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Complaints don’t just spring out of thin air. They’re the end product of a long chain of events. The good news is, it’s possible to dramatically decrease complaint volume by looking at this chain and finding ways to break it before it ends in an angry customer. Here’s how!

It’s often said that customer complaints can be blessings in disguise. And while it’s true that businesses are better off knowing when a customer is unhappy – so they can lend support and rectify the root cause – most of us would prefer to make complaints disappear altogether.

For many companies, a customer complaint going “viral” on social media is their worst nightmare. And it does happen.

According to a study commissioned by Yonder Digital Group,

31% of British customers usually post about their bad customer experiences on social media. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, this figure rises to 46%.

As a result, some companies try to reduce customer complaints by closing social media channels or requiring customers to send physical letters.

Even if these tactics work to reduce complaints in the short term, they aren’t going to raise satisfaction, and consequently profit, in the long term.

Instead, here are 4 customer-centric steps that will reduce the number of complaints you receive and improve customer satisfaction whilst you’re on.

1. Open the channels

The Forum reported that in 2017, UK businesses experienced 9.9 million complaint calls, resulting in £28 billion in lost productivity.

It makes financial sense to eliminate as many of these complaints as possible.

No complaint just pops into existence fully formed. Complaints are always the end-product of an unfortunate series of events: problems with product, service, processes or people.

It’s really hard to predict and stop every possible imaginable problem before it happens.

It’s much easier is to have a great mitigation strategy, so that if problems do happen, they’re a speedbump, not a disaster.

The best way to mitigate? Make sure that your lines of communication are well and truly open (and that your customers know that they’re open).

If a customer can contact you at the first sign of trouble, small frustrations are less likely to blow up into costly, customer-upsetting, reputation-damaging complaints.

Think of it as an extension of the omni-channel approach: customers need to know they can talk to you via a channel of their choice — email, chat, direct message, phone, or (for those who prefer it) letter.

Getting customer feedback right like this is a double-whammy: Not only does it help bring down complaints, but it actually raises satisfaction.


Because being listened to (and having appropriate action taken on your comments) is an experience which delights customers.

Not only does listening prevent interactions ending in complaints. By getting customer feedback right, you’ve actually made the whole customer journey more satisfying.

2. Set the tone

Even if you have the systems and processes in place, your communication style might still send the wrong signal to your customers. The message you need to send is “we’re honestly listening and will take your views seriously.

“Easier said than done!”, some will say.

Let’s take a look at an example to tease out what I mean:

After a disappointing train ride, I contacted the train company via direct message on Twitter and got the following response:

can u email me at feedback@….com with contact details. I’ll look into this for you.

While this may not be to everyone’s taste (I personally would have appreciated “you” instead of “u” and a question mark rather than a full stop), there are important positives, too:

  • The advisor uses “me” and “I”. They’re not hiding behind the brand.
  • The instructions are clear, and the company seems to have thought about how to connect different channels in a way that honours their customers’ data (for example, by not asking for contact details via Twitter).
  • There’s a clear and genuine sense of ownership: “I’ll look into this for you.”

Contrast that message with the autoresponder email I got when I emailed the company with my contact details:

Thank you for contacting [company name]. We confirm receipt of your e-mail and aim to forward a full response within 5 working days. If you have a more urgent issue that needs resolving, please telephone on 0845x xxxxxx where we will try to give a faster resolution.

Please note that you will not be able to reply direct to this email, however if you wish to contact us further by email then please use the address below.

[email address]

Not only does this sound as if it’s from an entirely different company; it also sounds as if they don’t want my repeat business.

  • It’s 100% noncommittal and does not inspire trust: “aim to forward a full response”, “will try to give a faster resolution”. This conveys a negative outlook rather than creating a sense of relief that things are in hand.
  • Although coming from the complaints department, the response seems unaware of the (potentially) serious risk to the customer relationship.
  • It cuts off communications channels and demands further customer effort — when it’s the company that “messed things up” in the first place. No-reply email addresses should really be a thing of the past, as it’s technically possible to specify a reply email address that feeds directly into the appropriate queues.
  • Outdated, bureaucratic language such as “telephone us”, “receipt of your e-mail” or “if you wish to contact us further” increases perceived customer effort.

A simple (and inexpensive) re-write of this message would make the world of a difference — and make the work of the complaint handler easier, because the customer would enter the conversation with more trust.

Thanks for letting us know about the recent experience you had with us. This is just a message to confirm we’ve got your email. As we take customer feedback seriously, it may take us up to 5 working days to carefully investigate what happened and get back to you.

If it’s particularly urgent, please call us on 0845x xxxxxx.

We appreciate you taking the time to share your views and will do our best to resolve things for you.

Kind regards, [Company name]

3. Listen

I know, this is hardly news! But it’s so hard to get consistently right.

That’s partly due to the fact that we’re taught how to write, debate, enunciate properly… but not really how to listen.

What should we even be listening for? This is where my favourite complaint handling technique comes in: NUT.

Popularised by Vanessa Van Edwards in her brilliant book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, its value lies in getting hyper-clear on what words are important.

Once advisors understand that people usually get “difficult” when they’re afraid of something, they can pay attention to words that tell them about the customer’s inner fears.

Are they worried the situation may now be completely outside their control?

Afraid they might be wrong to speak up about their negative experience?

It’s important to develop advisor awareness around these deeper emotions, because expensive compensation and goodwill gestures will be useless if those fears are not addressed.

To show the customer they’re listening, advisors should ideally use the customer’s own emotion words in their response: “You seem __”, or “Are you feeling __?”

It may feel unnatural at first, but it helps the customer feel validated and open up about their true needs.

But don’t forget the other half of the understand in NUT. In addition to understanding the customer’s feelings, you need to understand the detail of their problem. Just because you’ve dealt with 99 queries about smart meter issues today, doesn’t mean that the hundredth query is identical to the rest.

There are few things more likely to enrage an already-grumpy customer than wasting their time by misunderstanding them and trying to solve a problem they don’t have.

4. Get the whole organisation on board

It’s easy to regard complaint handling teams as silos, treat them as “the problem fixers” and expect them to reduce complaint volumes.

In fact, if done well, reducing complaints involves the entire organisation. Because, properly understood, it’s about being proactive and reactive — taking preventative and remedial action.

For example, imagine the marketing team getting a bit too excited with their messaging. Their website copy is ever so slightly overselling the product. As a result, customers might complain saying that the product doesn’t deliver what it promises.

Of course, the complaint handlers will be the first-line contact for that customer. Skilled advisors will hear them out, empathise with them and find a solution that restores the relationship.

But that’s not enough.

The best teams collect that customer feedback and collaborate with marketing to reduce the likelihood of further complaints.

Or think of a customer returning a product and chasing their refund.

In most companies, customer service will have to double check that the return is already with the mail office or warehouse and then liaise with back-office admin teams and finance to get that refund processed. Ideally, all four teams should work together to make chasing unnecessary in the future, which might involve other teams in charge of updating website copy or automated emails.

In many scenarios, reducing complaints simply does not work without cross-team collaboration. It’s the entire company asking: how can we delight our customers?


There may be no quick fix to reduce complaints. But there are lots of small, inexpensive shifts you can make to improve the customer experience. Communication and team culture play a huge part in achieving customer centricity. Investing time and effort in those areas will help you find out what your customers really think — and benefit the entire organisation.

Sabine Harnau is the award-winning consumer champion, copywriter and trainer behind From Scratch Communications. She trains mission-driven companies to build deeper connections with their customers. Her free eBook, Find Out What Your Customers Really Think launched in September. Download it here.

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