Nine practical ways to handle customer complaints. Better.

Better complaint handling


Handling customer complaints can be tough. Here are nine proven techniques to make customer complaints easier to handle and reduce the chance of escalation or negative feedback.

Practical ways to make handling customer complaints easier

Everyone gets complaints. Almost no-one likes them.

That’s because they’re a complicated blend of the rational (“this thing you sold me doesn’t work!”) and the emotional (“So now I feel stupid for buying it!”).  But they’re a powerful source of information about your business – and an opportunity to build loyalty.  And dealing with them effectively doesn’t have to be complicated.

Here’s how to:

– use process better

– use smart communication to take the sting out of complaints

– train customer service teams to handle them better

Complaint processes – make them slicker than a slick thing

Processes should make things simpler and faster for you AND your customer; if they don’t, it’s worth thinking about fixing them. They should enable you to get on with looking after the customer and listening while managing the emotional context customer often feel when they complain.

1. Match the customer complaint journey

First, make sure your processes aren’t a set of obstacles to customers.  Complex processes from the customer’s ends means fewer complaints, sure.  But when they do get to you, they’ll be angrier, harder to deal with and less likely to accept resolutions.  Make processes simple for customers and you’ll get rid of a lot of noise – as well as a lot of useful information on what you could do better.  Map the process from the customer’s side – then yours.  How far do they match?

2. Take a different view

Complaints are good news.  A customer has cared enough to get in touch and look for resolution.  Handle that process well and your customer will be a lot more loyal.  It’s the customers who don’t complain you should worry about.  They’re the ones who just quietly disappear without telling you why. Bear in mind that a typical business only hears from about 4% of dissatisfied customers – that’s 96% who never bother to tell you how they feel.

3. Your best source of product and management information

Use complaints as a bellwether for your business. They’re the best source of feedback you have. Customers have tried your product out and it’s not worked.  You can bet that they’re not the only one to have the same problem.  That means you can use the opportunity to improve the product, the process or the communication that surrounds it.  We’ve lost count of the times a complicated, muddily-communicated on-boarding process has led to complaints when customers don’t understand things.

Smart communication to draw the sting from customer complaints

You need to communicate as part of a complaint – you need to send some sort of content to the customer.  You might use letters, social media, emails or even a call.  The content of what you write or say is absolutely vital and probably the biggest influence on how happy the customer is.

And it’s so important now customers have more access to information than ever before – and more platforms to complain from.  A duff reply to a complaint is a lot more embarrassing when a customer posts it on Twitter and your CEO spots it. Every piece of communication in the complaint journey matters so make sure your teams are trained to handle it.

4. It’s not just what you say – it’s how you say it.

Remember the last time you complained about something.  We’d guess there were two parts to the complaint:

– what the business did

– how that made you feel

Most businesses are pretty good at dealing with what they did wrong.  They might send a voucher, compensation or a free product.  But that only deals with half the problem – and sometimes is actually worse than doing nothing.  We’ve seen complaint responses offering compensation that have made customers livid, simply because they read like standard, process letters.  They completely ignored how the customer felt.

Complaints are much more complicated than they appear. And the content of your responses is vital.  They need to address the emotional angle of complaints as much as the factual.

Likewise, we’ve seen responses that addressed the emotional side of a complaint completely remove the need to send compensation.

5. Keep your complaint handling flexible

You’ll have ‘standard’ complaints.  They’re the ones that come up again and again.  You can standardise replies to these to some extent (including that emotional response element from 4. above).  But trying to use a standard response (or nail together a few standard paragraphs) to respond to a non-standard complaint can be a disaster.  The customer reads your response.  They recognise a standard paragraph mash-up when they see one and they’re livid.

Standard paras usually sound a bit stiff, a bit corporate.  Try and get them sounding more human, more flexible.  After all, you’re writing to a human…

6. Don’t dodge complaints – but don’t grovel either

If it’s your fault, put your hands up. But not to the point where you’re apologising for the ‘distress’ caused by a melted Mars bar.  Keep some perspective or it can look as though you’re recycling those standard paras again.

Customers respond well to authenticity and they’re very good at spotting a disingenuous complaint reply. Part of effective complaint handling is empathy and emotional intelligence.

Give your teams confidence

Dealing with complaining customers is not something that comes naturally. Customer advisors can often feel either attacked personally or so hardened they sound remote and disinterested.  So give your teams the skills and practice they need to get confident. Dealing with customer complaints without the right training or processes in place is a common cause of burn out for customer care teams – leading to greater staff churn and, ultimately, less engaged teams.

7. Confidence to handle complaints effectively

Everyone’s literate – but communication with complaining customers needs more than literacy. Give your teams the confidence they need by training them in drafting and using complaint replies. Explain the importance of emotion.  Explain how people really read the responses you send them.  Explain the difference between drafting a letter and writing an email that will probably get read on a mobile device on the train.  Both need very different skills.  Think about choosing a couple of your team – who are good communicators – to specialise in writing or speaking about complaints.

8. Complaint handling need communication skills

Every complaints department we’ve worked with has really cared about their customers. Problem is, some of them have – quite unintentionally – sounded like Robocop. Customers never meet the people behind the letters, emails and phones, so they never see how much you care.  They just end up thinking you don’t. Give people the communication skills they need to sound like humans talking to humans.

9. Measurement of customer complaints

Finally, if you measure your responses to customer complaints, you can improve. You probably already measure the numbers, but start measuring the communications element of complaints.  Set objective standards for things like tone of voice, transactional analysis and language use.  And use them to help the team improve their communication skills.

Customer complaints are a cracking good source of information on your business – and an opportunity to make customers more loyal when you respond to them effectively.

Responding to customer complaints

Help your teams to respond to complaints in a human, customer-centric way.

Responding to customer complaints

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Mark McArthur-Christie

I'm managing director at Rubuss. We work in taking operational customer communication and turning it from an overhead into a business asset.