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Most businesses that provide a product or service to the public has had to deal with customer complaints.  I think it’s safe to say that no one enjoys listening to a complaining customer but if an organization listens to customer complaints, and addresses them, they will learn that complaints can be their best friend.

Customers complain about all kinds of things – faulty products, process failures, communication breakdowns, dirty facilities and rude employees are just a few.

Successfully acknowledging and addressing issues brought on by complaints can actually improve customer relations.   Research shows that a customer who complains and gets their issues resolved quickly is a more loyal customer than a customer who had no issues at all.   Companies that understand this take steps to create a system to deal with customer complaints.

Steps to Respond to a Complaining Customer

Acknowledge the Customer’s Complaint

The reason a customer complains is because they feel that their needs and expectations were not met.  By acknowledging a customer’s concern, an organization can diffuse the emotion of an angry or upset customer.

Take it on the Chin

Remember, it’s not about YOU!   This is hard to remember when someone is complaining.  One of the most difficult parts of listening to unhappy customers is being able to separate the issue from you.  Remember that the issue is about a perception of an unmet need, not you.


One of the fastest ways to diffuse an angry customer is to simply and sincerely apologize.  This is particularly important when emotions are high.  Simply look the customer in the eye and say you’re sorry.  When you do this you acknowledge that their issue is important to you and that you are interested in correcting the problem.


Be as positive as possible and try to reflect that in your facial expressions.  Be sensitive to emotions and try not to do anything that could make the situation worse.   Be as polite and pleasant as possible and work toward resolving the issue.

Find a Solution

Allow the customer to explain their issue.  Listen without interrupting,  gather as much detail about the situation as possible and try to assess where the breakdown happened.   Minor misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication can trigger emotional responses.  Try to get all the facts and find out what the customer wants.  Often there are things going on in a customer’s life that trigger emotional responses.  These things you can’t do anything about.  Your job is to help find a solution for them.

Offer Options

Customers don’t want to hear what you can’t do, they want to know what you can do for them.  Even if you can’t do exactly what they want try to focus on what you can offer.   Customers don’t want to hear excuses for their issues they are just interested in getting their problem resolved.  Offer a few options to correct the situation.

Service Recovery

Do service recovery for the customer.   Use your service recovery skills to try and make an unhappy customer into a happy one.   There are some good service recovery models that empower front line employees to correct customer issues.   Hotels might offer discounts on the room for unhappy customers, restaurants might not charge for food that wasn’t prepared to expectations or a dry cleaner might offer free cleaning to help resolve customer complaints.   Be creative and empower front line staff to help.

Complaint Database

Data is very powerful and tracking complaints can help identify areas that need to be improved.  There are many complaint tracking systems that can manage customer complaints.  When documenting a complaint, gather information like date, time, complaint description, persons involved, what customer was asking for, what solution for customer was, whether the issue was resolved or not and follow up with customer.  Following up with the customer after the fact can help ensure the customer’s issues were resolved.


Collecting and analyzing complaint data can help provide the needed information to correct problems within the system that may not otherwise be evident.  For example, if customers consistently complain about the same employee being rude, there may be training or performance issues identified with the employee. This can also be used as part of a performance management process for the employee.

Don’t Overreact

When looking at data it is easy to fall in the trap of focusing on outliers.  Outliers are just that and unless a trend is identified, they should be ignored.  As example, if long lines at a register are caused by a power outage, it would not be cause to create a new process or add a new cash register.  However, knowing about the power outage may identify the need to possibly look in to back up systems that can provide power and eliminate future outages. Understanding data trends is much more valuable than single point blips.

Lastly, customers deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect.  Having a good understanding of customer expectations and putting processes in place to help meet customer expectations is one of the first steps in creating a strong customer focused culture.

This Business article was written by Kathy Clark on 10/11/2010

Kathy is an MBA and seasoned professional with over 25 years of business experience in both large and small non-profit organizations. Her expertise is strategic planning, business development, quality management, process improvement, service quality and human resource management. She has a passion to give back and to share her experience and expertise with those interested in learning.