The art of responding to complaints

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:23 pm

The art of responding to complaints

By Marcia Gauger, for SBT

Question: I’m not sure what customers want when they complain. I try to be as proactive as possible, but some customers seem like they don’t know what they want. Can you shed any light on this?

Answer: Most people don’t complain when they have problems, they simply go away and then complain to others. So, in one respect, you should be happy to receive complaints. However, it’s frustrating when you genuinely try to resolve an issue for a customer without getting feedback in return.

Complaining is an emotional process. As customers "blows off steam," they aren’t thinking about what would make them happy as a result. That’s why it’s important to implement follow-up processes. A quick call to the customer a day or two after the complaint occurred will reveal a calmer more rational customer. One who is emotionally discharged and has thought through more reasonable demands.

Some people don’t like conflict but feel safe complaining loud enough so others will join them in their disappointment.

Recently, I was out to dinner with my husband. A woman sitting at a table next to us made quite a squabble over the amount of fat that was included with her steak dinner. When the waitress asked if everything was satisfactory, she didn’t say much. Her friend pointed out that the woman was indeed unhappy, and the attentive waitress responded by offering to take the steak back. The woman declined. However, when the waitress left, and the woman continued to complain loudly enough for the surrounding tables to hear. The woman wanted everyone else to share in her misery, but didn’t want to be the misery causer.

Provide options for complainers. And be careful of how you word them. It’s not a question, but a choice. Afterall, these people have difficulty making choices, or they wouldn’t be looking for confirmation from complete strangers. In the case of the steak it would go something like this: "Would you prefer that I replace the steak, or credit your bill?" Asking that type of question strongly suggests one or the other.

Here are additional tips for both complainer and resolver:

Tips for the complainer:

Try not to complain over e-mail – especially with co-workers or loved ones. There’s a certain amount of emotion involved with complaining. Complaining over e-mail is a common way to avoid confronting the other person and the real issue.

Complain immediately – Don’t wait for the pot to boil over. You’re really just avoiding the ultimate confrontation and allowing issues to build up. When they finally do, you won’t be able to remember the first less significant conflict.

Think About What You Want – If you define what will make you happy in the end, it will help you and the other party reach a workable solution quicker.

Tips for the resolver:

Repeat the concern – Make sure you rephrase it so you’re not mocking.

Ask the customer what they want you to do. – Give them options whenever possible.

Accept that some people are just complaining to complain. – If you’ve done all that you can, don’t beat yourself up. Realize that some people are inconsolable, preferring to be miserable most of their lives.

Listen carefully, customers have a tendency to vent if they’re really upset and may reveal needs that will help you solve their issue.

Three ways to make the customer right

1. Assume innocence. Guilty until proven innocent doesn’t sit well with customers. Just because what they’re saying sounds wrong to you, don’t assume that it is. It may be that they are just explaining what they need or want poorly.

Example: "I see what happened. The card is only valid in certain machines. The instructions assume that you know this. Here’s how we can fix this for you."

2. Look for teaching opportunities. What information could your customers have used before the misunderstanding occurred? Make sure they get it now.

Example: "I’m glad you brought this to my attention. The information you needed was here in you packet, but I can see how it would be easy to miss. Let’s review your packet to see if I can head off any other surprises."

3. Believe your customer. Sometimes the customer you think is wrong will turn out to be right after all. When in doubt, give the customer the benefit of the doubt.

Lastly, watch your wording when resolving complaints. Simple word choices can fuel or extinguish a flame. Following are some examples

Negative: We can’t.

Affirmative: We’re unable to.

Negative: I won’t be able to complete this until 4:30 because I’ll be in a meeting.

Affirmative: I’ll be in a meeting until 4:30; I can complete it for you tomorrow.

Negative: You won’t regret this choice.

Affirmative: You’ll be satisfied with your decision.

Negative: Won’t you please let us know?

Affirmative: Please let us know by Friday.

Negative: We can’t ship your order until March 5th.

Affirmative: We can ship your order March 5.

Negative: We can’t proceed without your signature on the form.

Affirmative: Please authorize the enclosed form so we can proceed.

Marcia Gauger is the president of Impact Sales, a performance improvement and training company with offices in Wisconsin, Florida and Arkansas. You can contact her at 262-642-9610 or Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.

Feb. 7, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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