A Complete Guide: How to Handle Customer Complaints

Customer complaints are a reality of running any business. While receiving negative feedback is never going to be a pleasant experience, taking steps to handle it properly is key to making business-wide improvements and holding onto your customers. 

When approached with an open mind, customer complaints are actually an opportunity to improve your customer experience and boost your business. 

In the best-case scenario, your customer may even have a more positive view of your business after a complaint is resolved than before they even had an issue.

In this article, you’ll learn where and why customers are most likely to complain, how you should handle customer complaints, and how to best support your employees. 

What Are Customer Complaints?

Customer complaints demonstrate that there’s a mismatch between the product or service delivered and the customer’s initial expectations. 

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When complaints are one-off occurrences or mistakes, they can be interpreted as negative feedback and the relationship between the business and customer can usually be salvaged. When they’re consistent trends they need to be addressed at a more fundamental level, which we’ll cover later in this guide.

This conflict in expectations and results can be down to several different reasons: 

  • Scenarios that are outside your control. Sometimes things go wrong and they have nothing to do with your business or its offering. For example, if you own a local fresh fruit and vegetable grocery store that offers a local delivery service, poor weather conditions could result in delayed or canceled grocery deliveries, leading to an uptick in customer complaints.

Here’s an example of a complaint regarding a late food delivery made by a local pizza store:

  • Unreasonable expectations that are hard to meet. Occasionally customers have a long list of demands that are difficult for any business to meet. They may have unreasonable expectations regarding pricing, the level of service, or they may have misunderstood the product’s purpose.

This customer seems to have mismatched expectations with the service on offer which could probably have been resolved with clearer communication at the start: 

  • Misleading marketing around the business’s offering. When businesses misrepresent their products or services through their marketing and social media campaigns, customers may feel that they’ve signed up for something that doesn’t exist. 

This customer understood from the website that this pest control business offered a bed bug sniffing dog and was disappointed when the reality of the service was different:

  • Operational failures. Sometimes businesses may have a great product or service but fall down when it comes to the operational side. For instance, businesses that don’t train their staff properly or who use poorly implemented tech systems are more likely to receive customer complaints.
  • Mistakes happen. We’re only human and sometimes a business may mess up its customer service, or provide a poor quality product. When this happens, a representative of your business should always hold up their hands and admit to getting it wrong and provide a customer-approved solution.  

In this situation, it would be best for someone from the business to contact the dissatisfied customer and provide a solution:

Where Are Customers Most Likely to Complain? 

Depending on your business model and location, customers may have multiple options for lodging a complaint.  Customer feedback can appear in two different ways, public and private. Naturally, if you’re providing channels for private negative feedback you’re more likely to be able to handle these issues outside of the public eye. 

Here are some of the top ways customers usually choose to complain: 

  • Frontline staff. If you own a customer-facing business like a grocery store, delivery service, or gym, your customers may be more likely to complain in-person to a staff member who happens to be on duty.
  • Customer satisfaction surveys. If you send out regular customer satisfaction surveys and leave space for customers to leave feedback, they may use it as an opportunity to share complaints about your business’s offering.
  • Online reviews. Sometimes dissatisfied customers will use 3rd party review sites for complaining about your business. If you do receive online negative reviews, remember to acknowledge them and empathize with your customers. Check out our guide to replying to positive and negative reviews. 

Take a look at this negative Google review of a florist business: 

  • Over the phone or via email. Businesses that provide a more personalized service to a smaller group of customers, may receive more complaints directly to their phone lines or email.
  • Social media. Increasingly, customers are choosing to leave negative comments on business’ social media profiles. Twitter may be the most popular way for customers to complain, but it’s not uncommon to see negative comments on Instagram and Facebook profiles. 

Take a look at this Facebook comment left by a customer of Ikea: 

What Do Customers Typically Complain About? 

Regardless of industry, all businesses receive customer complaints at some point. Whether it’s as a result of a mistake made or due to an obstacle your customers have hit, there are certain scenarios that tend to provoke customer complaints. 

Having an awareness of what your customers typically complain about will not only help you improve your business’s offering but also help your employees prepare for handling common complaints.

Making an effort to consistently collect feedback from customers will allow you to stay on top of common complaints so you can improve your business and set your employees up for success in handling those complaints as they appear. 

Slow Customer Service 

Customers appreciate efficient customer service. Whether you run a restaurant or a plumbing business, customers like to feel that their time is respected. People live busy lives and can’t afford to waste time waiting in lines or on the phone. 

Long wait times indicate that your business doesn’t prioritize customer experience and that you may not have enough staff members to efficiently deal with your customers. 

