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
- Ten steps to resolving customer complaints
- How to reduce customer complaints
- Take your customer service to the next level
Ten steps to resolving customer complaints
Start thinking creatively about how to respond to customer complaints using these suggestions.
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.
Here’s an example of what happened at Rackspace, a cloud computing company that prides itself on being “fanatical” about customer experiences. This one time, a major system failure broke down the company’s internal servers, including their phone system. Their employees quickly took the initiative to Tweet out their personal cell numbers, so customers could reach them despite a system failure.
Now, even though this wasn’t mentioned anywhere in any policy handbook, the company had empowered its employees to put their customers’ experience above everything!
Be a good listener
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey wrote:
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.Stephen R. Covey
According to him, people usually listen at four levels. They might ignore what’s being said, they might pretend to listen, they might listen selectively, or they might even listen attentively. Very few people listen empathetically.
For customer service professionals, empathetic listening is perhaps the most important skill, especially when it comes to dealing with customer problems. As Covey points out, empathetic listening is about listening with the intent to deeply understand a person and see the world as they see it.
Even when you’re dealing with customer emails, where you’re not “listening” in the usual sense, you should read thoughtfully and carefully. As a matter of fact, read an email more than once to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
Give your customers’ 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 answers 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.
Ask the right questions
Empathetic listening will help you understand a customer’s emotions and frustrations. The next important step is to get to the root of the issue they’re facing, and to do that, you’ll need to ask the right questions.
Ask open-ended questions that require a longer answer rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” Questions like:
- What do you mean by?
- 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.
With Hiver Notes, you can have contextual and private discussions about specific customer emails with your team, right next to an email thread.
Keep your cool
As a customer service professional, you’re bound to have encountered customers who’ve lost their cool for no fault of yours. In such cases, it’s important to always say respectful and calm, no matter how unjustified a customer’s reaction may be.
Lee Cockerell, the former COO of Walt Disney World, has some great advice on dealing with irate customers in his book, The Customer Rules. He writes:
“When a customer has a tantrum, it is vital not to take it personally. The anger is not about you—the customer doesn‘t even know you or care about you—it is about a situation. He‘s been disappointed or frustrated. Maybe she feels ripped off. The complaint may be totally unreasonable, and the reaction may be way over the top. Or not. Either way, it‘s not about you. It‘s about the circumstances.”Lee Cockerell, author, The Customer Rules
Cockerell shares six tips for responding to customers in such situations:
- Let your customers vent without interrupting them. Perhaps all they want is to be heard.
- Take complete responsibility for their problem without blaming it on someone else, or making excuses about it.
- Be quick to think of a reasonable solution to their problem, but even if you can’t find one right away, take your time to get back to them with something thoughtful. The key is to treat them with decency and help them calm down.
- Treat customers as though they’re always right (even when you know they’re not). You have a lot more to gain than lose by simply letting go.
- Make it convenient for customers to complain – have a contact number or an email address they can easily reach a trained team of “real” people. Consider it preventive medicine. As Cockerell puts it, “an ounce of complaint today is worth a pound of argument tomorrow.”
- Always remember – if you’ve won an argument with a customer, you’ve actually both lost.
Be a mirror
A great way to win over an upset customer is to acknowledge their frustration and speak their language. This shows them that you care (this is critical) and that they matter to you and to the company.
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.”
Always promise them a solution or a workaround. 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.
Apologize (even if it’s not your fault!)
Like we mentioned before, it’s important that you take responsibility for the inconvenience a customer is facing due to your product or service. Apologize to them even if it’s not your fault, and even if they’re mistaken.
A research study by The Nottingham School of Economics found that unhappy customers are more likely to forgive a company that offers them a heartfelt apology rather than one that compensates them.
The study reported that 45% of customers withdrew their negative evaluation of a company in light of an apology, while only 23% agreed to do the same in return for compensation.
Apologizing to your customers still means you can explain why a problem occurred without making excuses about it.
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.
Customize your communication
No two customers are the same, and neither should how you service them be. Learn to read the cues your customer is giving you, and tweak your communication with them accordingly. It’s often 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 their day.
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.
“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.
Go above and beyond
Most companies will have resolution policies and standard operating procedures in place. That’s great, but not enough. That should in fact be your jumping-off point to delight customers.
Best-in-class organizations 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!
Late Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos, was known to have built a strong culture of customer obsession at the company. Every employee at Zappos is encouraged to go out of their way to deliver memorable customer experiences. There’s a famous quote from Hsieh that says:
“When people call our call center, our reps don’t have scripts, and they don’t try to up-sell. They are just judged on whether they go above and beyond for the customer and really deliver a kind of personal service and emotional connection with our customers.”Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos
This is the kind of customer obsession that’s earned Zappos a huge base of loyal customers. In fact, 75% of its business comes from repeat customers, even though its prices are not exactly low.
Going the extra mile can not only turn customers’ negative experience around, it can also earn you their trust. Here are some tips on how you can wow customers when they come to you with complaints:
- Empower them with relevant information: Don’t just stop at resolving their problems; empower them with necessary resources that can help them resolve a problem the their own, should it arise again.
- Communicate honestly and frequently: Now this is very important. Be proactive about keeping the customer in the loop on the progress you’ve made regarding their complaint. Don’t wait for them to follow-up. Let them know what resolution to expect, and by when. At the same time, don’t make promises you can’t keep.
- Don’t hold back on the surprises: 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.
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.
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 like knowledge base 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.