Don’t wreck it. Protect it.

Client relationships are fragile unions, so handle with care. Take steps to deal with customer complaints the right way.

A mistake has been made and a client is unhappy. The next steps will go a long way in determining your relationship with that client, the reputation you earn and, in the end, the success or failure of your company.

First, be thankful for the complaint, because, according to Lida Citroën, principal at LIDA360, which provides comprehensive integrated branding, marketing and communication services, the worst customer feedback is silence.

“Customers who complain are often salvageable,” Citroën says. “The ones who leave without offering feedback often never come back, and tell their friends about the negative experience.”

Citroën views feedback as a gift and, whether it’s positive or negative, will help a company or individual evaluate whether it is living up to the expectation of the experience the brand dictates and strives for. As complaints come in, a system to evaluate their relevancy and importance helps guide the company to make changes or ignore the input. Negative feedback that comes from the wrong audience on misinformation should not be given the same weight as negative feedback on a real experience from a targeted and valued customer. They are not the same feedback.

The rebuilding process

A damaged reputation isn’t beyond redemption. Rebuilding a brand requires several key steps.

  • Revisiting the original brand values, core mission and value proposition;
  • Aligning strategies and messaging with the functional and emotional needs of target audiences;
  • Creating a platform to announce and promote this “new” direction for the brand as you rebuild visibility and trust in the industry; and
  • Increased transparency and honesty with customers and stakeholders across multiple channels.

Recognize that every complaint is an opportunity to make a positive impression with that customer, says James Norwood, chief marketing officer at KANA, which focuses on educating companies on customer service. “Empathy and a proactive, can-do attitude go a long way in setting the right tone for the interaction,” he says.

Offer a sincere apology to the customer and confirm the nature of their issue has been fully understood. “The customer service representative should reiterate to the customer what they understand the problem to be, and have the customer confirm it is understood correctly,” Norwood says. “This ensures the steps taken to resolve the issue are indeed targeting the complaint, and also makes the customer feel ‘heard’ – which can often set a more amicable tone during of the interaction.”

The wrong way to accept complaints is to view accepting them as the end result, says Robi Ganguly, CEO of Apptentive, a company that provides software app developers with tools and services to gather feedback. “The ability to accept complaints is a good start on the way to a dialog that should occur with frustrated customers,” he says.

Utilizing an online form, 800 number or in-app mechanism to field feedback is fine as long as each delivers the complaints to people who are focused on listening and answering. “If the complaints are falling into a black hole, however, you are more likely to alienate customers who are raising their hands and saying they need help,” Ganguly says.

As for offering direct access to a top person versus following a chain of command for hearing complaints, Ganguly says while the former is helpful and impressive, it’s not a requirement. “The important focus is the customer’s complaint is heard, acknowledged and resolved,” he says. “If that means there is a concrete escalation process and the person at the top has to get involved occasionally, than that is the way to design the process. This is not a requirement for many situations, however, so it’s important to design for the customer’s needs first.”

Say what?

Respond to customer complaints the right way.

The last thing a customer with a complaint wants to hear is: “You’re wrong.” What they want to hear is that you understand them, appreciate them and agree with them on the importance of the value they have cited in their complaint.

Here are a few quick scripts to use when responding to customer complaints.

Customer Complaint: Bad Website

Your customer says: “Your website is terrible. I couldn’t find the information I needed.”

You say: “You are right to want an informative, user-friendly website. What information couldn’t you find? Your suggestions on how to improve the site are a big help.”

Customer Complaint: Too Many Rules

Your customer says: “Your policies are rigid. Your company is so bureaucratic.”

You say: “I agree that we should be as flexible and user-friendly as possible. Your suggestions can really help.”

Customer Complaint: Overpriced

Your customer says: “This service isn’t what I was promised. And your price is way too high!”

You say: “I am on your side in this situation. You have a right to be satisfied with whatever service you contract from us. You deserve good value for your money. Let’s review what you have and see if there’s a better option for you.”

Customer Complaint: Too Slow

Your customer says: “I’ve been waiting forever. Why did it take you so long to take my order?”

You say: “We understand that in today’s world speed counts. You deserve fast, friendly service.”

Let’s face it; the customer is not always right. But customers are always important, and we can make them feel much better by agreeing with them on the importance of the service dimensions they identify and value.

Ron Kaufman is the author of “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet.”


A company should offer more than one option to fielding customer complains, Norwood says.

“A customer should never feel they can’t go beyond their first point of contact if they are not getting resolution to their issue,” he says. “It’s important to ensure that the customer is empowered to have their issue resolved quickly and to their full satisfaction.”

Eliminate a lot of customer frustration by ensuring that, as a customer moves from one channel – for example from the Internet to a call center – they don’t have to repeat information previously submitted, Norwood says. That context of their query should follow them as they transfer across service channels.

The internal processes and systems are vital, as is training and internal feedback sessions. “Your frontline customer-service teams have a great ear to the needs, concerns and values of the marketplace,” Citroën says. “Listen to them, engage them as ambassadors for the company brand and value and make them more proactive and less reactive. Give frontline teams the tools, power and confidence to represent the company to the outside world. Then, provide a safe place internally for them to share, vent and grow.”

An old business adage states the customer is always right. Has that become antiquated or does it still apply? With the advent of social media, the customer certainly has more of a voice to share their frustrations – right or wrong. “The customer is not always right per se, but they are a customer and as such, deserve respect,” Norwood says. “Today, customers have a larger soapbox to stand on and vent. The voice of the customer has evolved and been magnified; their opinions are now posted on social networks, in blogs and forums and in email and chat sessions.

“This setting provides many opportunities to nurture relationships, but also involves risk,” he adds. “Knowing how to ‘listen’ to your customer through technologies can help businesses strengthen relationships with customers and protect their brands.”

Keys to alleviating customer complaints

  • Feedback – whether it’s positive or negative – is a good thing.
  • Offer the customer a sincere apology and confirm you understand the nature of their issue.
  • Provide more than one option to customers for fielding complaints with your company.
  • Today’s client has more opportunities to communicate, and therefore, vent about your service.
  • A lost customer is not gone forever. Continue to communicate to rebuild your relationship.

Because of social media, the customer is even more right now than ever before, because of the many options and opportunities to share their opinion of your company and services. “In a hyper-connected environment it is absolutely critical to treat all customers with respect and trust,” Ganguly says. “Although there might be people who try to take advantage of this approach, the impact of being pessimistic about your customers’ motives initially is much more detrimental to your brand and reputation.”

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. There comes a time when greasing the same squeaky wheel may affect your performance for other clients. When is it time to cut bait?

“There’s a point when efforts have been exhausted and an unhappy customer is simply not going to be satisfied,” Norwood says. “In this situation, it is important to part ways with a gentle yet consistent tone. Let the customer vent, offer an apology – even if your business hasn’t done anything wrong – and if they continue to complain simply repeat, ‘I hear what you are saying, and I am sorry we were not able to meet your expectations.’”

Once a customer is gone, there’s nothing that says they can’t come back. Reaching back out to see how the customer is doing, with a genuine interest in their business and situation is important.

“If you’re seeking to build relationships with your customers and potential customers, this is a natural occurrence,” Ganguly says. “When you’ve established a relationship with a customer, even if they leave, you can still maintain a dialog.

“If you aren’t in the habit of creating relationships with customers, an alternative is to reach out with updates on your business and specific steps you’ve taken to address the reasons why they left,” he says. “In this situation, you can point to the fact that you listened, took action and continue to keep them in mind.”


Rob Thomas is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

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August 2012
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