April 17, 2013

15 Tips for Successfully Handling Customer Complaints

15 Tips for Successfully Handling Customer Complaints

Handling customer complaints correctly is an incredibly important part of the overall service experience you deliver.

Oftentimes, a negative experience that a customer has with your business can be salvaged and turned into an opportunity to win them over for life.

But being able to handle negative feedback in a positive way takes plenty of practice. Your business can get a head start by following established advice on interacting with customers in these less-than-ideal situations.

Below we’ll dive into some strategies on how you can do this, but first we need to look at why handling these complaints incorrectly could be hurting your bottom line.

Why Customer Complaints Matter to Your Business

Poorly handled customer complaints are one of the quickest ways you can destroy an otherwise stellar service reputation.

Consider the following statistics from the Jim Moran Institute and Lee Resources:

  • Resolve a complaint in the customer’s favor and they will do business with you again 70% of the time
  • Up to 95% of customers will give you a second chance if you handle their complaint successfully and in a timely manner.

So while you won’t be able to satisfy every unhappy person who contacts you, the returns that your business may see from turning an initially bad customer service experience into a “win” are immense.

Below, we’ll look at 15 essential tips that will allow you to do just that!

1. Give Credence to Each Customer

Treat every customer as if they have 10,000 Twitter followers."
  —Myers Barnes

Barnes’ quote drives home the overarching point that each customer should be treated as if they have a large following.

It’s a given that every once in awhile you’re going to run across those “barnacle” customers who will never be satisfied enough to not complain. It’s good business sense to give them very little of your time, but you should still view every potential customer interaction as if the customer has a broad audience at their disposal. This will safeguard your business from many potentially disastrous mishaps.

2. Remember that Complaints Contain Insight

In a recent article on Inc.com, Evernote CEO Phil Libin spoke about why he loves his angriest customers.

In particular, Libin addressed the need for balance between internal innovation and customer feedback, saying:

Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It's terrible at telling you what you should do next.”

His point mirrors the one we made in our article on why Steve Jobs never listened to customers. Innovation needs to rely on your team, but customers shouldn’t be discounted in pointing your team in the right direction.

3. Record and Organize Meaningful Complaints

No matter what business you run, you’ll almost always come across the customer that wants things for free or that thinks every single one of your price points are too expensive. You should take this sort of feedback with a grain of salt in most instances.

However, if multiple customers have told you that they simply cannot figure out how to use Key Feature X, you may have a serious communication problem on your hands.

In an earlier post we showed you how to set up a simple, browsable and easy-to-use feedback system with a few key tools; you don’t have to follow our workflow verbatim, but definitely make sure relevant complaints are being tracked!

4. Identify What Sort of Complainer They Are

A recent academic publication on customer complaints presents a strong case for categorizing complainers through a selection of archetypes that most customers fall into when voicing their concerns.

  1. The Meek Customer: Generally averse to complaining, but warrants a mention because you may need to inquire deeper to get them to reveal exactly what is wrong.
  2. The Aggressive Customer: Outspoken and not shy about letting you know what’s on their mind. Your best bet is to avoid being aggressive back and instead react with “What else may I help you with?” Show that you’re ready and willing to hear them out.
  3. The High Roller: Your “enterprise” customer; they likely pay you well and demand premium support for it. While no customers are fond of excuses, this customer hates hearing them.
  4. The Chronic Complainer: This customer will contact you a lot, but that doesn’t mean that their issues should be dismissed. Patience is required here, but once satisfied this customer will have no qualms about singing your praises to others.
  5. The Barnacle: Although the publication identifies this type as the “rip-off” customer, I find the barnacle label to be more accurate. This customer is never happy and isn’t really looking for a satisfactory response; they are just trying to get something they don’t deserve. Everything is not good enough unless they’re getting a handout, and your best bet is to maintain your composure and respond as objectively as possible.

