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How to Handle Customer Complaints

I have 20 years of management experience and have run my own business for nearly 10 years.

Read on for some advice on how to manage customer complaints.

Read on for some advice on how to manage customer complaints.

Dealing with Complaints Effectively

Whether you own your own business or you work within a company, most of us share the experience of having to deal with customer complaints at one point or another. They may come in the form of a phone call or someone may come marching straight into your work area; they may be valid concerns or just the reaction of an overly demanding customer.

How that complaint is handled, and how quickly, will determine whether or not you retain that customer, and even more importantly, what they have to say about your business when they leave.

In some instances, there may not be a true resolution to a customer complaint. You may not be able to change a result or how a process works. However, by using an expedient process and appropriate people skills, you may still save the relationship with your customer.

This page can't address the full scope of the topic of handling customer complaints, but it will offer some basic concepts and an overview of some of the interpersonal skills that should make a difference.

Timeliness is important when addressing a customer complaint.

Timeliness is important when addressing a customer complaint.

The Basics

  • One critical element to consider in handling and resolving customer complaints is timeliness. You know when you are upset about an issue you don't want to be put off, you want your concerns heard immediately, and you want the problem dealt with as quickly as possible. If there is any delay, you want to know during the wait that something is happening. You want to know that it matters. The same is true of your customers.
  • If you work in an environment with employees, you must be sure that your employees are trained on complaint handling as many issues will be brought to them, prior to reaching you. These employees must be empowered to handle what they can, on the spot. They must know the limits of their authority and feel safe in acting upon concerns. They need to know what to do if the problem goes beyond their scope of responsibility and how to handle that.
  • Because some complaints are more complex, and because tracking complaints can identify trends that need to be addressed, documentation of complaints and follow-up actions can be critical. Of course, documentation takes on another level of importance if a lawsuit results.

    Documentation would need to show who made the complaint, what the complaint was, when it was made (both date and time), and the expected follow-up.

    Further documentation would show what investigation and/or follow-up occurred, resolution, and further communication with the complainant as well as who carried it out. You also need to be sure you have the complainant's contact information so that there can be follow-up if needed.
  • It's also important to identify what constitutes a satisfactory resolution. As stated above, a true "fix" to a problem may not be possible. A satisfactory resolution may simply be that the customer doesn't seek further resolution.
The first and most effective tool in complaint handling is good listening skills.

The first and most effective tool in complaint handling is good listening skills.

Some Thoughts on the Requisite Listening Skills

The first and most effective tool in complaint handling is good listening skills. Anyone who feels they are being heard will immediately diffuse in many situations. Here are some important tips to assure that you listen well:

  • When sitting down with the complainant, give them your full attention by turning off the phone, assuring someone else can handle any other necessary duties, and so forth.
  • Listen actively. This means that your goal is to first understand them. Listen to what they say, without trying to form your response. Once you've heard them, rephrase, and ask if that is what they are saying.
  • Take notes. It will help you focus and, more importantly, remember details later if you need to investigate.
  • Get the specifics. What happened, when, what was the consequence, who was involved, and so forth. Ask questions to clarify as well. This helps in your ability to resolve the issue but also demonstrates that you are concerned.
Reassure the complainant that the matter will be (or has been) addressed.

Reassure the complainant that the matter will be (or has been) addressed.

Reassure Without Taking Blame

In some instances, a matter can be resolved immediately once the problem is clearly identified. For instance, if someone was overcharged and that's clear, rectifying the error should be quick and easy.