Solution:

  1. Train your staff to communicate with customers when wait times exceed expectations.
  2. Evaluate your operations and try to adjust supply lines, processes, or signage to pre-emptively address potential bottlenecks.

Out of Stock Product or Unavailable Service

While an out-of-stock product or fully-booked service is usually an indication that your business is doing something right, customers can grow impatient and frustrated if there’s no availability for a long time. 

Customers may keep calling and emailing your business for updates about these unavailable services and products. Ultimately they may leave you negative feedback either online or in-person. 

Solution: 

  1. Train your staff to apologize to customers for the inconvenience of not having the product or service they were looking for.
  2. Set realistic expectations by being honest about when you next expect to have these products or services available. 

Low-Quality Product or Service

When products are sold damaged or they break shortly after purchase, you can expect customers to complain. 

For instance, if you run a local organic fresh fruit and vegetable shop, and a customer purchases bruised oranges, you can expect them to complain.

Take a look at this complaint about expired produce that’s been published on Google for the world to see:

Alternatively, if you run a catering company and the team shows up half an hour late to a birthday party, you can bet that the customer will be unhappy and complain to the lead organizer. 

Solution: 

  1. Acknowledge that the product or service was below your business’s usual high standards. 
  2. Identify a suitable solution, whether that’s a refund, store credit or a replacement product or service.
  3. Check-in with your customers to see if they are satisfied with the solution.

No Resolution 

If a customer has already complained about unsatisfactory service or a poor product, they’ll expect some sort of resolution within the days and weeks after the initial complaint. 

Take a look at this customer’s frustration at never receiving a resolution, ultimately they took their business elsewhere to a competitor: : 

When customers receive a satisfactory solution they’re more likely to feel positive about your business overall. But when customers lodge a legitimate complaint and they don’t receive any kind of suitable solution, they may feel doubly frustrated and lodge a second complaint. 

Solution: 

  1. Apologize for the slow response and explain that the team was searching for a suitable solution. 
  2. Clearly communicate the expected timeline for follow-up communication and the final resolution. 

No Follow-up

Customers who have time-sensitive requests or complaints may feel anxious about you finding a solution and will want consistent updates. 

Other customers may be more patient though and not expect a regular stream of communication. The best policy is for the staff member who’s handling the complaint to be upfront about expected response times and then stick to them.  No follow-up is always going to be unacceptable. When a follow-up doesn’t happen, it could be a result of a few occurrences: 

  • The team member handling the complaint forgot to follow up.
  • Staff were overwhelmed with requests and couldn’t handle all the customer complaints simultaneously. 
  • A tech solution failed – for example, your automated reminders never came through.

Complaint follow-up best practices: 

  1. It’s ok not to have the solution right away. Always communicate with the customer that you are actively trying to solve the issue. 
  2. Set customer expectations by providing a realistic timeline for resolution. If you know it will take a few days to resolve the problem, don’t promise a solution for the next day. 
  3. Think about the channel through which the customer made the complaint and the acceptable response time. 24 hours is acceptable for a negative online review or an email, but a few hours or less is generally expected for in-person or phone complaint
  4. If a complaint is time-sensitive, reassure customers by providing a few regular updates.

How Should Local Businesses Handle Complaints?

If your business can understand the cause of the problem, resolve the issue, and effectively communicate to the customer throughout, you may be able to turn complaining customers into loyal advocates of your brand. 

1. Make it Easy for Customers to Complain

If a customer needs to share negative feedback about your product or service, having to bend over backward to the business’s complaint procedure will only further annoy an already agitated customer. 

To help create a solid customer experience, customers need to feel that the business cares about their thoughts. When customers complain, it should be easy for them to share their honest opinions and thoughts with a business. 

Businesses need to provide customers with multiple avenues for them to share their thoughts. 

You could encourage customers to share their thoughts by:

  • Putting a form on your website to encourage feedback and complaints.
  • Posting a feedback link in your newsletter, social media platforms, and in-store.
  • Actively ask your customers for their opinions.

Here’s an example of helping customers easily leave feedback on a business website:

Proactively asking your customers for honest feedback is a great way of preventing complaints from escalating. Sending out customer satisfaction surveys at regular intervals is one way of checking in with your customers and seeing how they feel about your business. 

Learn how to create effective customer satisfaction surveys and try some of our sample questions. 

2. Use it as an Opportunity for Uncovering Valuable Insights

Customer complaints provide useful insights into what may not be working for your business. When customers complain, ask valid questions to dig deeper into what caused the issue in the first place. 

When registering a complaint, consider asking customers the following questions:

  • Could you elaborate on that point more? 
  • Could you clarify what you mean by that?
  • Could you provide me with an example?

Customer complaints are also a good time for some self-reflection. 

