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Last updated: 15.07.22

How To Handle A Customer Complaint

Working in a customer-facing role can be an incredibly rewarding and stimulating experience, but it does also mean that you have to handle situations where the people you’re helping have a problem with the product or service you’re delivering. This is one of the most challenging parts of these kinds of roles and often requires training and preparation to be able to handle it effectively.

Businesses in all kinds of industries have to deal with complaints from customers, so most people will likely have to handle them at some point in their careers. In this article, we’ll be talking about handling a face-to-face complaint from a customer in a business such as a shop, cafe or restaurant, but the below advice can be used in any situation involving handling customer complaints.

What is a Customer Complaint?

A customer complaint is a negative piece of feedback or expression of dissatisfaction from someone that is interacting with the product or service offered by your business. This often occurs if they have made a purchase or are unhappy with their order or the delivery process, but may also just be a general complaint about the standard of service or their treatment by people within the business.

Many people also view customer complaints as an indication of the disparity between what a business offers and what its customers get. Whilst often difficult to deal with, customer complaints can be really useful when it comes to identifying ways in which your business can do better and ensure you’re delivering exactly what your target audience wants.

10 Tips for Handling Customer Complaints

Whether you’re a waiter, a shop assistant, work on the tills or work front of house, there are plenty of roles where you may have to handle negative feedback from a customer. Here are our top ten pieces of advice for how to deal with a customer complaint.

Remain Calm

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a customer complaint is that you must stay calm. It can be difficult to hear negative feedback, especially if a customer is upset or angry, but you’re going to be able to handle the situation more effectively if you can keep your own emotions out of it.

Keep a clear head and refrain from matching a customer’s level of emotion, as this is only likely to escalate the situation. Often you can diffuse a complaint more effectively by remaining polite and calm, so do your best to stay focused on the situation and control your reactions.

Of course, if a customer is harassing you or making personal and rude comments as part of their complaint, you shouldn’t just let this slide. Instead, try and remove yourself from the situation by getting another member of staff to take over and handle the situation, as you should never be forced to tolerate abusive behaviour under the idea that ‘the customer is always right.

Listen Without Interrupting

Another good piece of advice for how to deal with a customer complaint is to make sure to listen to everything a customer has to say before starting to speak yourself. You may immediately spot the problem or identify a solution, but interrupting a complaint can make a customer feel ignored or cause them to react angrily, which are two things you really want to avoid whilst customer handling.

Try and practice active listening whilst receiving a complaint, focusing on understanding the other person’s perspective and feelings instead of preparing your response. This can also help to diffuse the situation by reassuring the customer that they are being listened to and understood, helping them to feel calmer and more positive towards your business.

Ask Questions to Gain Clarity

Once you have listened to what a customer has to say in their complaint, you should then ask any necessary questions to ensure that you have understood the problem entirely. Miscommunication can lead to further complaints and reports of bad customer service later down the line, so this is an essential stage of the customer complaint handling procedure that makes your life easier in the long run.

Be sure to get a clear idea of what has gone wrong, why the customer is unsatisfied and what it is that they feel should have happened, so that you can identify where their frustration or dissatisfaction is coming from. Asking follow-up questions will once again help to make the customer feel more understood, so it's a good technique to use to get them to feel more comfortable with you. 

Acknowledge the Problem

A key thing to remember when you’re dealing with customer complaints is that you must acknowledge the problem that the customer has pointed out. Even if you think that there’s nothing wrong, or that they’re complaining without good cause, communicating that there is a problem will demonstrate a willingness to help and stop the customer from becoming defensive or feeling misunderstood.

Acknowledging that there is an issue also demonstrates accountability, which is good for your image overall as it shows that you’re willing to own up to mistakes and want to work to resolve them.

Be Apologetic

The next step in how to handle a customer complaint effectively is to apologise to the customer. Again, you may not personally feel that an apology is necessary, but it's a key part of good customer service to stop the customer from having any further complaints.

Sometimes, it’s suggested that instead of apologising specifically for the issue that the customer is experiencing, you apologise for their dissatisfaction or frustration. This is useful in situations where they’re complaining about something that is definitely not your fault, as it stops you from explicitly accepting responsibility whilst still apologising and making the customer feel as though you’re taking accountability.

