How to handle a customer complaint

While we may love for every customer to be happy with our products and service, mistakes can happen. Here’s how to successfully handle a customer complaint.

Every business, however great their products and services, will encounter a disgruntled customer at some point. The customer may have been genuinely let down, or they could be complaining over a minuscule issue. But however genuine their complaint, it’s important you handle it carefully.

Why? Because if you don’t, not only could you lose a potentially profitable customer, but you risk them warning other people from using your business. Or worse, they could publish their complaint online, or leave you a negative review or rating.

So what can you do? To help you resolve the situation without damaging your company reputation, here’s how to handle a customer complaint.

1) Listen to the customer

However furious the person on the other end of the call is, don’t cut them short. It may be uncomfortable, but listen carefully to decipher the facts from the customer’s anger.

Don’t start immediately preparing a rebuttal either. Saying “No, you’re wrong” even if they obviously are, won’t help. If you need to say “no” there are ways you can do that properly.

That said, you also don’t want to admit that something is wrong if it isn’t. Instead, acknowledge their feelings, with non-committal expressions like: “I can see you feel very angry about that” and “I understand how frustrated you feel right now.”

2) Be objective

This one is tough, but do try. It’s natural to feel defensive and upset if you’re subjected to a barrage of angry criticism about your business. But try not to react emotionally. If you take it personally you won’t be able to stay objective, and you risk putting your feelings ahead of reacting to this in the best way for your business.

The ideal outcome for any negative scenario is that the customer is calmed down and gets some form of resolution that doesn’t just make them happy, but leaves them an even bigger fan of your business than before they had the problem.

In order to achieve this you need to be the bigger person, and put your own emotions to one side. If it helps, try to see any feedback as helpful, and resolve to use it to avoid similar situations happening in future.

3) Ask clarifying questions

To get to the bottom of what has happened and find the appropriate solution you need to ask the customer open-ended, clarifying questions in a calm, non-defensive tone. Here are some example questions you might want to ask, depending on their complaint:

  • Can you explain what happened?
  • When did the problem first happen?
  • What did the person who served you try to do to help?
  • Can you give me an example of the problem?

4) Be empathetic

However much you feel the customer may be overreacting, you need to let them know you empathise with them. Because only when they feel listened to and understood will they be prepared to start considering any solutions you propose to resolve the situation.

Sometimes, simply feeling that someone is prepared to listen to and empathise with their bad experience is all unhappy customers need. They’re not looking for grand gestures of compensation; just to feel heard.

So how can you use empathy skills with customers? It’s a combination of all the tips so far:

  • Asks questions to try to find out about their problem.
  • Genuinely listen to what they say.
  • Empathise with their feelings (“I appreciate how angry you’re feeling”).
  • Put your own emotions aside and remain objective.

5) Take a break

If you’re finding the complaint, or trying to deal with it, overwhelming, take a break. You need to remain calm and objective, and if you get too involved or too stressed you’ll struggle with this.

Taking a break enables you to calm down and put the situation into perspective. Once your initial emotions wear off, you’ll be able to see the scenario more clearly.

If you have someone you trust to confide in, have a vent to them about what has happened. Remember that you’re human and will have your own emotional responses to situations. And you too need to feel listened to and understood.

So if you’re finding a conversation (verbal or online) with a customer overwhelming, tell them you’ll look into the situation further and come back to them. Give them a date or time when you’ll respond (so they don’t feel like you’re simply trying to palm them off) and stick to it.

6) Apologise

If a customer has genuinely been let down, then acknowledge honestly that they experienced substandard service or products, and express regret over what happened in a mature, genuine and respectful way.

This is an opportunity for you to reiterate your company values and standards and make it clear that their experience is an exception, and not one you intend to be repeated. Here’s an example of something you might say:

“I’m very sorry, and you’re right, you shouldn’t have had to experience that. This isn’t the level of service we aim for, or usually offer. I’d love to try to resolve this by… if that’s okay with you?”

7) Fix the problem as quickly as possible

Businesses are run by human beings, and people occasionally make mistakes. So the real benchmark of your level of service isn’t in the mistake that has been made, but in how you fix it. This is where you truly demonstrate how keen you are to live up to your company values.

It’s also an opportunity to win over your disgruntled customer.

So after you’ve find out what happened, empathised and apologised to the customer, demonstrate that you are taking positive steps to fix the problem.

This can take two parts:

  • Addressing the actual problem and letting them know what you will do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Resolving the customer’s problem right now and, if needed, offering them something extra as an apology.

8) Follow up afterwards

If you want to go the extra mile and really show the customer how much you care about their experience, contact them later to make sure they’re not having any further problems.

Obviously this is only relevant in certain situations – if the customer made a one-off purchase then they may not what to hear from you one month later! But if they buy from or use you regularly, it’s worth getting in touch to check they’re now happy.

What to do if a customer leaves a bad review

So what happens if you follow this process and still can’t placate your customer? Or if they’ve already left you a bad review? Here are some actions you can take:

  • If the review is fake, there are ways to remove them from Google or Facebook.
  • You can ask the customer politely to remove them.
  • You can add a comment showing that you have addressed and resolved the complaint.

You can read more advice to help you manage your company’s online reputation here.

Photo by Philip Boakye