On the other hand, further investigation is often needed. In such instances, after hearing the complaint, it can be important to reassure the complainant to further repair any damage done. For instance, you may:

  • Reassure the individual that you take their concern very seriously and that you appreciate them coming to you to address it. In instances where follow-up investigation or higher approval is needed, don't apologize, just reiterate your appreciation and the fact that the matter will be looked at seriously. Apologizing at this point means taking the blame, and you haven't yet determined if this step should be taken.
  • Be sure you know what resolution or follow-up is desired. For instance, some complaints are really just about being able to vent frustration. Once heard or reported, the complainant doesn't really want any further follow-up. Others, however, do want more.
  • When additional follow-up is expected, let the individual know that you will be following up on this item, or if more appropriate, that you will be taking it to someone else for immediate follow-up.
  • Tell them what to expect next. Will they be hearing back from you tomorrow? Will they hear from the manager by the end of the day? A good complaint handling process should set timelines for follow-up.
  • Even if no further follow-up is needed, ask if there is anything else that you can assist them with. This is another form of service recovery, a way of repairing any damage to the customer relationship.
  • It is also appropriate to provide the complainant with your name and contact information so that they can get back to you if necessary. This helps establish trust and gives them a personal connection.
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Any follow-up investigation and process to determine resolution should be expedited. Each business or company must define its own process and timelines, but follow-up within a day or two is common. Ideally, the person who met with the complainant will follow up with them later, unless of course the issue was referred higher up.

Either way, follow-up should explain the findings and the resolution. For instance, if a bill was indeed found to be in error, then the follow-up could explain the error and what you will do to reimburse them.

On the other hand, perhaps a complaint wasn't really valid. For instance, perhaps the complaint was that a meal to a hospital patient arrived cold, when in fact the meal arrived hot but the patient was in a visiting area at the time and returned to their room an hour later. In this instance, the follow-up could report this finding. An explanation of the typical process would be offered and then perhaps a potential solution. Perhaps a schedule of meal delivery could be posted in the room or the nurse's aide could be asked to find the patient at meal time to help prevent another occurrence. The resolution offered in all cases must be one that can be consistently performed to avoid further problems.

When resolution involves some type of disciplinary action for an employee, it is best to provide any necessary discipline and attempt to remove that person from having to interact with the complainant again if possible. Specifics of disciplinary actions should not be discussed with customers, although it can be appropriate to say that the matter has been addressed with the employee.

As a final step, affirm with the complainant that the matter is satisfactorily resolved and no further action is needed.

© 2009 Christine Mulberry


Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on July 18, 2018:

You've identified the key areas that lead to customer satisfaction even after having an unpleasant experience. I like that you said to turn off other distractions when listening to the complaint. Customers want to know that they're being heard when they talk. And identifying a satisfactory solution is also critical to ensure the problem is resolved.

4Life on June 27, 2011:

Good article, thank you very much!

Tony McGregor from South Africa on June 15, 2010:

A very comprehensive Hub on this important business subject. Essential reading for business owners and employees.

Love and peace


RedElf from Canada on March 22, 2010:

Some really great tips, here. Thanks for the hub.

RamonB on January 16, 2010:

This Hub has some great advice - I've always believed that you can retrieve any situation if you handle the customers complaint right.

Jim Smith on November 23, 2009:

Hey - I manage a customer relations team that handles customer complaints all day, and I think you make some great points - the key that we emphasize in our training is listening. We also have some great software to make sure they only have to tell us their story once. I found another site with a really good collection of articles/ complaint best practice guides:

Take Care,


Steve Meyer on October 23, 2009:

Thanks for your great work. This is a good work on how to have a really difficult conversation.

Steve Meyer on October 23, 2009:

Mohideen Basha from TRICHY, TAMIL NADU, INDIA. on August 16, 2009:

great useful hub.

AndyPo on August 10, 2009:

Great advice

Brian Stephens from Laroque des Alberes, France on August 10, 2009:

Hi Mulberry, some great advice again I am enjoying reading these hubs, it feels a little like revision for me.

irenemaria from Sweden on August 10, 2009:

I agree with what you have said here...especially the "listen" part. That covers all and the whole life too.

Nancy's Niche on August 09, 2009:

Very good article; Complaints, are one of the unpleasant tasks of running a business. Nevertheless, handled successfully, they are one of your most rewarding achievements.

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