The Ultimate Guide to Managing Customer Complaints

Regardless of how effectively you run your business, customer complaints are unfortunately inevitable. From IT gremlins to intermediaries letting you down, a 100 percent satisfaction rating is unsustainable as a business grows. And while most customers will quietly drift away to competitors, roughly five per cent will provide you with a second chance by registering their dissatisfaction.
Complaints should be the beginning of a story rather than the end, potentially creating reputational ripples that extend far beyond that customer. Even an angry client can be turned into a brand advocate if their product or service issues are rectified quickly and successfully.

Here we consider the steps to follow when resolving customer complaints to everyone’s satisfaction…

Keep detailed records
Companies with effective back office functionalities will always provide a more reliable service, with a higher rate of client satisfaction. Every piece of customer communication should be recorded, as this information will be invaluable if something goes wrong. Being able to quote from a previous email or list attempts to contact a customer gives you tools to mount a defense against unreasonable complaints. Detailed correspondence logs can also identify recurring issues or wider failings in your systems, which will help to eliminate them.
Identify whether the complaint is genuine
Since no two scenarios are identical, it’s vital to establish the issue’s authenticity. If your product was delivered to a customer’s nominated safe place which they forgot to check before reporting its absence, there’s no case to answer. Online issues may be due to service or network errors on the client’s side, which are of course beyond your control. If that’s the case, politely acknowledge their complaint before explaining why it’s not something you can assist with and suggesting alternative resolutions. They might acknowledge their mistake, or be too embarrassed to reply. Either way, you’ve offered a degree of assistance that’ll be appreciated.
Quickly acknowledge something has gone wrong
If your investigations reveal a problem, don’t try and resolve it before responding to the complaint. Immediately acknowledge the complaint, and promise a rapid investigation. This can be done with an automated ticket response to web form enquiries, or even a tweet if appropriate. Customers turn to social media almost by default, hoping for a quick response when a wider audience is watching. Social media is popular since most people have a Facebook or Twitter account, and photographic evidence of failings can easily be uploaded.
Maintain a neutral tone
From social media to emails, most complaints are lodged in writing. Humor often gets lost in translation, so avoid wisecracks or sarcasm; such responses might seem inappropriate when viewed out of context by third parties. Similarly, criticisms or insults will pour fuel on the flames and won’t impress anyone observing from the sidelines. Re-read draft comments and consider whether they’re helping to solve the problem – postage costs shouldn’t be the main priority when a client has a broken PC, for instance. Use calm language with no defensive or emotional terms, and don’t admit or apportion blame. Remember a complaint is a critique of a business transaction, not a personal attack on you.
Ask for a full description of the problem
In the heat of the moment, customers often find it hard to explain why they’re unhappy. They might exaggerate the problem, become emotional or not explain their situation well. Politely ask them to explain the full nature of their complaint from the beginning, in clear language. Some customers will realize they’ve overreacted, while others might list irrelevant arguments which have no bearing on this particular matter. Even so, once you understand the crux of their complaint, you can begin devising a course of action. A calm tone of voice and a degree of empathy are vital, and thank them for their feedback. Refer to them by name at all times, providing action points that will be met by a deadline.
Defuse any friction points
If a customer complaint involves a particular staff member, ensure they’re no longer involved with that account. A different member of the team will be seen as less inflammatory, with more scope to discuss problems and solutions. Conversely, if the problem relates to a customer being passed between departments, take ownership. Outline your seniority within the company, and promise to be their sole point of contact. This can bring many customers back on-board, if they believe you’ll fix the problem without giving them the runaround. Don’t overpromise, though – further disappointment will only aggravate a complaint.
Take responsibility
Sometimes, an apology may be sufficient to resolve a customer complaint. Even if the root cause isn’t within your remit (such as a delivery issue), it’s advisable to admit something went wrong. Phrases like “we will fully investigate” and “we’re sorry we didn’t meet your expectations” acknowledge failings without accepting blame. Customers don’t want excuses – they want to believe a problem has been identified and a solution is being prepared.
Offer redress
Offering various paths to redress may be frustrating if a customer complaint stems from a third party’s failings. However, the customer is interested in compensation, not your profit margins. Offer full refunds or replacements rather than discounts on future custom, which is rarely perceived as an adequate response. Even if you make a loss through no fault of your own, you’ve compensated the customer for any distress or inconvenience. The worst they can tell friends and colleagues is that their experience was unsatisfactory, and full refunds will impress anyone watching from afar. Plus, you can always try to recoup compensation from an intermediary if their actions or negligence caused this situation in the first place.
Follow up on the resolution
After attempting to redress the situation, it might be worth getting in touch with the customer afresh. Perhaps you’re uniquely placed to offer the products or services they need, or maybe their frustration has been appeased by decisive action. This is the point when offering a discount on their next transaction might attract repeat custom. You can also invite them to unsubscribe from future communications if they haven’t already done so, rather than marking your emails as spam. A tactful headline like “We want to make it up to you” may persuade customers their next experience will be better…