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Free Article – Dealing With Customer Complaints

How to turn a negative into a positive

Key learning outcomes:

  • Establish that customer complaints have both negative and positive implications for a business.
  • Implement a process for dealing with customer complaints to ensure your staff apply a consistent and professional approach.
  • Understand that it is better to seek solutions than look for someone to blame when things go wrong.
  • Acknowledge the power of the internet and social media in monitoring the customer’s experience.


It does not matter who you are or what business you are in it is unlikely that getting a customer complaint is something you enjoy receiving. A complaint means that someone out there that is not happy with either your product or service, and this can be confronting and disappointing. While your initial reaction might be negative, it is important to change to a positive mindset as soon as possible. Be grateful that the customer took the time to tell you rather than others about their problem, and use it as an opportunity to learn and improve. This article gives you tips and tools to use in your business to ensure you turn customer complaints into a positive exercise for your business.

Have a protocol for dealing with complaints

It is important to have a system that allows you to deal with customer complaints in a consistent and timely manner. This should include a standard of behaviour for every employee in the business to adopt should a complaint come in. The system will ensure that employees don’t panic if they receive a complaint and that they communicate effectively with the customer when explaining the steps that will follow. This gives the customer confidence that their grievance is being taken seriously and that it can be resolved. Your protocol should include delivering the standard initial response, and giving an indication of who will deal with the complaint, who will communicate with the customer and the timeframe for completing the next step.

Avoid the blame game 

When a complaint comes in, it might be tempting to spend time figuring out who is to blame. However, you need to look at the situation from the customer’s perspective; they do not care who was at fault or how things went wrong – they are only interested in how you are going to fix it. As a leader, if you promote the philosophy that mistakes are acceptable as long as the same mistakes are not made over and over again, you will find that your team will be more open and honest when things do go wrong.

Own the problem

It is not unusual in business for a third party to be involved in an issue. For example, they may have purchased a faulty product that was manufactured by another business. Once again you need to think about this issue from the customer’s perspective. The transaction was with you and not the manufacturer; therefore, their problem lies with you and your business. In some cases, for example the purchase of big-ticket items such as a car, it may not be possible to simply give the customer a new product. However, you need to ensure that you own the problem and do not simply pass the buck.

The best defence is not to attack

The best way to deal with a complaint in the first instance is to apologise to the customer and be understanding. By doing this you are more likely to diffuse any anger the customer may have, which will allow you to deal with the problem in a calm and logical manner. There is little point adding fuel to the fire by being defensive or aggressive.

Of course there can be occasions when the issue is due to some degree to the customer’s own actions. For example, think about the person who turns up late for a restaurant booking and is angry that they cannot be seated immediately, or the person who complains their delivery is late when they had ordered after a deadline. It can be tempting to tell this person in no uncertain terms that they are in the wrong, but chances are they already know this. From a business point of view, we need to be clear on our policies upfront and ensure they are adequately communicated. It’s often best to deal with the situation at hand, and then very politely, but firmly, explain to the customer how the situation can be avoided in the future.

Timing is everything

A customer complaint is a little like a festering wound; without proper and immediate attention you can be left with a situation that worsens over time. The faster you can resolve a complaint, the better the outcome is likely to be. A customer complaint can be turned into a positive with swift and decisive action. The customer can be left so impressed with your sense of urgency to resolve their issue that they move from being disgruntled to being an advocate for your business.

No news is not good news

Too often a complaint is left unresolved because the business has not heard back from the customer and so assumes that they have forgotten about it. The business thinks no news is good news, but this simply gives a false sense of security. More likely the customer has become busy or focused on other priorities in their life; but rest assured they have not forgotten! The onus is on your business to ensure that the situation is resolved. The last thing you want is to have customers out in the marketplace with unresolved issues or problems spreading bad news about their experience.

Follow through 

It can be tempting once a complaint is resolved to leave it at that point. By adding one extra step to your procedure, you can ensure that your customer is not just satisfied with the outcome, but is also impressed with your level of care and attention. Ideally, someone other that the person who dealt with the complaint should make a follow-up call five to seven days after the resolution date. This way you can ensure the customer is satisfied with the outcome after they have had some time to think further about it. If they deal with someone else, they are more likely to be completely open and honest.

Understand the greater ramifications

One customer complaint, when your business has hundreds or thousands of customers on its books, may seem insignificant. This is a dangerous way to think in this day and age of high technology. Even before mobile phones and social media, it was more likely that an unhappy rather than a happy customer would talk about their experience. These days a customer has access not just to their immediate circle of friends, family and work colleagues, but an audience of hundreds, thousands and even millions of people through the internet and social media. A bad online review can have an impact not only on your current customers, but also on potential customers’ assessment of your business. Therefore, the way you handle a customer complaint is more important than ever.

Treat it as a learning opportunity

One of the keys to dealing with customer complaints successfully is to treat them as an opportunity to improve your business. It would be an unusual business if nothing ever went wrong. The key is to learn from mistakes to ensure that they do not keep happening over and over again. To survive in business today, it is essential to adopt a mindset of continual improvement. One of the key ways to do this is to listen to the feedback that you get from your customers.


The most important thing when dealing with a customer complaint is to be grateful that the customer took the time to let you know that something is not working as well as it could be. As a leader, it is essential that you provide an environment where solutions are the focus rather than blame and excuses. Use this article in conjunction with the others in this section of the website to ensure that you and your team are providing the best possible service to your customers.

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