8 Steps for Dealing with Customer Complaints

In June, Mike Blumenthal takes a deep look at customer complaints with a series of articles.  View all of the posts covering strategy, ideas, customer insight, survey data and more to improve how your business handles customer complaints.

Planning for the inevitable will make you a better business.  Complaints from your customer are inevitable and are a fact of business life. And while they can be hard to deal with, it makes sense to plan for the inevitable and try to minimize the impacts on your business.

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If you can make sure that more of those people that are unhappy come back to your business you will be miles ahead of most of your competitors. But you can’t improve what you don’t measure.

Getting Ready To Handle Complaints

Here are some ideas for developing a plan that can help you cope with most complaints.

1- Put Your Complaint Plan In Writing

Complaints happen. Its best to have thought through the process ahead of time and to try to stick to the plan to keep bad from getting worse. If you follow the plan you can focus on the issues at hand and not let (the very real) emotions get the best of you,

Responding to complaints is different than responding to a bad review but equally critical. With a bad review you have likely already lost the customer and are writing to your prospects.

The goal in handling a complaint is twofold. Primarily it’s purpose is to retain the customer and secondarily to avoid that bad review to could expose your problems to the world wide web (and world wide is how far a bad review can go).

2- Make your company complaint policy and process responsive.

Make it easy to complain and empower every employee to handle a complaint. If you can’t do that then create a clearly defined funnel in your organization that can move the complaint quickly and efficiently to the right person.

Spend some time thinking about making the complaint process easy for your customer; make it obvious on your website, offer a number of alternatives for contacting you with a complaint including email and text, post signage in your store.

easy complaint process

Put in place a system to follow up with every customer and make it easy for them to give you feedback. Integrate your complaint process directly into that follow up and let folks know that you welcome their opinions.

I recently responded to a survey from Delta about a recent flight that was an absolute disaster for me. I thought it was good chance to let them know how I felt about my experience. It was a numbers only survey and I had to spend another 10 minutes on Twitter and their website to eventually find the totally separate complaint form. It seemed to me that Delta didn’t really want to hear what I had to say.

Everybody will have a different avenue where they feel comfortable giving you a complaint and your job is to make sure that they have the opportunity.

Handling the Complaint

Let’s look at what process you can follow to best handle the situation when a complaint comes in.

1- Own the issue

I had a recent problem with a car rental and rather than listen, every level of staff that I interacted with wanted to pass the issue to another person or department. That pass the buck attitude turned out to reflect the general attitude of the company and convinced me in the end that they just didn’t care.

We live in a commercial culture where cost cutting and low service levels are the norm. Customer service departments have not only been cut back but their authority has often been limited. Own the issue and the customer will take note.

2- Respond quickly to all complaints. Think minutes or hours, not days.

respond fast

People want to be heard and nothing shows you are listening more than a fast response. It took Delta almost a week to get back to me. In that week, it seemed to me that I had wasted my time in filling out the form and I might as well not have wasted my time.

Responding quickly sends all the right signals to your customer that you do care and you did hear.

3- Don’t just pretend to listen, hear the customer.

People want to be respected and treated fairly. Part of that is actively listening to them and being sure that you hear them out.

Its hard but you need to be able to listen carefully and acknowledge your customer’s pain and their complaint in a sincere way. When I did finally hear back from Delta, the response was written in a way that seemed so formulaic and so canned that it could have been written by an untrained bot. Take the time to ask questions and better understand exactly what went wrong.

In a recent survey where I asked customers what they expected when they took a complaint to a local merchant they noted:

I expect courtesy and active listening to what I am saying. I expect respect.

To know that I have been heard.

Willingness to listen.

4- Explain what went wrong to the customer.

All too often companies jump right from “listening” to “resolving”. The customer deserves an explanation that is forthright and honest. I recognize that sometimes its not possible to provide the complete, unvarnished tale of events that caused the problem but often a good explanation is all the customer is really looking for.

For my bad experience flying, an explanation might have helped. Why did Delta take the pilots for my flight and put them on another flight? Delta isn’t saying but they should have. Maybe there was a good reason I was stranded at the gate but if there was I was left wondering despite asking several times.

5- Occasionally put the customer (or yourself) in timeout.

These conversations can be hard and sometimes these conversations go south. If the customer remains angry, capture their info and call them back. Give them a short time frame. Trying to resolve a problem with an angry person will be far too difficult. Some are angry and calm down and others remain out of control. Too hot to handle is just to hot. (This tip came directly from Nicholas at Verbatim Marketing.)

You might find that it is you that gets angry and in doing so might make the problem worse. Take a moment to excuse yourself and if you can’t find the needed composure ask your team for reinforcements.

6- Act to resolve the situation.

Try to come up with a solution that not just fixes what went wrong but actually leaves the customer as whole as can be or even more so if that is even possible.

It costs a lot to replace a customer and it costs even more in lost business if their bad review is seen by hundreds or even thousands of readers.

Sometimes it is just impossible to actually resolve the situation. Imagine that you are a local agent for a national insurance firm and you get a complaint about pricing. There is no real resolution. In that situation move from an effort to resolve to advocacy on their behalf.

An honest complaint is worth its weight in gold and the customer has already paid in suffering.  I understand that sometimes customers can be silly and or even be malicious but erring on the side of generosity in most situations, even in the face of unreasonable behavior, will serve you well in the long run.

7- Reward them for their effort.

The customer that took the time to complain not only didn’t get to experience your product or service fully, they wasted time doing so and spent additional time returning to your place of business.

While it may have been hard for them, they reached out in an effort to resolve the situation. Recognize their contribution and help ease the pain with a gift, gift certificate or special consideration.

reward customer complaints

8- Follow up with the customer and ask how you did with their complaints.

When its all over, ask one more time for feedback. Its just as important to refine you complaint process as it is to refine your sales process.

At GetFiveStars we think that its better to earn reviews by being a great business than ask for them and cross your fingers. To be the best business you can be, you need to be ready and willing to encourage complaints.

We have baked the complaint process directly into our process. It not only minimizes the chance of a bad review it gives you a chance to shine in your customers eyes and improve. We feel strongly that the best way to get more reviews is to earn them by being a great business. One step along that path is giving your customers a chance to let you know how to improve.

How do you handle complaints? Let us know what you would add to the list.

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