How to Handle Customer Complaints

Apr 19, 2021
Customer Experience
9 min read
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Handling customer complaints is probably not your favorite part of your customer service job. That’s understandable. Dealing with unhappy, frustrated, or downright angry customers isn’t most people’s idea of a fun time. However, learning how to deal with customer complaints to everyone’s satisfaction will look good for you and your organization, and it may even win you a loyal customer for life.

So why do customers complain?

The simplest explanation is that there is a gap between the customer’s expectations and the reality of what was delivered. These gaps can come about whenever:

  • Your customer misunderstands or wrongly assumes something about the product or service they are buying.
  • Your customer has a bad experience during some part of the order process or while using the product itself.
  • Something happens that’s outside your company’s control (say by a 3rd party, such as a retailer, distributor, or online marketplace.)
  • A legitimate mistake has been made on your or your company’s part.

In any business, customer complaints are inevitable. But it’s never been more important to handle customer complaints skillfully.

Why? Because word of mouth still rules, and these days dissatisfied customers can use more platforms than ever to get attention. As a result, they can reach more people with a single complaint. Think about all the places they can leave reviews — Amazon, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and any number of local review sites or websites.

On the other hand, happy customers will refer you, and customers whose problems have been resolved often become more loyal than they were before, thanks to a phenomenon known as the Service Recovery Paradox.

Customers had good reasons to choose you in the first place. They still want a solution to their problem. So be a hero and give one to them.

Not only is it a chance to improve, but it could be the differentiator that helps your organization become best-in-class.

So stop dreading customer complaints. Instead, embrace them and learn to handle them.

Even if the customer ends up leaving, you can smooth the waters and hopefully let them go with a more favorable impression.

Here are 10 steps that will help you on your way.

Table of Contents

10 steps to resolving customer complaints

Start thinking creatively about how to respond to customer complaints using these suggestions.

1. Prioritize care over speed (yes, really!)

It’s important to respond quickly to customer complaints. That’s a given in today’s business environment. You need a foolproof system that lets you delegate and assign emails seamlessly and make sure that no emails fall through the cracks. The longer a customer waits to hear back from you, the tougher it may be for you to recover their goodwill.

At the same time, you can’t afford to let the quality of support suffer. You know the saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s especially true when it comes to customer service. So allow yourself or your team a little leeway when responding to complaints. When you trust and empower your team to come up with creative responses that thrill your customers, they will rise to the occasion.

Many companies set internal goals to beat their Service Level Agreements (SLAs.) This can be a fun team challenge. For example, if in your SLA, you commit to responding to emails within 24 hours, you may want to set an unpublished, internal goal to respond within 8 or 12 hours. This is a great way to impress your customers and earn their appreciation.

2. Be a good “listener”

This may be the most important point on this list, even though when you’re dealing with email, you’re not “listening” in the usual sense. Instead, read thoughtfully and carefully. As a matter of fact, read the email more than once to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

Give your customer’s email your full attention — especially if it’s a longer thread that you’re just joining. Don’t jump to conclusions or start composing your answer in your head just yet.

Humanize the exchange. Even if your company uses scripts, you can make your correspondence a genuine conversation. Use your name. Connect person-to-person. You might have to practice this a little, but it will soon become natural.

Your customer needs to feel “heard” — especially through email when meaning can be easily lost — before he or she will be willing to listen to you.

The six elements of effective listening | Center for creative Leadership

3. Strive to understand

If the issue isn’t immediately clear, you may need to ask questions until you get at the root of the problem as well as the customer’s emotions or frustrations.

Ask open-ended ones that require a longer answer rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” Questions like:

  • What do you mean?
  • Tell me more.
  • Can you explain?
  • Can you give an example, provide a screenshot, etc.?
  • What does a successful outcome look like for you?
  • Is there anything else?

Understand what kind of resolution they are hoping for, if they haven’t been specific. Do they want their money back? Do they want you to walk them through a solution to their problem? Do they want a replacement product?

If follow-ups are needed, always encourage the customer to reach out to you personally. If there’s a chance that their issue may be escalated and someone else will be jumping in, be sure to leave notes for the next person. There’s nothing more frustrating to a customer than having to explain themselves from the beginning to someone else.

