10 tips for dealing with customer complaints

Posted on: 21 January 2014

No one who runs a business wants to receive complaints. After all, more than ever in challenging trading conditions, customer satisfaction and loyalty is what makes the difference.

The good name of your business – or its brand value, if you prefer – is a highly precious commodity. Yet complaints will happen, whether they are due to a genuine mistake (something that happens to every business from time to time), or from a difficult or even unreasonable customer.

The question then is: how best to deal with complaints? A great deal will depend on the nature of the complaint and most of all its seriousness.

With that in mind, here are 10 tips to help your business deal effectively with complaints.

  1. Immediately acknowledge a complaint when you receive one, no matter how it’s received – whether in writing, a phone call, in person or via social media. Don’t bury your head in the sand and hope the complainant will go away, instead make sure the validity of the claim is investigated.

    Reply to the complainant from a senior level – preferably from THE most senior – and let them know you are on the case, even if you recognise or suspect immediately there’s no merit in what they’re claiming.

  2. Legally we’re always advised not to apologise as this can imply acceptance of blame. However, offering an apology will often go a long way to resolving smaller complaints.

    Phrase the apology in such a way that it in no way implies blame: ‘I’m sorry you are not satisfied/are upset/would like to return the item’.

    This way, it is sincere as you are sorry the person feels this way, regardless of why.

  3. Stay calm, but don’t be detached. It’s obvious that however angry a customer may be, it is always a mistake for you or any member of staff to get angry, sarcastic or rude in any way.

    Being calm and professional, but also human will often help to defuse a difficult situation. Offering to talk through the problem, being prepared to hear all the details and lending a sympathetic ear will often calm a situation dramatically.

    If the customer believes you are sorry and genuinely want to put things right, the chances are they will also be willing to have a conversation that is aimed at reaching a solution. So, always keep asking the question: ‘how can we resolve this?’

  4. Listen lots and talk little. When someone complains they want you to take what they are saying seriously and they want to be heard in full.

    You also need to fully understand what the complaint is or you will have little chance of resolving it. So, at first keep quiet. Let the customer have their say.

  5. It’s essential to make notes of what has been said. Have a process for dealing with complaints so that even the most trivial is logged. It’s good insurance – what seemed trivial at the time may come back and bite you later when it turns out to be something much more serious. These should be dated and signed.

    It’s a good idea to run through these notes with the complainant to check and confirm you have correctly understood the details and substance of what they’re saying. This will help prevent misunderstandings later.

  6. See beyond the complaint and search for solutions.

    If the complaint turns out to be correct, what do you believe your business should do about it, both in order to be fair and to maintain, perhaps even enhance, the reputation of your business?

    Don’t just repeat the terms and conditions or the small print in response to a complaint. This will almost certainly wind up the complainant.

  7. If you can’t resolve a problem straight away then don’t leave the complainant in the dark: keep talking and, if you have entered into a correspondence, keep it up even if it’s just to provide a regular status update rather than offer a solution.

    And, if you do put things in writing, don’t obscure what you want to say by using evasive language. Be polite, understanding and sympathetic but also direct and clear.

  8. If you’re in the wrong, then face up to it. Of course, things may not be so simple if you find yourself on the end of a big legal claim; but generally you will not do your case any harm if you try to take responsibility and offer to reach a solution.

    The customer is definitely NOT always right. Their complaint may have zero validity.

    However, the phrase “the customer is always right” is not actually about the rights and wrongs of a case; it’s about how the customer feels. For a business this is what counts. If your customer feels aggrieved, even if they have no good cause, then you may well have lost a customer.

    That is never the outcome you want. So, yes, the customer may well be in the wrong, but consider what you need to do in order to calm them, and retain them? Just winning an argument on points will rarely achieve this.

  9. Learn from the situation when things go wrong.

    The three questions to examine are: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

  10. If a complaint escalates or is obviously serious from the start by it’s very nature, then taking legal advice is always recommended. In this case, it’s best to say little and certainly not accept liability until professional guidance has been provided.

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