As you likely noticed, these are the extremes that you’ll encounter. The average customer complaint will be far more moderate, but it’s important to recognize these potential personas when putting your tried-and-true customer service skills into practice.

5. Don’t be Passive-Aggressive

Hearing the phrase, “We’re sorry that you are having this problem,” is pretty infuriating from the customer’s viewpoint.

The thing is, many small business owners use this sort of language by accident. They’re trying to apologize to a customer, but coming off as demeaning or dismissive.

Just say you’re sorry. Even if the customer is being unreasonable, apologize outright and ask how you might help resolve the issue. And if you’ve come across a “barnacle,” then move on.

6. Transfer them Quickly, but Explain Why

Please hold while we transfer you. Your call is very important to us.”

Yuck. While you’ll experience less of this problem when handling support via email, it’s still important to get people to the right employee quickly.

Never miss an opportunity to briefly explain to a customer why this transfer will be to their benefit. It’s hard to get any customer happy or excited about being transferred, but consider the two choices you have:

  • You are getting transferred. “Well, this stinks!”
  • You will be transferred to our ____ specialist who can better answer your question. “Well ... okay, then!”

Without this brief but relevant insertion, customers won’t know that you are actually trying to do the right thing.

7. Use Supportive Questioning

There is a fine line between simply following up after handling a complaint and inadvertently inviting customers to complain even more.

Let’s look at the following two responses:

  • “Is there anything else wrong?”
  • “How else can I help you today?”

Asking a customer who just complained a leading, negative question such as #1 will lead to nothing good. Conversely, inquiring how you may be able to further assist a customer lets them know that you are willing to stick it out if they have any other issues to address.

8. Time is of the Essence

I’ve made some pretty strong cases for spending more time with your customers, but you saw the data above … complaints are a slightly different beast that greatly benefit from being resolved quickly.

A customer leaving a feature request won’t sweat the fact that it took you a day to get back to them. However, unhappy customers want resolution yesterday, so you need to make responding to them a priority.

In almost every other instance I would encourage you to slow down your service, but in this case you need to make moves to right the wrong as soon as possible!

9. Verify the Resolution

Have you ever tried to contact customer service through an online form, and after you hit submit there wasn’t a single follow-up notification on whether or not action had taken place?

This is frustrating, because you don’t have a clue where your issue—and any hope of resolving it—stands.

The same thinking applies to resolving customer conflicts via email or phone. You want to be absolutely sure that the customer is clear on the resolution that occurred and that it met their needs. So if you’re not ending your responses with an inviting question to do more, then start now.

10. Drop the Formalities

Customers want to be treated with respect, but if you stop treating customers like regular people and start talking like a corporate stiff then they won’t interpret the interaction as genuine.

Research suggests that personalization is powerful when interacting with anyone, but especially with your customers.

Remember that you’re not speaking to the Queen of England, so refer to your “chat” with a customer rather than your “correspondence” with them, and speak as if you were talking with an acquaintance. A little familiarity can go a long way toward getting customers on your side.

11. Involve Them to Avoid Overcompensating

You already know that you don’t have to “buy” an amazing customer experience, so throwing freebies at customers over issues that could have been resolved in other ways is a surefire way to lose your shirt.

Instead, if a complaint is genuine and the mistake is on your end, involve customers in resolution decision-making through phrases such as, “What do you think would be fair?”

Yes, the barnacle customer will try to use this opportunity to take more than they deserve, but this language brings out a reasonable side in most people, and you’ll likely get asked for much less than you might have offered if you hadn’t solicited their input.

12. Don’t Drag Out a Lost Cause

If a customer wants to cancel their account, do it for them right away. Better yet, let them cancel without having to call your company at all. It should be just as easy to cancel as it was to sign up.

Winning customers back with exceptional service is an important aspect of your business that you should focus on (and the thesis for this whole article!), but when customers already have one foot out the door let the parting be as frictionless as possible.