4. Keep your cool

Understand that your customers’ emotions are related to the situation and not personal. The customer isn’t mad at you or attacking you. They are upset over the situation. Do your best to remember this and it will be easier for you to stay calm.

Read your response out loud, or if it’s a particularly tricky situation, ask a coworker or boss to read it over. If you’re feeling frustrated, angry, or defensive, stand up and shake it off — or even go for a quick walk if you have to before hitting “send.”

5. Be a mirror

Acknowledge your customer’s frustration and reflect it back to them. This shows that you care (this is critical) and that they matter to you and to the company.

Don’t challenge your customer, even if they’re wrong. Instead, be empathetic.

Use phrases like, “I understand you’re disappointed,” “I see you’re upset,” “If I were you, I’d feel the same way,” and, “I can see how that would be really frustrating.”

Assure them there’s a solution.

Finally, sum up with something like, “So if I understand you correctly [explain the situation]. I can see how that would be really frustrating.”

Mirroring your customer’s issue back to them, along with restating the impact, helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page and resolution can begin.

6. Apologize (even if it’s not your fault!)

This might seem like surprising advice: apologize — even if it’s not your fault, and even if the customer is mistaken. But it’s an important step.

You can apologize for the misunderstanding even if the issue isn’t yours or the company’s fault. You can apologize for the frustration or inconvenience without taking on blame unfairly.

Definitely own up to any mistakes that were made and take ownership of the solution, even if the situation wasn’t in your control. And be sure to admit it when you know your team can do better.

You can explain without excusing. Here’s what that means.

When you give an excuse, you shift or sidestep the blame to some circumstance that is outside your control. Even though your excuse may be true, it puts you in a defensive position. It’s an emotional response that may seem like you’re trying to convince the customer that their experience or emotions aren’t valid. That’s not the goal.

An explanation, on the other hand, clarifies the cause or reason without minimizing the impact. The emotion is left out of it.


  • Excuse: “You can’t blame us because the shipper destroyed the package!”
  • Explanation: “It looks like there was an accident during shipping. I’m sorry about that. I’ll pass this on to our shipping department and make sure that we get a replacement out to you right away.”

Same situation, but the second response is more positive and empowering.

Apologizing to angry customers goes a long way in service recovery | CoSchedule

7. Notice and Respond to Customer Cues

Learn to read and react to the cues your customer is giving you. Often it’s helpful to imagine customers taking on certain personalities. For example, you may have:

  • The Blusterer: If your customer is especially upset, they may spend a little more time in their email decompressing or blowing off steam. Be patient and let them. Don’t allow it to affect you emotionally.
  • The Rusher: If your customer seems to be in an extreme hurry, stressing the urgency of the problem or seeming unwilling to slow down and give enough detail, asking brief, open-ended, probing questions as in #3 above will help.
  • The Challenged: Some folks aren’t tech-savvy. Others may be new to your product or service. These customers may need a little extra education and TLC before they understand. You will win loyalty points if you’re patient when dealing with them.
  • The Know-it-All: If your customer is knowledgeable or has insider insight into the issue, they may try to tell you how to do your job. Try to educate them respectfully. Compliment them for understanding the issue so well. In the end, if they’re not receptive to your feedback, at least you know you did your best. But most will come around.
  • The Straight-Up Simple: If the issue is simple, with a simple fix, and your customer knows that, then too many extraneous, probing questions will be annoying. Adjust your approach to the situation at hand. Solve the problem quickly and allow your customer to get on with her day.

8. Don’t waste customers’ time

If you need to escalate your customer’s issue to a manager or specialist, don’t delay. Tell them that you’re not the right person to help them, explain why, and explain exactly what will happen when you turn them over to the right person.

For example:

“I have to pull in the tech team on this issue. I’m going to forward this to [department] or [person’s name]. They will [take specific action.] You should hear back via email within [timeframe]. Please reach out to me if you don’t hear back, or if you have any questions in the meantime.”

Make sure your system or processes allow the next person to be fully briefed so that your customer has a seamless support experience.

Your customers will definitely appreciate the clear communication and extra effort that you’ve taken.