Express Gratitude

After apologising to the customer, you should then express gratitude to them for bringing the issue to your attention. Again, you may privately feel as though there isn’t anything wrong, but saying thank you helps to diffuse the customer’s anger and demonstrates a thoughtful level of customer service that is really good for your business’ reputation.

Saying thank you to a customer for bringing a problem to your attention also demonstrates a commitment to improvement, which is another action that tells your customers that you’re a brand which cares about their opinion and is going to put in the effort to correct their mistakes.

Find a Solution

Another of the most important pieces of advice for handling complaints is that you should always find or suggest a solution to the problem in your first conversation with the customer. Leaving them without an answer or relief is likely to increase their frustration and worsen your business’ reputation in their eyes, which is what you really want to avoid when it comes to receiving negative feedback.

In many cases, there may be a simple solution to a customer complaint, such as offering a refund, answering a question or providing information that helps to solve whatever issues they’ve come up against. Make sure that you explain this solution as clearly as possible so that the customer has their problem resolved as soon as possible, allowing for a better experience.

There may be instances where a clear solution isn’t available straight away, especially if the complaint is a general comment on how they have been treated or something that they feel should have been done differently. In these cases, it’s still important to offer some kind of next step so that the customer feels satisfied, even if this is just giving them the details of someone else to contact or telling them that you will get back to them when you have more information.

Act Quickly

A key part of effectively resolving customer complaints is trying to make the process as smooth and as quick as possible. Dragging out situations like a complaint only tends to make the customer feel worse, which can lead to further complaints and a much harder process in resolving the issue.

Offering an instant solution may not always be possible, but you should always try to respond to a complaint as quickly as you can. This demonstrates a willingness to help and can make the customer more amenable, as well as preventing the situation from escalating over time.

Make a Note of the Complaint

As we highlighted earlier, complaints are often an occasion where you can identify how your business can do better. In order to identify any repeated complaints which could indicate a more serious problem, and have a record of the things that customers weren't happy with, you should make a note of the details of the complaint in an official system which can be revisited.

This is also important on rare occasions where a customer may have a more serious complaint that needs intervention from another organisation or senior member of staff. Having an official note of what was said can protect you and the business and be used as evidence as to what actually happened.

Follow Up

Finally, it’s a good idea to follow up with the customer after resolving customer complaints. This may just be to thank them again for their comments, or to let them know that their complaint has been acknowledged and further action will be taken as a result.

This is another thing that will improve your overall customer service experience, as well as making customers feel like their words matter and that they have been taken care of by your business, which increases the likelihood that they’ll return as a customer in the future.

FAQs

How quickly must a customer complaint be acknowledged?

Customer complaints should be acknowledged as quickly as possible, as this means that the situation is much less likely to escalate and helps to keep things at a manageable level. If a customer feels listened to straight away, they will likely be much easier to talk to which will make finding a solution easier.

Acknowledging a customer complaint quickly also helps to give your business a reputation for being good with complaints and caring about what their customers have to say, which not only minimises the overall impact that negative feedback might have, but helps to generate more attention from other potential customers.

What is the difference between a customer problem and a customer complaint?

A customer problem is a situation where a customer has run into an issue and needs help or wishes to make other people aware of this issue in order for them to feel as though it has been resolved. A customer complaint is usually what happens as the result of a customer problem, where they will let a member of staff know that they're unhappy or unimpressed by something. 

How do you respond to a complaint when the customer is wrong?

If you work in a role that may involve handling customer complaints, there may be occasions when a customer makes a complaint that you believe is incorrect, unfair, or based on an assumption that is not true. In these cases, it is often best to try and follow the above advice anyway to diffuse the situation as best you can, avoiding causing any more problems by arguing back.

In some cases, it may be necessary to correct a customer to preserve your business’ reputation or ensure that you do not face any particularly unfair treatment. If you are struggling with a particularly difficult customer, the best advice is often to get a colleague to come and support you and ensure that the right steps are taken in a fair way.

Summary

Nobody likes dealing with customer complaints, but knowing what to do in these situations and what steps to follow to get the best possible outcome is a great way to feel more comfortable and in control. Many cases of customer complaints aren’t very serious and can be easily resolved, but having an effective process in place ensures that you minimise any problems and also gain a positive reputation for how your business handles negative feedback. 


If you'd like more advice on the best ways to handle things like customer complaints, we cover this topic and more in our ‘Customer Service in Hospitality’ online course.

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