How to handle customer complaints effectively

If you’re like most business owners, customer complaints make your skin crawl.

But sadly, customer grievances are an inevitable part of life. Because no matter how hard you strive to deliver the best products and customer support, there’ll always be at least one person who’s unhappy with your organization.

However, while receiving complaints can be disheartening, it’s not always a terrible thing. Because with a little tact and know-how,  it’s possible to transform these seemingly negative experiences into new opportunities for growth.

In this article, we’ll cover how to handle customer complaints effectively. But before that, let’s examine why you should bother dealing with irritated customers in the first place.

Why Are Customer Complaints Important to Business?

While customer complaints are about as welcome as a skunk at a lawn party, that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Here are three key reasons why they should be a priority.

Opportunity to Boost Your Brand Image

Poorly handled complaints can quickly spiral into something terrible.

Nowadays, people trust word-of-mouth recommendations more than ever. For example, 83% of folks put more faith in the opinions of their friends and family than brand advertising. 

Survey showing 83% of people trust friends and family over advertising


While that’s not surprising, what's crazy is that a whopping 66% say they trust the opinions of total strangers on the internet more than brand advertising too.

Add to that the fact that 55% of consumers say they'd vent on social media after a poor experience, and the importance of managing complaints becomes clear.

Customer complaints: 4 in 5 consumers think social has increased accountability for businesses


The good news? It works both ways. 

Meaning if you can handle customer complaints well and resolve them with speed, you'll be able to improve customer satisfaction and customer loyalty rates. (Not to mention that news of your top-notch customer support will spread like wildfire and stand as a shining testament to your brand.)

Better Customer Retention

The Rockefeller Group reported that 68% of customers will stop doing business with a company because they’ve received poor customer service.

In another study, NewVoiceMedia found that after just one negative experience, 51% of customers will never do business with your company again.

While these seem like scary statistics, there’s equally robust data suggesting that 9 out of 10 customers are prepared to continue doing business with you - if (and here’s the kicker) you manage to resolve their issue the first time around.

In other words, customers don’t expect you to always be right, but they do expect you to make it right when things go wrong.

Properly managing complaints is one of the best ways to prevent your customers from making a beeline to your competitor's latest offer.

Enhanced Business Intelligence

Going beyond keeping a smile on your customer’s faces, handling complaints in a productive way can help your business become better too.

While some complaints are nothing but harsh words, often buried within the vitriol, there are valuable nuggets of feedback that can help you uncover gaps in your systems or processes.

Paying close attention to the legitimate criticisms can help you uncover insights, drive innovation, and deliver a better overall experience for your customers, present and future.

8 Ways to Handle Customer Complaints More Effectively 

Customer complaints are a lot like lemons; they’re bitter, twist your face into knots and leave a sour taste in your mouth. But with the following best practices for customer service, you’ll be able to turn lemons into sweet lemonade. Let’s get to it.

1. Make It Easy to Find Answers to Frequent Questions

Patience may be a virtue, but it ain’t reality anymore. Modern consumers want answers to their problems and they want them now. 

One study by Fifth Third Bank found that 96% of Americans are now so impatient they knowingly consume food or beverages that are hot enough to scald their mouths.

The implication? Don’t make people wait. Resolve common complaints as quickly and painlessly as possible to avoid an onslaught of fire-breathing customers.

One excellent way to achieve this is by implementing a digital self-service tool such as:

Why self-service? Well, a study from American Express reported that more than 6 out of 10 US consumers say a digital self-service tool is their preferred support channel.

And of all the self-service options, Forrester Research found the most popular solution among customers to be knowledge bases.

A well-organized, searchable knowledge base is a great example of proactive customer service that helps frustrated customers find the answers they need with minimal friction. 

Knowledge bases reduce the burden on your support staff which allows them to better handle the less common complaints that require a human touch.

At the heart of creating a killer knowledge base is knowing what to put in it. Which leads us nicely to our next tip.

2. Log Frequent Complaints

Studies suggest that for every complaint you get there are another 25 dissatisfied customers who don’t bother to pick up the phone at all. This means the individual complaints you’re getting are likely much more widespread than you imagined. 

So, to improve the quality of your customer experience as a whole and build out the best self-service solution, find ways to collect customer complaints such as with the use of feedback forms, making use of social listening tools, etc. You then want to devise a system that tracks the frequency of complaints as analytics are key here.

They’ll give you insight into the issues that most of your customers are struggling with and allow you to implement better systems and processes moving forward.

That way you can nip potential problems in the bud before they turn happy customers into disgruntled ones.

3. Manage Expectations (Don’t Overpromise)

When dealing with an angry customer, it can be tempting to calm them down by promising resolutions that aren’t in step with what’s possible.

The problem is this only sets the customer up for greater outrage when their expectations are shattered by the reality of what you can actually achieve.

So instead, explain upfront how long customers will have to wait for a resolution and what you’ll be able to do, without dressing it up.

Most customers know the limitations of what a support agent can do for them, especially when expectations are clearly set from the start.