9. Go above and beyond

Most companies will already have resolution policies and standard operating procedures in place. That’s great, but it doesn’t mean that you need to stop there. As a matter of fact, you shouldn’t. Instead, think of those recommended solutions as a jumping-off point.

Best-in-class organizations will also offer customer support teams latitude in deciding how best to help customers. For example, a local high-speed Internet provider may offer a free month of service if you experience any downtime during the month. Talk about a pleasant surprise!

So in addition to the usual advice of making answers easy to find by sending appropriate links and resources, you can:

  • Be crystal clear: What is the cause of the problem? What is the resolution? How long is it going to take? What will the end result be? Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Communicate frequently: Keep the customer updated on progress and give them a heads-up if there are delays.
  • Go the extra mile: Think about solutions that don’t cost your company a lot (or anything at all) but could translate into a lot of value for your customer. Has your customer experienced costly downtime? A partial refund might be in order. Have they been frustrated and inconvenienced? Maybe you can offer a free add-on, additional program or service, or an upgrade. Surprise them by sending a physical card or gift, or a coupon toward future purchases.

Your team can brainstorm more options.

Don’t be afraid to go a little overboard. A customer who is thrilled will prove extremely loyal and will recommend you highly.

10. Close the loop

Finally, don’t forget to follow up.

Verify that the customer is satisfied and ask if they need assistance with any other issues.

Your company may have procedures already in place, for example, they may send a survey immediately afterward.

Here again, though, you have an opportunity to go above and beyond your standard operating procedures:

  • You could build a personal relationship by letting customers know that they can reach out to you personally in the future.
  • You could check in with them several days later to make sure all is well.
  • You or your team could send special holiday or birthday messages.

None of this has to take a whole lot of time or detract from your usual duties. Again, consider bringing these ideas with your team and see what might be easily added and optimally automated.

Closing the loop on customer complaints is one of the most effective ways for business growth | Customer Gauge

Of course, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t receive any complaints at all. Let’s look at a few innovative ways to minimize customer complaints.

How to reduce customer complaints

Here are some ideas for up-leveling your customer service game:

  • Prioritize constantly building your company’s knowledge base: One of the best ways to improve customer happiness is to keep relevant, easy-to-find education at their fingertips. When a customer can find the solutions that they’re seeking without having to contact you at all, it’s a win-win for everyone involved. As a matter of fact, Forrester has found that 90% of customers want immediate answers to their questions, and they prefer website or online solutions over all other self-service options.
  • Make sure that you have omnichannel tracking and support available: Customers now expect to be able to reach you through more channels than ever before. Do you receive feedback on your Facebook page or Twitter account? What about from your Amazon or eBay marketplaces? Your social media manager probably directs unhappy customers to e-mail support. That’s fine, but what about complaints that fall through the cracks because the customer never follows up? If your goal is outstanding customer service, consider at least tracking those issues, even if you can’t directly provide support through those channels.
  • Involve the whole team: This is another area where your team efforts to go the extra mile can really help your organization to shine. You want to close the loop but also set the stage for continuous improvement. Your data analysis and tracking should allow you to use your data and reports to:
    • Improve product and service quality issues.
    • Identify process and training gaps.
    • Improve customer service metrics.
    • Feed into other BI tools for further analysis.

This is where your team’s creativity comes into play. What are some ways you could delight your customers with the unexpected? Many of the ideas that you generated in Step 9 above could be used here directly or could inspire other ideas. Follow other best-in-class organizations and see how you can adapt their ideas. Bonus tip: these companies don’t have to be in the same industry you are, as a matter of fact, it’s probably best if they’re not.

Take your customer service to the next level

Your reputation matters. Providing excellent and innovative resolutions to customer complaints can help your company stand out. It’s a real competitive advantage that will pay off with loyal customers over the long haul.

But of course, you need the right tech foundation, including the right customer service solution.

Once you have a solid complaint resolution process in place, you can start improving it. So involve your team, get creative, and watch your customer satisfaction metrics rise.

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Leanne Regalla is a B2B conversion copywriter who helps SaaS, tech, and supply chain companies to build leads, trust, and industry authority. Visit her website at B2Bcopywriting.co or connect with her on LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/leregalla/