How to Handle Customer Complaints in 7 Simple Steps

A customer complaining to a waiter about her order Deposit Photos

It's an inevitable fact that, at some point in your company's lifecycle, you will receive a customer complaint. However, while it's relatively easy to address negative feedback, it's vital that any grievances you do receive are effectively and swiftly resolved. No matter the circumstances, your small business should always strive to salvage a negative experience – and turn it into an opportunity.

Indeed, when it comes to customer relationships, it's not about being right, but about being willing to make it right. Feedback is always a valuable learning source, showing us where we have gone wrong and where and how we can improve our existing processes or services. Unfortunately, not all business owners feel this way and view complainants as demanding customers who are impossible to satisfy. This is counter-productive and overlooks the opportunity to build loyalty, increase customer retention and build a positive reputation.

Therefore, in an age where a rant or a tirade can go viral in minutes, it's essential to deliver a consumer experience that makes you stand out from the competition. So many people are willing to air their frustrations via social media, meaning that you need to know how to resolve customer complaints quickly and efficiently.

To help, we've compiled a quick guide on the best way to deal with irate or dissatisfied customers without compromising your company's reputation. Don't fall into the trap of dismissing what your patrons think; own the process through these seven steps.

How Do You Handle Customer Complaints?

As a small business owner, it can be tough to stomach criticism of your product or service. It's important to swallow your pride, though, as your reaction is a reflection of how much you value your customers. 

So how do you go about resolving complaints effectively? Here are seven strategies that will help you handle customer grievances graciously and professionally:

1. Listen and Understand 

Before anything else, always ensure that you listen to your customer's account of their experience in its entirety. There is a reason why they've complained, and it's important to understand it. Remain open to discussing their problem by listening and empathising, and reassure them by letting them know how their comments are enabling you to learn, develop and change. After all, as Bill Gates once argued, "your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning."

2. Act Fast

As soon as you receive a customer complaint, don't let it linger – act fast. If you hesitate to respond, you risk putting your business in jeopardy. A 2018 survey by Toister Solutions found that more than 89% of customers think companies should respond to emails within one hour (a 5% increase from 2015); therefore, by acting fast and responding confidently, you will meet their expectations and mitigate any further damage, helping to restore your brand in their eyes. 

3. Apologise 

Often, customers are simply looking for an apology and an acknowledgement of their complaint, so don't be afraid to say sorry and admit your mistake. Evidence suggests that nine times out of ten, a customer will continue doing business with you even after a mistake, but only if you fix the situation first time around and are willing to make an apology.

4. Choose your Language Carefully 

Regardless of the complaint being made, it's essential to choose your language carefully. A passive-aggressive response is hugely frustrating for a customer and, in the grand scheme of things, counter-productive; standard lines such as "we're sorry you are experiencing this problem" simply sound dismissive and uncaring. Instead, respond in a friendly, personal and caring tone that suggests you have the customer's best interests at heart.

5. Offer a Solution 

As touched upon above, customers don't want to hear that you're sorry they are experiencing a problem – they want an actual solution to it. If there is a shipping problem, contact your shipping provider and ask them to clarify what the issue is. If it's a technical error, get your engineers to look at the problem immediately. Ask for further details (if necessary) and explain what you are going to do to rectify the problem; this will provide the complainant with confidence that their issue is being taken seriously and will soon be resolved.

6. Follow Up 

Once you have provided a solution, a classic customer support tactic is to follow up immediately. You need to be careful how you do this, though, as the purpose of this approach is to leave the customer feeling positive about your interaction.

Take these two examples: 

  • "Is there anything else wrong?"
  • "Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

The first example is a leading, negative question that is encouraging a negative response – this is not what you want to achieve. However, the second example shows that you are willing to address any other issues that the customer might have, and ends the interaction on a positive note.

It's also a good idea to follow up long-term, too, and ensure that your customers are satisfied with the solution you presented. This vindication can be in the form of a text, email, phone call or survey requesting feedback on how the complaint was handled, although you shouldn't pester if the customer declines to respond. What matters is that you've taken the time to show that you care, and that the happiness and opinions of your customers are important to you.

7. Exceed Expectations 

You've acted fast, acknowledged the mistake, solved the issue and followed up; now it's time to go one step further and exceed customer expectations. Send a freebie or a complimentary offering as an apology and an attempt to re-establish trust; even something as simple as a handwritten note, or early access to your new product features, can leave a lasting impact.

Remember, too, that each customer is unique, and that you should personalise their experience and build an emotional connection with them to consistently exceed their expectations. 

It's impossible to quantify the kind of effect personalisation might have on a customer, but they will always remember the effort you made to go the extra mile, leaving them with a very positive impression of your business.

Do You Deal with Customer Complaints Effectively?

If you have any aspirations of success, then you need to prioritise the needs of your customers

Customer complaints are a great way to collect direct feedback from your customers and improve your service or product. However, how you manage them can make all the difference between keeping a customer – and losing one.  

The next time you receive a complaint, listen carefully to what the customer has to say, then apologise and strive to find a solution. Follow up to see if the customer is happy with how you handled everything, then find a way to exceed their expectations through personalised customer experience.  

These key steps will help you to cultivate deeper relationships with your audience and ensure that you inspire loyalty in the process.


How else can you deal with a customer complaint? How does your business approach negative feedback? Let us know in the comment section below!