Customers aren’t necessarily done with you for good just because they cancel their account once, so don’t hassle them as they exit. Remind them what they’ll be missing by simply being sincerely helpful.

13. Get to a Medium Where You Can Take Action

People love to complain on Twitter, but it’s hard to successfully resolve a complaint within that channel.

Instead, refer people to an email address they can contact with their issue and assure them that you are ready, willing and able to get this problem resolved right way.

Trying to achieve anything more in limited spaces like social media just results in a public back-and-forth that rarely goes anywhere productive. The key to improving your service is to guide people into a channel where you can truly address their problems.

14. CARP Diem

A really useful method for consistently handling upset customers can be found in Robert Bacal’s book If It Wasn’t for the Customers I’d Really Like this Job. Bacal’s practices are known as the CARP method, which consists of:

  • Control
  • Acknowledge
  • Refocus
  • Problem solve

In other words, take control of the situation with language that shows you are ready to handle customer concerns and don’t intend to play any games. Acknowledge that you completely understand their concerns and won’t be brushing them off.

Next, refocus away from their emotions to the problem at hand, outlining how you’ll take care of it. Finally, solve the problem they initially came to you with, confirming that everything has been resolved to their satisfaction.

15. Don’t Take it Personally

You and I both have bad days from time to time, and your customers do, too, so don’t hold it against them!

Even with the absolute worst barnacle customers, you need to practice pushing their mistreatment aside and recognize that you can’t control how miserable people act—but you can control how you react.

Stay positive, knowing that the next amazing customer is likely right around the corner.

What’s Next?

Looking for even MORE great information on handling customer complaints?

Download our resource A Brief Guide to Better Support Emails at absolutely no charge!

Thank you for reading. Please share this post if you enjoyed it.


Written by Gregory Ciotti Greg ciotti

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Erik C Apr 23

Very true. Might I add that a voice and a personality that is willing to resolve a customer's complaint will also be a key to a returning customer. Showing each customer that you are there to help them if problems arrive will almost always leave a smile on their faces.

Maryke Apr 25

The balance between Consumer and Supplier is such a delicate one - nobody is perfect, so nobody will ever be able to get it just right. I've experienced that Suppliers seem to be more "open" over the last few years and it's great to see that all is not lost. I've been fortunate enough to come across a great website which strives to bridge the gap between Consumer and Supplier. It's called http://hellopeter.com/ and it has changed my life.

amrita May 17

Very true and correctly given the following tips as for successfully retaining and providing them with maximum satisfaction the customers should be handled carefully very carefully.

Michael Jun 19

Wooo.. This article has a lot of points to consider. But, it's informative! What I like the most in this article is the point 5 and point 8.

Ravi Sharma Dec 28

This blog is really fantastic as I have gone through all the posts. I don't know why the blog mater is not interested in
posting some more relative information.

samol Yea Mar 28

Oh, it is very helpfull concept to deal with complaints.
I prefer taking some ways to practise handling.

Charlie Apr 20

I have been running a service business for about six years now and I really appreciated this article. Some of it is common sense and things you learn from your mother while sitting at the dinner table, but I have found that the most successful way to handle customer complaints is to do everything you can to prevent them WHILE doing the work. I have prevented so many call backs by affirming and reaffirming with customers while at the job site that they are happy before giving them the invoice and getting a check. It's surprising to many of my new employees how many customers will not complain face to face and will even say, "Thank you you guys did a great job!" and then send a customer feedback form with all kinds of critiques and criticisms!

I hate getting call backs so what I have learned to do is check in with the customer often while the service is being performed and make the customer as comfortable as possible so that they are more willing to "complain" while we are still there and we can get whatever issue they are having resolved quickly. Since I started doing this I have almost ZERO complaints because the complaints are PREVENTED in the first place. I understand it's probably different from business to business but this has helped us become almost a complaint free business and we get lots of referrals from implementing this practice.

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