A customer complaint has two possible outcomes:

  • Option A – An enemy who spreads bad news about you;
  • Option B – A loyal, paying customer who spreads good news.

You just need to choose which one you want. (If you don’t choose, you can probably guess which one it defaults to). We prefer the positive outcome. The repeat business and good reputation make sales number easier to hit, and you know what else? It’s nice to be liked.

True story: the very first customer of CustomerSure, back in 2010, was a business who’s complaint our founder, Guy Letts handled in his previous job. One complaint, handled well, has led to a lifelong customer for Guy’s previous employer, and for our business.

That’s the target.

Our tips for handling complaints are based on Guy’s lifetime of experience in customer- facing roles.

Step 1: Compose yourself and take the heat.

Often a complaint is the outpouring of acccumulated frustration. Very few people just come at you with an aggressive complaint at the outset. Things usually start with some form of request, and only tend to escalate when there’s been a failure to resolve a more minor issue. Most people (not everyone, but about 99%) are decent and rational, and usually they will have tried for a reasonable resolution first. It’s only when their reasonable requests have been met by an unreasonable or incompetent response, perhaps repeatedly, that they become angry, quite understandably, and it escalates to a complaint.

Most (not all) people try to avoid conflict. But they also have a strong sense of fairness.

And everyone has their limits.

So like an angry wave, frothing, surging and then smashing against the rocks, you’re the first thing that tide of emotion is going to hit. Brace yourself.

But don’t panic. Hold your nerve.

Because this IS going to end well.

Complaints are to be embraced not feared. Here’s why.

Because there’s so much emotion involved, we tend to fear complaints. The other person has prepared what they’re going to say, and as they rehearse it to themselves they can work themselves up into a bit of a state. This process will have been fuelled by the fact that complaints are very often handled poorly by other companies, so they are expecting to be fobbed off and expecting to have to fight for an outcome they think is fair.

Isn’t this what we all experience as customers sometimes?

But this is where your secret weapon comes into play. You are going to take them (pleasantly) by surprise and turn them from impassioned complainer into a passionate advocate for your business. And both parties will end up very happy, feeling they have got a good deal. You will have someone who is now loyally recommending your outstanding service to their friends, and your customer will have a better outcome, obtained much more easily, than they were expecting.

The trick is to see a complaint for what it really is.

A complaint is not “Goodbye, I’m leaving, and you (personally) are a terrible person.”

A complaint is “Please help me. I would like to stay being a customer but this one thing is stopping me and I need your help to fix it.”

This is your opportunity to be a hero to that customer.

So don’t be defensive - it’s not personal.

Think about the last time you had to complain about something. How did you feel before you made the call? Were you looking for someone to insult, or do you just want a reasonable response to your issue so you can get on with your life? Most people don’t like complaining, it’s usually a last resort. And it is rarely personal. But even if you personally are the cause of the problem, the solution is the same.

Step 2: Say sorry.

An apology is not an admission of guilt. If you’re worried about liability, use a phrase like, “I’m really sorry this has happened.”

Expressing genuine regret that they have experienced problems will not result in their legal SWAT team storming your building.

They just want someone to help them get a problem solved…and if they’re angry it’s probably because they’ve been trying for some time without success. If you adopt a friendly and apologetic tone, and you help them, you will defuse the tension. Around this point you’ll probably be starting to win them round, and if you’re dealing with them in person you might see their shoulders ease a little lower.

The customer is not always right. (Yes, even customer service ninjas are allowed to say that, just not to the customer).

But at this point in time they have a strong conviction that they are. And they do pay your wages. So be respectful, show some backbone, and say sorry.

Whether they are right or wrong is not the issue: The issue is do you want Option A or Option B?

When we have a complaint, we feel aggrieved. And if someone tells us they’re sorry, it gives us the first glimmer of hope that this complaint is not going to be handled as badly as we’ve become accustomed to. Do not under any circumstances try and blame somebody else (they don’t care it’s the shipping department not the sales department). And do not deny that there is a problem. In the mind of the customer there is a problem and you need to take responsibility for getting it fixed.

Step 3: Listen carefully and discern the real issue.

problem you’ve heard 100 times today already - check before you assume it actually is the same. Listen carefully to exactly what this particular customer needs. Because if they’re the exception to the other 99, and someone will be, then you’ve just set your cause back and your job just got harder.

So it’s best not to jump in with a resolution. It can help to summarise back the problem you think you’ve heard and discuss possible solutions, to make sure you’re heading for agreement.

Step 4: Solve the problem. Twice.


Make sure the problem gets solved, even if you hand it off to someone else. Keep responsibility for it and check that it has been done.

