How to Handle Complaints

All businesses receive complaints from customers for the simple reason that you cannot please everyone. It’s disappointing and upsetting when you have an unhappy customer but that’s not the way to approach a complaint. I’ve lost count of the times that businesses have failed to respond to my complaints in a constructive manner. On the other hand, I’m often touched by genuine attempts to make amends, to resolve the complaint constructively and to ensure that our relationship (however minor) remains intact.

Why Is this Important?

Successful businesses value their customers. It sounds cliché but repeat business means a steady income. They know that things go wrong but that responding promptly and productively to complaints will diffuse emotions and instil a feeling of importance. If they don’t do this, their reputation as a reliable service or product provider may be damaged, especially through social media.

The Right Conflict Mindset

Businesses should not take complaints personally. Having a healthy view of conflict will allow you to see past your emotional response and to see the bigger picture. You want repeat customers. You want to grow and develop and even if those aren’t your goals, you don’t want the negative press associated with neglecting, ignoring or failing to prioritise complaints. By seeing a complaint as an opportunity to change something for the better, you can use a more considered approach to resolve it.

I experienced this most recently when I hired a car from London Stansted to Peterborough during the Beast from the East. When I arrived at the airport, there were no trains because of heavy snowfall, there were no coaches and the price of a taxi was horrendously high. It was approaching 9pm and so I hired a car from an obscure rental company. After being taken by an unmarked van to an industrial estate, I arrived at the branch office to find the manager arguing with two other customers. After what seemed like forever, I was given a car with 4 miles of petrol left in the tank, in sub-zero conditions at almost midnight. By the time I had realised, I was already on the motorway, desperately praying I would find a 24-hour petrol station.

When I complained in writing, I was directed to the manager of that branch. The man who had handled my concerns in a nonchalant, couldn’t-care-less manner (and I’m being polite!). Unsurprisingly, he referred me to the terms and conditions and totally ignored how stressful I found the whole episode.

I wrote back to the company and asked for somebody else to review my complaint. This was ignored. I then took to Twitter and Facebook, only to be told that the company did not appreciate groundless complaints and that if I continued, action would be taken against me. Life took over and eventually I gave up. But I will never recommend the company to anybody, let alone contract with them again! And I wasn’t alone in that….

Top Tips

Here are a few tips to help you deal with complaints, especially if you don’t know where to start:

  • The customer is important to you. Keep in mind that you need to know about defective products, suppliers or employees who need further training.
  • Think about when your own complaints were badly handled and how it made you feel. Can you put yourself in the customer’s position? How did you feel when the complaint was handled well?
  • Aim to diffuse emotions. It is always best to discuss a complaint directly with the customer but this takes time and resources, especially if you have several complaints to deal with. However, you should acknowledge emotions even in an email by saying something along the lines of “I see that you were disappointed with our service/ product. We don’t know what went wrong and we are sorry that this has caused you inconvenience. We would appreciate if we could take 48 hours to look into this and get back to you.” Telling them that you have complied with the terms and conditions will damage your relationship. It sounds defensive and implies that the customer is illiterate and careless. It’s likely to irritate the customer further!
  • Give the customer a time frame for responding. You should always, without fail, let the customer know that you will respond within a certain time-frame. If you can’t make the deadline, you must make the customer aware of this and explain why. Be warned that this has a limit. I recall being told by another company I was complaining about, that they would respond within 24 hours. They told me they needed more time to investigate, after which I called three times for a response, eventually lost patience and demanded a full refund. Don’t take advantage of a customer’s patience!
  • Don’t immediately offer compensation. You need to establish whether the complaint is justified and you need time and distance to think about how to respond constructively (but let the customer know, you will respond within 48 hours etc.). When thinking about resolving complaints, compensation by way of a refund is an option but you could also put right the defect. If the customer describes a particularly sensitive or difficult experience, you could be more creative in making amends. I have received flowers, cards and vouchers but the most effective resolution I have received was a sincere telephone call from a senior member of staff, expressing an apology. I wasn’t dealing with a company, I was dealing with a human being. That’s how the process should feel.

Many businesses have complaints procedures in place to avoid having to re-invent the wheel. If you haven’t already got one, you should consider drafting one. This is especially true if your default conflict style is to avoid it or to confront it enthusiastically.

 As a business owner, you should see complaints as a way to gain insight into your customer experience and how you can improve the way you relate to them. Remember, communication is key!

What are your experiences? Leave a comment!

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