Handling Customer Complaints (3 step guide)

Most people remember how a company handles their customer complaint. You’ve probably had some good experiences and some bad.

But when it comes to actually handling complaints yourself, it’s never an easy task. I always like to revert back to these two common customer service sayings; ‘treat the customer the way you want to be treated’ and ‘the customer is always right’. I think they do a good job at setting the right mindset to deliver a super level of service.

Since I love sayings so much, I’ve created another one you can use to help motivate employees.

“Go above and beyond your job description when handling customer complaints”.

What do I mean by that?

Simple. Do whatever it takes to ensure the customer is happy with the solution you offer. There needs to be some common sense shown here, but the goal is to empower yourself and your employees to go above and beyond.

These sticky situations where a customer has a complaint are the perfect opportunity to display an amazing customer experience. You should aim to deliver an experience that gets told from one person to the next and an experience that will keep the customer coming back for more.

In this actionable guide, I’ll walk you through the three steps I recommend you take when handling customer complaints. Use the strategies in this guide to turn difficult customers into happy, raving advocates.

See also: 5 ways to monitor customer complaints


Step 1. Acknowledge the problem

Acknowledging the complaint is the first step to handling it effectively. It’s important to make sure you have your ears open and are tentatively listening to the complaint. Look for the underlining problems that are causing the customer to be unhappy.

Once you’ve listened, repeat the problem back to the customer to ensure you have understood it completely. Clarify the issue so you can start thinking about a solution that can help resolve the issue at hand.

Showing that you genuinely care and being empathetic will help calm the customer down and help you remain in control of the situation. Do not be passive-aggressive, be rude or use any sarcasm. These environments are very delicate and any small error in your response can trigger an irate customer that will be a BIG mess to clean up.

Matthew Swyers shared this example of a poor way to handle a customer complaint.

My wife returned to the store, patiently waited in line again, and when it was her turn politely explained to the clerk what had happened and simply asked that her card be credited for the discount that should have been included. To my wife’s surprise the clerk looked at her and said the following:

“No. How do I know you did not just stick these yellow sales stickers on the items yourself?”

Without missing a beat my wife simply smiled and said “You’re right, I’ll return everything. Thank you.”

SourceMatthew Swyers


Step 2. Offer a solution

Customers want solutions not more problems. The second step in my ‘actionable guide’ is to offer up a solution. Since you’ve listened well and acknowledged the problem in step one, you’re in a really good position now to offer a solution that can help resolve the customer complaint.

The best people at handling customer complaints are really good at offering up a solution that solves the problem. Best practice shows that you should offer the solution and confirm that it will resolve the pain for the customer. Ask them; ‘If I do XYZ, will that make you happy and resolve the problem for you?’

Furthermore, I recommend you give employees some wriggle room and let them go ‘above and beyond’ when handling these tricky customer scenarios. You should not let red tape get in the way of them solving customer problems and turning bad situations into positive ones.

Zappos are the best at this. They empower employees to do what it takes to keep customers happy. If that means spending an extra 15 minutes on the phone, they do it. If that means organizing a bouquet of flowers and an apology note, they do it.

For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that is maybe suppressed in most work environments. – Tony Hsieh

It’s the little things that really make the difference between a company that delivers outstanding customer experiences and a company that delivers poor ones.


Step 3. Implement solution and follow up

Last step involves implementing the solution and following up. There is definitely no room for any more ‘stuff-ups’ here; you’re on your last legs with the customer and you need to deliver, 110%.

Employees should know that and treat the customer accordingly. Using a customer satisfaction tool like Client Heartbeat can help you ‘tag’ unhappy customers so that everybody inside your company knows to treat them with that extra level of service.

Implementing the solution should be a smooth and efficient experience for the customer. If it’s a matter of arranging a refund or exchange, make it a nice and easy experience. If it’s a matter of fixing an onsite issue with the network server, make sure you’re out there within a few hours and you understand the matter of urgency for the business.

Let’s take a look at an example. If a company’s IT system is down, it affects their productivity, it affects their sales team, and it affects their customer service. So many trickle-down affects arise from a simple customer complaint. Being able to solve the issue quickly means your customer can get on with what they do best and know that you are able to handle customer complaints well. This builds trust and in the future they’ll be happy to continue doing business with you.

Statistics by the White House Office of Consumer Affairs found that unhappy customers who have issues resolved tell about 4-6 people about their experience. That’s a lot of positive word of mouth that comes from a potentially damaging situation. This shows that customers do appreciate a company that delivers on its promises and resolves problems swiftly.


Use a customer complaints procedure

Your business is never going to be immune from customer complaints. The companies with the best customer experiences are the ones who know how to handle complaints.

Are you going above and beyond to ensure complaints are handled swiftly and efficiently?

Use this three step actionable guide to put a procedure in place at your company. Systemizing the process will help you keep complaints under wraps and keep customers happy.

For some more on this topic, I recommend you read these blog posts:

Gordon Tan

Gordon Tan is an entrepreneur based in Australia who has started and sold multiple technology companies with a combined value of $150m. This included a client satisfaction benchmarking platform which gave him first hand insight into the best practices of over 6,000 businesses. After retiring at 35 he is now a recognised thought leader on winning and retaining clients - His two passions: making clients the heartbeat of a business no matter what the product or service and this blog.

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