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How to deal with customer complaints

The only service provider on earth that will never receive customer complaints is the one that never opens its doors for business.

The war against being on the receiving end of customer complaints is an ongoing one, but being prepared to handle complaints is half the battle won. In this ‘internet 2.0’ era, customer complaints can take on a life of their own.

The rise of social media platforms, coupled with customers who aren’t shy of voicing an opinion or two, means that a complaint can quickly escalate – going viral at the touch of a button. What would previously have been a private matter between you and your customer can now be put on public display – potentially for the whole world to see – with serious consequences.

But properly handled complaints can strengthen your relationships with customers exponentially and prevent a drama from becoming a crisis.

Have a plan (and follow it)


In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail,” so anticipation is the key to successful complaints handling.

Develop a clear, open, flexible, easily accessible complaints policy that values customers’ willingness to spend their time and energy sharing insights and, ultimately, helping your business to improve.


Update your complaints channels

A model showing ancient cavemen stands inside the National Museum of Mongolian History in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Aug. 12, 2009. The museum preserves the Mongolian cultural heritage. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Nathan McCord/Released)We’re in the 21st century. Ensure that your complaints channels aren’t still in the Dark Ages.

Complaints made in-person, on the phone and by snail mail won’t suffice. Nowadays, unhappy customers should also be able to express their dissatisfaction via email and over the internet just as easily.

Regardless of the channels used, every complaint should be logged, every customer promptly acknowledged and details kept of how the complaint was resolved (if at all).


Be clinical with customer complaints

doctorThis piece of advice is more about how you cope with complaints rather than how you handle your customers.

In order to be compassionate towards your complaining customers, you’ll need to be fairly clinical regarding their discontent with your products or services. Whether they’re well-intentioned or otherwise, try not to take complaints to heart. If in doubt, The Godfather mantra should serve you well: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”


Be accommodating and apologetic


Whilst the customer isn’t always right (sorry, Harry Gordon Selfridge), they are for the purposes of the longevity of your business.

So, fight the temptation to have the last word. Instead, listen to your customer’s complaint, empathise with them as far as you can and thank them for taking the time to bring their concerns to your attention. Then, say you’re sorry (and mean it).

A word of caution. Customers are super-savvy these days. If they sense that your apology is, in any way, insincere or contains patronising or condescending overtones, it could backfire spectacularly and make its way to various social media outlets, causing a cyber firestorm.

More often than not, all complaining customers want is to be heard. All you need to do is lend a listening ear. Not doing so can come at a cost.


Make things right (if you can)

make things right

Giving your customer a “free gift” may seem appealing, but oftentimes this just papers over the cracks.

It doesn’t solve the real problem and leaves your business exposed to more complaints about the same issue down the line. But if you offer your customer a free gift in addition to resolving their complaint, then that’s all fine and dandy. Go for both.




Each customer complaint is a unique opportunity to advance your business (at least, it’s good to tell yourself that).

If a customer has sacrificed the time and made the effort to let you know there’s a problem with your product or service, the least you can do for them (and your business) is to try to fix it.

If you’re successful, it’s a good idea to feed this back to your customer so that they know you took their complaint seriously and it was a catalyst for positive change. Recent research carried out by the Ombudsman Services reveals that three quarters of British consumers are encouraged to make a repeat purchase if a business deals with their complaint carefully. Taking your customer on a journey from complainer to brand advocate is no small feat – with free advertising to boot!

If you can’t conjure up a solution to your customer’s problem, it’ll pay to be flexible in your approach to getting them back onboard. Only your customer knows what their wants and needs are in this situation, so why not ask them directly?



follow up

This is the final part of the complaints handling process that involves customer interaction.

The question you should ponder is how else can you support your customers who register a complaint? It could be sending a personalised email to your customer 24 to 48 hours after they made their complaint, extending a personal phone call or sending a handwritten letter to their home address – whatever works best for your customers.

All of these gestures show your customers that you very much have their concerns top-of-mind.


Move on

Checking with the list. A close up of mans hands using clipboard and writing pen to check with the form and write something.

It’s a lot easier to stay ready than it is to get ready.

So, it’s worthwhile considering a culture of continuous development. Keep a close eye on your customer service satisfaction levels as well as doing occasional spot checks on the quality of your products or services.

Most sources say that it costs four to 10 times more to secure a new customer than to keep an existing one, so it literally pays to have a complaints handling system in place that keeps your customers onside and converts potentially business-crippling complaints into business-building advertisements.

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