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Handling Customer Complaints the Right Way

Here are some tips on handling customer complaints that I’ve learned from watching an expert over the years.

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I mean, who wants to open a letter or an email or pick up the phone to find an upset customer on the other end? Someone looking to tell you what you or your company did wrong or why they are unhappy? We’re primarily in the fun business, and we usually hear things like, “This is so great!” or “I love what you did!” so dealing with unhappy people is not usually in the cards for us. But if you’re in business the unfortunate reality is that at some point you’re going to get a complaint, and how you handle it can not only determine the success of that interaction but possibly the success of your business overall.

A perfect example of how NOT to handle complaints can be seen in the epic social media meltdown of Amy’s Baking Company, a restaurant featured on Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” The owner’s took to social media to attack and defame their critics, all spiraling into a massive ball of viral disaster. 

My business partner, Allen, was raised by a father that served in the diplomatic core, and he is terrific at handling and diffusing customer complaints. Here are some tips I’ve learned from watching Allen handle complaints over the years.

Respond Quickly
Generally this is a case where the old saying “time heals all wounds” doesn’t apply, and the more time that passes, the more the person is likely to stew about it, meaning that you will have a more difficult time coming to a good resolution. Small complaints usually come in via the telephone, and the biggies usually arrive in a letter. Sometimes a complaint requires that you “gather facts”—debrief an installer, research a proposal or prior correspondence—and if that is the case, get on it immediately and respond by the end of the day.

Pick Up the Phone
Obviously, if the person is complaining via phone, you’ll be forced to deal with the issue on the spot. But if the complaint comes in via letter, email, or social media, responding via phone is usually the best approach. While a letter might be more articulate, it is also very one-sided—just you—and takes too long to arrive. Trying to address the issue via email often results in too much back-and-forth, and there is the tendency for your tone to be misconstrued in an email, which escalates or creates a problem that wasn’t there to begin with. And social media is too public a platform to address a problem. However, if the complaint came via email or social media, responding with something like, “I’m sorry to hear about this, and I’m going to call you today to discuss” is certainly appropriate and lets the person know that they have been heard.

Before doing anything, take a deep breath, step back from the stress of the complaint, and try to look at the situation from your client’s eyes. It’s easy to start building a case in your mind coming up with all the reasons why you are right and they are wrong, but that is a bad approach. Much like my blog Looking at Your Billing Process Through the Client’s Eyes, (aka “What Would John Do?”) try to put yourself in their place and imagine how you would feel. Also, just because you may technically be right doesn’t mean that your customer doesn’t have a point or change the fact that they feel bad. Also, you might win the battle, but ultimately lose the war if the customer never does business with you again and then goes on to tell others about their bad experience.

Ever heard the saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth because we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we speak”? This is one of those times. Often, complaining is about venting; the customer wants to be heard. And being heard means letting them talk. This can be difficult, especially if they are accusing your company of something and you want to explain your side of things, but this is a time to listen.

Assess the Complaint

Most of the complaints you receive are likely to be simple and straightforward, and can be quickly and easily resolved. In fact, I’ve found that many often start off conspiratorial like, “I just want you to know…” This is something that the client was mildly disappointed about and feels that you, as the boss, should know and address/handle internally. These are often minor “get off my chest” and “clear the air” types of items like, “I just wanted you to know that your installers tracked mud into my house” or, “You said your techs would be here at 9:00, and they didn’t show up until noon.” Frequently a heartfelt apology and something like, “We try to make every effort to arrive at our scheduled time and call if we are running late, and I’m sorry that didn’t happen. I’m going to find out what went wrong here and make sure we get this fixed and that it doesn’t happen again. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

Other times, complaints can take more than a simple, “I’m sorry, I’ll make sure to talk to my guys” to resolve. Something like, “Your work vans leaked oil in our driveway” or “Your crew scratched our cabinetry/hardwood flooring” is likely going to take some follow-up action to address.

Then there are the biggie complaints. These often come in letter form…sometimes in letters you have to sign for. These are the ones that make your insides turn all watery and ruin your day. They can be things like, “This system you sold me is garbage, and I’m not paying!” or “If you aren’t at my house to fix my problem tomorrow then I’m going to sue you!”

Find the Resolution
Think about times you’ve complained about something. In your mind, you probably had an endgame idea as to what you wanted from the complaint and what a satisfactory resolution would be. For example, when I saw Gravity in the theater, one of the audio channels was out and it drove me crazy. I really wanted to see the movie again when I wasn’t distracted by the crackling speaker. Another time I got a really poorly made burger at Wendy’s. I really wanted to try the hamburger the way it was supposed to be. In both cases, the desired outcome was clear in my mind, and was reasonable and easy for the vendor to deliver.

The resolution needs to be in equity to the problem. For example, “That movie sounded bad. I want free passes for a year” is a ridiculous and unreasonable expectation. As would be, “Your installer didn’t clean up after himself, so I’m not paying for this TV.” Often times the correct resolution to the complaint will be obvious, but if not you can ask the customer, “What can we do to make this right?” They probably have something in mind. If their suggestion is reasonable, then there you go. Other times you might find it “safer” to suggest a solution and then ask if that would be an acceptable resolution.

Frequently, complaints are resolved by a follow-up service call or by providing additional education on the system. Other times—like in the case of oil in the driveway or scratched flooring—you might have to come out of pocket to pay for a fix.

However, a resolution doesn’t always mean immediately giving in or taking money off the bill. Some people complain just for the sake of complaining or to try and get something for nothing. This University of Florida report describes different types of complainers and ways to identify them and how to respond to them.

Follow Up
When you have decided on a resolution, act on it as quickly as possible. And after you have performed whatever resolution was discussed, follow up to confirm that the problem has been satisfactorily completed and that there are no other issues.

Remember that an apology is almost always the right start and doesn’t admit guilt, liability, or error. In fact there is a whole non-apology apology entry on Wikipedia. Also, while no one likes criticism, there can often be kernels of truth in a customer complaint that might indicate something we or our company needs to work on or an area where we can improve. And at the end of the day, improving in any area ultimately makes our businesses stronger and better.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.