let's get _________ taken care of.
The only thing we can do is _________.
  • The best option is _________.
  • We can take care of this by doing _________.
I don't handle that; it's not my job.
  • Let's find the right person to handle your concern.
  • It is my responsibility to assist with finding a solution.

Complaints Can Be Good

While you'd never want to intentionally create a situation likely to lead to a complaint, the fact is that customers complain shouldn't always be viewed as a negative thing. After all, customers complain when they want to preserve their relationship with your organization and they feel something needs to be done in order for that to happen.

When a customer complains, you have an opportunity for service recovery, and to strengthen the customer's relationship to your organization through effective problem resolution. While no one likes to receive complaints, it's a fact that getting them - and working through them - is an important part of providing effective customer service.

How to Handle Customer Complaints