Ask yourself:

  • Am I making any assumptions about the customer or complaint?
  • Do I need any further details? 
  • Why is this complaint significant for my business? 

Asking the right questions will help you uncover the root of the problem and how you might be able to resolve it. Depending on how your business is structured, you may choose a designated team member to handle complaints and uncover insights. For instance, in a local grocery store, it may make sense for the team manager to take charge of customer complaints. 

Alternatively, if you run a pest control service, it may be best for the bookings manager to handle customer complaints since they may have the most customer contact. Your bookings manager or receptionist would then need to report these insights to the manager or owner on a monthly or quarterly basis.

3. Respond Efficiently and Proactively

Acceptable response times depend on the nature of the complaint. Customers who leave negative feedback about your restaurant’s new seasonal menu may not mind if you take all day to respond. 

But a customer who calls to complain about a plumber who was meant to show up 5 hours ago is going to be more than frustrated if you take a week to respond. 

Take a look at this prompt same-day review response:

Keep in mind these complaint response best practices: 

  • If the feedback is public, respond publicly. It’s an opportunity to show future customers you’re capable and willing to right a wrong.
  • Read through the complaint thoroughly. Use the customer’s own words to personalize your reply.
  • Offer a solution.  Showing empathy for the situation and being respectful is vital to successful response management, but a solution is at the core of what the customer wants. Always provide a solution that’s appropriate to the complaint, whether that be compensation, a refund, or replacement. 
  • Put the right person in charge. Make sure that the person replying to negative reviews has the authority to offer solutions.

Taking time to regularly monitor your customer complaints is important to ensure you don’t miss one. Set up GatherUp’s customer activity dashboard to stay on top of customer feedback and better manage customer experience. You could set up notifications for negative feedback so you don’t risk missing it. 

4. Identify a Suitable Solution and Follow up to See if You Solved Their Problem

Once you’ve found the cause of the customer complaint, identified a suitable solution, and proposed that solution to the customer, make you follow up to see if you successfully solved their problem. 

This response to a negative review identifies an opportunity to provide a solution in the form of a refund: 

Customers appreciate businesses that care about their experience and their overall satisfaction. 

You can then follow up with customers by: 

  • Asking them if there’s anything else you can do to help them.
  • Simply asking if the solution worked out for them. 

5. Record the Complaint and Analyze Patterns

When you receive a complaint, it’s important to record the type of complaint and who it came from. 

The complaint could come from: 

  • A regular customer 
  • A one-off customer
  • A high-value customer 

If you receive multiple complaints about the same issue from a similar type of customer point, then it’s clear there’s a recurring problem.

It’s important to identify high-volume complaints as these can point to dominant issues throughout your business. 

Using GatherUp’s advanced reporting features you could filter, sort, customize and compare different complaints, and feedback. When you correctly identify repeat complaints and take steps to change the narrative, it’ll become easier to resolve recurring issues. 

How Can You Support Your Employees to Properly Handle Complaints? 

Business managers need to provide employees with proper guidance to ensure they feel well equipped and empowered to effectively resolve complaints on the business’s behalf. 

Clear guidance and policies will also help ensure each customer complaint receives a standardized level of attention and those complaints are recorded properly. 

Create a Clearly Written Complaint Handling Document

Write a set of guidelines that clearly outline how employees should deal with customer complaints. It’s a good idea to make the document as comprehensive as possible so employees feel confident in a range of different situations. 

As we mentioned earlier, if you’re consistently collecting feedback, you should be familiar with common customer complaints and have a specific way for your employees to be able to handle them. That way, they’ll understand what’s expected of them as the complaints arise. 

Try to provide guidance on how they should react, how to escalate the complaint, and provide possible solutions.  

Make sure the complaint-handling document is circulated throughout your business and easily accessible to all staff members. After reading the document, team members should hopefully feel confident making their own judgment calls and handling different situations. 

Give Your Staff Tools to Resolve Different Types of Complaints

In-person or virtual training sessions are an interactive way of helping employees feel confident in handling complaints. You could try incorporating role-play sessions where you show employees the potential set of complaints that customers could present. 

Reevaluate Your Business’s Complaint Handling

Handling customer complaints is one of the more challenging aspects of working in a customer-facing role. Remember to check in on your employees on a quarterly basis to see how they’re holding up in these situations. If your employees don’t feel well-equipped, it’s important that steps are taken at a managerial level to provide more tools and training sessions.

Final Thoughts

Customer complaints are a reality of running a business. When handled correctly though they’re an opportunity to improve customer experience and enhance your business’s offering. 

Make it a priority to work on the issues customers complain about, and proactively improve the way your business deals with negative feedback. Try implementing a few of our suggestions for handling complaints and see how you can retain more loyal customers. 

Related reading: 

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