Some people perceive customer complaints as a pain in the butt. I suggest they take a 180° turn on this attitude.

Customer complaints are gifts! (Yes, you read that right.) Although most customers will not take the time to voice their discontent, the ones who do can give you opportunities to investigate and identify where internal problems lie. The rest simply won’t come back, and you won’t know why.

9 Steps in Managing Customer Complaints


When customers complain, first, listen attentively and do not interrupt. If customers are in front of you, establish eye contact, lean in, and genuinely show interest. You can occasionally nod your head or say something brief to encourage them to continue their stories.

If customers use e-mails or online chat to complain, use your judgment. If complaints are lengthy or more detailed, you’re better off asking if you can contact them on the telephone to assist them.


After they finish, thank them for bringing the matter to your attention. How else would you learn of these issues?


Apologize for the error, misunderstanding, or whatever the concern is—even if you don’t agree with it. Say something like, “I’m so sorry that happened,” without pointing fingers of blame or repeating the entire issue.


Clarify their stories by summarizing them in your own words. You can say, “I’ve taken some notes and want to check if I’ve gotten everything right.” This gives you the opportunity to ensure you’ve noted all the facts, plus it validates what customers have said. Ask questions when you’re unsure of something or need to fill any gaps.


Demonstrate your empathy. Say things like, “I can see why that has upset you” or “That must have frustrated you.”


Remember that customers prefer instant resolutions. If an investigation is required before taking the next step, advise them that you’ll get back to them and when. Then follow up.

If no investigation is necessary, ask customers how you can make things right for them. Sometimes, all they want is recognition of the problem and/or an apology. In these cases, I recommend that you send token physical or electronic gifts, acknowledging your appreciation for their valuable feedback.

When customers ask for something tangible, like a discount, a refund, a credit for next time, or a free product, make sure you empower employees to give customers what they’ve asked for—if requests are reasonable. If not, offer predetermined alternatives.

(Predetermined giveaways are offers that you can suggest immediately to customers, so manager approval is unnecessary.)

I recommend asking customers what they want first before offering anything else. Years ago, when filing a complaint with my former cell phone provider, the customer service representative apologized and said that she added 60 minutes of extra national talk time to my account. I told her how much I appreciated the gesture, but since I had just moved to the US from Canada, I knew few people in the States to call! Her gesture had zero value to me.

When attempting to retain complaining customers, make sure that “make-up” gifts or offers have value to them. Your automatic offers may not have the same worth to your customers as you think they will.


Tell customers what you plan to do—and DO IT promptly!


Follow up after the situation has been resolved. Make a quick telephone call whenever possible; it will be more personal than sending an e-mail or using another communication method.


Learn from these experiences and prevent future mistakes.

Following these 9 steps can make you a customer complaint hero and convert complainers into content and loyal brand ambassadors.

Got another one?

Excerpted from Beyond Your Logo: 7 Brand Ideas That Matter Most For Small Business Success, by Elaine Fogel, Compass Press, © 2015