How to Handle Customer Complaints in 12 Steps

Even the most well-run businesses with great products or services run into customer issues. The ReturnCustomers blog has compiled a list of some of the most common customer service complaints. If you come across these complaints or other problems, do you have a plan in place?

  • I've been waiting here forever!
  • I keep getting shuffled from one person to the next.
  • You don't seem to care.
  • Your delivery took too long.
  • I bought your product but it doesn’t do what it's supposed to do.
  • I’m unhappy with your service.

How you engage with a customer can mean the difference between building loyalty or losing business. Review the 7 steps below to effectively deal with unhappy customers.

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12 Tips on How to Handle Customer Complaints

The below best practices are important to keep in mind whenever you face customer complaints:

1. Monitor Online Reviews

You can’t address issues if you don’t know when and where they are being posted. If it’s in your budget, use tools designed to monitor brand mentions on social media, review websites like Yelp, and more. You can also have a team member quickly scan your social media channels and review sites for comments.

2. Stay Calm and Put Emotions Aside

Your business is your baby and you’ll probably be upset if you get a complaint about a product, service, or employee. Now is the time for deep breaths and taking the time you need to calm down and respond. Keep in mind that the complaint isn’t a personal attack but an opportunity to make things right and improve your customer service.

3. Be Kind

If you’re struggling to put your emotions aside, it may help to consciously remind yourself to remain kind as you interact with complaining customers. Even if you find yourself failing to assuage upset customers, you’ll only further exacerbate an already negative experience if you’re rude.

4. Listen and Record Complaint

“Active listening” simply means actively listening. This means you should fully concentrate on what is being said rather than just passively “hearing” the message of the customer. Active listening includes:

  • Building trust and establishing rapport.
  • Demonstrating concern.
  • Paraphrasing to show understanding.
  • Use objective wording. For example, "As I understand, you are, quite rightly, upset because you were overcharged for a product."

Once you have the full story, take a detailed report. You want to be able to recall the details of the conversation and respond appropriately.

5. Ask Questions

When dealing with customer complaints, listening is only one piece of the puzzle. You should ask questions to confirm that you’re accurately understanding their experience. The more you know about what your customer is experiencing and feeling, the easier you’ll find it to resolve customer complaints.

6. Acknowledge the Problem and Thank Customer for Feedback

Once the unhappy customer has explained the problem, repeat his concerns so you can be sure that you're addressing the issue appropriately. Ask specific questions if you’re unclear and make sure that you've identified the issue correctly. Repeating the problem shows the customer you were actively listening and can diffuse anger and stress. It also gives you a good idea of how you can solve the problem.

Once you’ve repeated the problem back to the customer, apologize to them and thank them for sharing their experience. You can make a customer happy -- at least temporarily -- by showing that you feel remorse about their situation and are grateful for the chance to improve. To permanently quell this customer’s frustration, though, you’ll need to find an actual solution.

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7. Document Their Responses

Whether you’re letting a customer vent uninterrupted, asking occasional questions, or fielding responses to an apology, you should document all comments and responses from unhappy customers. This way, when you’re addressing the issue and following up to resolve the problem, you have all the facts you need to properly assuage the customer.

8. Gather Facts

Once you have the full report of the issue, work on your end to get to the bottom of it. That might mean digging into sales records, interviewing your employees or even calling the customer back for more information.

9. Offer a Solution and Execute It

Making a complaint and being ignored is one way to lose a customer and garner bad reviews and comments online. Once you have a grasp of the issue, come up with a fair and reasonable solution. Is it a money refund? A new product? A discounted service?

If you're not sure what the customer wants from you once they’ve aired their grievance, or if they push back on your proposed solution, give them the power to resolve things and to identify what would make them happy.

For instance, you could say, "If my solution doesn't work for you, I'd love to hear how we can resolve the problem and make you happy. If it's in my power I'll get it done. If not possible, we can work on a solution together."

10. Make It Speedy

Although the above steps may seem like a lot, don’t conflate them for needing to stretch out your complaint handling process. A swift solution is always better appreciated than one for which resolution never comes. If anything, an initially assuaged customer can return to being an angry customer if your solution, no matter how helpful it is, arrives after an extended wait.

11. Follow Up

Make a quick follow-up phone call after the issue has been resolved and to make sure everything is OK and the customer is happy. Even a simple apology can turn this interaction from a negative to a positive. The cost could be minimal—like an upgrade on services or a gift certificate. A gesture like this could result in future sales, a referral, or a positive word-of-mouth recommendation. To assure a smooth customer experience, work with your team to actively put policies in place to avoid similar situations.

12. Know That You Can Sometimes Stand Up for Yourself

If you’re clearly in the wrong, you should admit fault for not making your customer happy. However, if you’re encountering unrealistic customer expectations, you can stand up for yourself as long as you remain kind.

Properly standing up for yourself, though, can be tricky. That’s because you’ll need to simultaneously listen to your customer and figure out that your customer’s preferences diverge from your offerings. In doing both at the same time, you may begin to accept some unrealistic or unfair customer assumptions or accusations. If you find yourself asking such questions, take a deep breath, pause, stay calm, and reanalyze the situation.

Common Customer Complaints (and How to Solve Them)

The above best practices for resolving customer complaints should come in handy for all complaint management matters. Experts say they’ve proven helpful time and again in addressing the below common customer complaints:

  • Broken or defective products. Faulty products are a surefire route to low customer satisfaction. To resolve this issue, take steps to replace the customer’s product and attempt to determine how the product broke. Document what you learn to improve your product or, if the defect is the customer’s fault, kindly educate your customer on how to avoid this issue in the future.
  • Out-of-stock products. Loyal customers may feel frustrated if products that they frequently buy aren’t available right now. The good news is that, since you’re the business owner, you’re likely the best contact point for figuring out when your products will be back in stock. Inform your customers of your expected in-stock date and ask them to check in again then.
  • Poor follow-through. Not every customer complaint takes just one interaction to resolve. In such cases, your customer service team should prioritize keeping in touch with the customer throughout the resolution process. Your team and the customer should decide together how often to communicate with one another, and you should implement a ticketing system or CRM to escalate customer complaints.

Additional Resources

Here’s an article with examples of great customer service from Zappos, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and other corporations. You’ll learn how these big brands can turn problems into positives: 6 Best Examples of Good Customer Service.

This blog post goes into more detail about why top-notch customer service is a must: 9 Reasons Why Customer Service is So Important. Good customer service can increase brand awareness, increase sales, and more.

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