Last week a colleague told me of 30 calls to their mobile phone provider. On the 30th call the agent agreed it had all gone on far too long and promised they would take ownership of this long running problem, and they would call back by 10pm that evening with a resolution or an update. Naturally my friend breathed a sigh of relief that someone had at last taken ownership in a convincing way.

But the promised call never came. So, 31 calls counted up…and now he’s counting down to the expiry of the contract and the change of provider.

And this is a provider who markets their customer service credentials. Remember: marketing is for winning customers, but service is for keeping them.

Twice… Why did the complaint happen? What was the underlying cause?

These tactics always work well ,but like a firework they’re only effective once. If you don’t fix the root cause of problems you’ll get much less sympathy if it ever happens to that customer again. And unless you fix the underlying cause you’ll have a defect in your business processes that continually costs you money.

Step 5: Check that the customer is happy with the outcome.

Do this just before you finish talking to the customer by summarising whatever you’ve agreed as the outcome, and the next steps you will each take. If there’s been a negotiation it’s important not to assume you both have the same recollection of what has been agreed.

Always check by summarising briefly, and then follow up in writing by email or letter.

Ninja complaint handlers circle back to the customer later, with a courtesy call to check that the resolution was satisfactory.

It might be more work in the short term, but it’s certainly less work overall, and it has three additional benefits:

  • If everything’s sorted it will be a quick call and they’ll appreciate that you care - and they’ll become an even more loyal customer because you’ve made the effort to make things right;
  • If there’s still a problem they’ll be grateful for the fact that you’ve called them rather than them having to chase you again. (Remember again what it feels like to be in that position);
  • The satisfactory outcome may generate goodwill that yields a sales opportunity, and waiting until after the dust has settled is a much better time to grasp it.

So make a diary note to contact the customer when everything should have been sorted out, and make that call.

4 tips from complaint-handling experts

Telephone is better for complaints than email.

Nearly always. No, really - pick up the phone.

Email is easier because you can hide behind it, but when managing a complaint it’s a minefield because if someone can mis-interpret your meaning or your tone then they will. And that will just make things worse.

Email is very good for summarising an agreed course of action, or for confirming detailed facts. It’s also good for getting someone to contact you (by phone) if you can’t get hold of them. It is terrible for understanding an issue, reassuring, negotiating, or resolving a grievance.

Remember the emotions when you handle customer complaints.

How do you like to be treated when you’re making a complaint?

Do you like it to be hard work finding out who to contact and getting hold of them? Do you like the person to be defensive and deny any responsibility? Do you love it when they make out that it’s actually your fault…or say that they can’t reproduce it (so you must be imagining it)? Do you like them to assume you’re trying to get something for nothing, when all you want is for a problem to be put right? Do you like them to fob you off with a standard answer even when you know that your question is not quite the one they’re answering?

Don’t let any of these things happen when one of your customers feels the need to complain.

It comes down to attitude. Complaints have to be welcomed, not resented.

That’s a cultural matter and it only changes when everyone understands the difference between Option A and Option B.

Make it easy to complain!

It should be at least as easy to complain as it is to place an order.

Yes, this will mean you get more complaints. If you’ve done it right.

But remember it’s the complaints you DON’T hear about that cost you money, and the ones you DO hear about that make you money.

Be generous with compensation.

Again, this comes down to which option you’re aiming for. If you want to offer the bare minimum to get you off the hook, you’ll come across as miserly and the customer is more likely to go away as an enemy than a friend.

If on the other hand you keep in mind the monetary value of a customer for life who willingly raves about you because of the great outcome they got? Well then you might want to loosen those purse strings and be a bit more generous.

The choice here is:

  • Miserly: gain an enemy who leaches other people away by giving you a bad repuation;
  • Generous: gain a high value friend who enhances your reputation.

Ninja complaint handlers ask the customer what outcome they would like.

This can sound counter-intuitive. Aren’t we trying to reduce costs here, and get out of this by conceding as little ground as possible?

Well, you’ll often be surprised how modest their requirements are. Which means it is then easy to exceed them with an additional goodwill gesture. And that is the route to the win:win, where everybody walks away content.

Congratulations! You can now handle customer complaints like a ninja.

Making a complaint is not really a business transaction. For the customer (and probably you too) it’s an emotional roller-coaster.

Nobody complains because they’re bored. Everyone hates doing it.

So handling complaints brilliantly is a real chance to make your business stand out as one that people like doing business with. They know that you’ll try and avoid bad things happening in the first place.

And they know that if something does go wrong then you’ll do the right thing and sort it out efficiently. That’s how loyal, high-value customers are earned.

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