A best practice guide to handling customer complaints

Handling customer complaints is a delicate art. An effective complaints handling policy is the difference between losing customers for good and winning back their goodwill.

But during a complaint, your margin for error is slim. The customer, after all, is already displeased. Your relationship with them is at a fragile point. So, the way you address their issue is the make-or-break factor in repeat business.  

How, then, can you effectively navigate the issue, without compromising company rules, and without further alienating the customer? Here’s a best practice guide to handling customer complaints.


Handling customer complaints: an opportunity

For every customer complaint, there are 26 other unhappy customers that haven’t reached out, and may never return.

That is to say, when a customer reaches out with a complaint, it’s not a bad thing — they’re giving you the chance to repair the relationship.

Indeed, there’s a phenomenon in the customer service world called the service recovery paradox. This paradox means that often, the customer will have a more positive view of your business after a complaint is resolved than before they ever had a problem.

No one likes complaining customers, but not everyone complains when there’s an issue. So, be grateful to those that give you the chance to fix things.


What to do: best practice

1.       Listen

Customers that have a problem first and foremost want to be listened to. They want empathy, they want to know that they’re being taken seriously. So, when customer complaints come into play, make sure to listen carefully, ask questions if you need more information, and acknowledge the issue.

2.       Be accessible and responsive

With so many customers not reaching out when they have a problem, it’s important to make it as easy as possible for those that do. Live chat software is a particularly powerful tool here as it allows customers to reach out and complain in real-time. But for that to work, agents need to be on top of their chats, and make sure they live up to the live promise.

3.       Apologise and thank

Whether you agree with the complaint or not, the customer believes that they’ve faced a problem. It’s important, then, to apologise for that. Apologies validate the customer’s feelings and help to start repairing the damage to the customer relationship. Be empathetic with your apology and use apology statements.

Also take the time to thank the customer for reaching out. They’re giving you a chance to fix things, and also data about what can go wrong — so thank them for their time and effort.

4.       Present and collaborate on an acceptable solution

Customer complaints come because the customer wants reparation. Maybe they need a billing issue fixed, a new product, a refund. Perhaps their case calls for an offer of compensation.

Whatever the issue, the customer likely has an ideal outcome in mind for reaching out to you. And that will involve solving the problem and/or making the customer ‘whole’ again. It’s not enough to hear their complaint, you need to do something about it.

So, handling customer complaints means working with the customer to this end. Check that they are happy with your offered solution, and make sure any questions they have are answered.

5.       Follow up

After a customer has complained, had a solution enacted, and had time for things to settle, send a follow-up communication to ask if everything is well with their solution. This is a small act that can emphasise that you care.

6.       Record the data

Customer complaints offer data to learn from — and hints at how you can improve your service, product(s), or business. They will show if there’s a trend in failures or issues that needs addressing, for instance.


What to avoid: worst practice

  • Get defensive

Customer complaints are not a personal attack. There’s no need to defend yourself, or the company from a customer coming to you reasonably upset about a problem or mistake they’ve fallen victim to.

  • Dismiss the issue

It’s infuriating when you reach out to someone and they brush you off, refuse to pay attention, and don’t try to engage. For complaining customers, this is all the more true. The customer has taken time to get in touch with someone that should be able and willing to help them.

So, they don’t want to instead get dismissed by a disinterested agent. An agent that cites policy and the inability to help. All this does is hurt the customer relationship, make your agents sound incompetent, and your business seem uncaring.

  • Rely too heavily on a script

A core skill for handling customer complaints is empathy. Empathy requires human connection; it requires listening and understanding. These are not traits you communicate when you stick rigidly to a script.


Make it or break it

Your style of handling customer complaints will determine whether you keep those customers or lose them.

The linchpins to dealing with a complaint are empathy and attentiveness. It’s all about reducing the effort for customers to reach out, being there to help, and showing that their patronage and their communication is greatly appreciated.


Useful links

The psychology behind the service recovery paradox

Apology statements: how to apologise to a customer

Agent empowerment: what is it, and why is it so important?

The pros and cons of live chat scripts