Sure, it might feel like you’re letting them down, but being honest and transparent about what customers can expect will earn you far more trust than the alternative. 

4. Practice Active Listening

As any relationship counselor will tell you listening is the most fundamental skill when it comes to working out difficulties.

And when a customer is frustrated enough to complain, one of the main things they want is for you to understand that frustration.

In fact, a study of eBay feedback from the Nottingham School of Economics found that twice as many disgruntled shoppers were happy to forgive a company when it gave a simple apology as opposed to a small financial compensation (45% vs 23%).

So, begin by being present, and listen carefully to their concerns. Ensure your customer feels deeply acknowledged. Relay back to them what they’re saying to make sure you have a complete grasp on what they’re going through.

Because when a customer is on edge, oftentimes simply having somebody devote the time to listen to them is as meaningful as getting a resolution or discount off next month’s subscription.

If the fault came from your end, try offering a sincere apology too. Say something like ‘I’m so sorry you’re experiencing that’. The key is to actually mean it - the more human you can sound, the more effective the apology will be at defusing tension.

Speaking of tension, let’s look at what to do when your customers aren't acting very calmly.

5. Diffuse the Tension

When a customer comes in with all guns blazing, it’s best to try and de-escalate the situation before things spiral into a full-blown scrimmage.

Often, active listening can be enough to cool a customer's blood. But if things don’t calm down, you’ll need to employ the use of other methods to give you back control of the situation. 

Here are a few things to try:

  • Use empathy: Take a walk in your customer shoes. Think of a time when you were that mad too. Your customer is probably deathly worried about how this issue will affect them or their business. Tell them you understand what they’re experiencing and seek common ground to build a productive conversation off.
  • Ask questions: Instead of making defensive statements that shift the blame away from you, try open-ended questions instead. Ask the customer what they think is the best solution to the problem. This creates the impression you’re on the customer’s side and allows you to implement their suggestions (or at least agree on a workable compromise).
  • Let them vent: It’s human instinct to yell back when yelled at. But research shows that anger will inhibit your ability to make smart decisions. So instead, let your customer blow off some steam without saying a word. Often, they’ll just run out of energy allowing you to open up more productive lines of communication.

6. Follow-Up to Confirm the Resolution

Have you ever purchased something online, only to receive no confirmation of whether your order was successful or not?

If you have, you’ll know those tentative few moments, where you fervently refresh your email inbox every 15 seconds can be very stressful.

In a similar way, sometimes even when you’ve successfully resolved an issue for a customer, they might not feel the same way. In other words, they need closure on the issue. 

To make sure your customer is genuinely satisfied send a quick follow-up email. 

Here’s a template to steal:

Hey [Customer name],

Hope you’re doing well.

Just following up to see if you’re still having any issues with [the issue]. Don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s anything I can do to help - that’s what I’m here for!

If you’ve got any other questions, send them over and I’ll get back to you asap.

All the best,

[Your name]

The idea here is to communicate to each customer that you value them, and that you’re interested in making sure they get the best resolution possible.

7. Go Above & Beyond the Call of Duty

We already discussed how under-delivering on a customer's expectations can be like putting petrol on a raging fire.

But the reverse is also true - exceeding a customer's expectations can melt away the frustration that prompted them to complain in the first place.

Take footwear giant Zappos for example. Renowned for its commitment to excellent customer service, Zappos regularly spends company money to send flowers to customers to dissatisfied customers.

While you don’t have to go to such well-scented extremes, the principle remains the same. You should do everything within your power to go above and beyond what your customer expected.

Why? Because it’s the perfect opportunity to mend a damaged relationship. Plus, it pays off too with over 75% of customers saying they’d recommend a company after having a positive experience with it.

8. Don’t Chase a Lost Cause

Sometimes the damage done is so bad that you’re going to lose a customer, no matter what you do. In such scenarios, it’s best to let the customer leave without friction.

If they give the order to cancel their account, don’t attempt any desperate last-minute saves. Because nothing will make your customer more bitter than having to duck and dive through an obstacle course to stop paying you.

When they’ve already got one foot out the door, there’s very little you can do to get them back. Instead, do as much as you can to make things right, learn from what happened, and accept that you can’t win every battle.

Remember, just because a customer leaves, doesn’t mean they’re gone forever. But beleaguering them on exit? That’s a sure-fire way to ensure they never darken your door again.

Make The Most of Customer Complaints

Customer complaints are an uncomfortable, yet unavoidable part of doing business. At times they can seem like they’re just a bunch of stress you don’t need in your life.

But great businesses look past the surface-level annoyance and see the value that complaints actually hold. Unlike the 90%+ of your unhappy customers, complainers have made the effort to suggest ways your business can improve.

And while there'll be a few who just want to complain for the sake of doing so, most are able to provide valuable feedback that’ll help you grow.

In the words of Daniel Kahneman “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on bad mistakes.”

As much as you can, be grateful for the complainers, because without them you’d be fumbling in the dark, not knowing which steps to take towards a better product.