How to handle customer complaints: 10 tips to manage them better

The very term customer complaints conjures negative feelings. How can a complaint be seen as anything other than a bad thing?

Yet no matter how hard you work to deliver high-quality products and amazing customer service, unhappy customers are inevitable. No business can skirt the reality of customer complaints completely. But for companies that know how to handle customer complaints particularly well, they can become more of an opportunity than a liability.

The benefits of handling customer complaints

Research shows that people trust word-of-mouth more than brand advertising. 83 percent say they trust friends and family, which is unsurprising, but 66 percent say they also trust opinions strangers post online. And 55 percent of consumers complain on social media when they have a problem with a company. It’s clear: one angry customer's complaint can be amplified and influence the opinions of many others.

What’s important is that most customers care less about whatever situation caused their initial complaint than how a company handles it. They're not complaining to make you look bad—they want you to respond with a solution. And if you do it well, you can turn a negative into a positive. Harvard Business Review found that people who complained or wrote negative comments about a brand on social media and received a response were more loyal afterward than those who never complained at all.

“Customer complaints are the biggest opportunity a business has to repair a fractured relationship with a customer,” says Jonathan Brummel, Senior Manager, Premier Support at Zendesk.

Not only is listening to your customers’ complaints integral to good customer service, but the feedback they provide goes beyond scoring customer satisfaction brownie points—it can help improve your overall business, too.

"Customer complaints are great for business intelligence," says Brummel. "They can help uncover a gap in your system or process, and give you an opportunity to fix it, or help you to look at your product in a new way. With this valuable information, you can share those insights across teams and drive product innovation. Customer complaints are one of the first steps towards making your business better."

When you know how to handle customer complaints well, you can improve business intelligence

10 tips for handling customer complaints

There are two levels to handling a customer's complaint effectively. Your agents have to respond to the situation directly, and the company has to provide the right tools to equip the customer support team to do their job well. Success requires taking a few key steps at both levels.

A good strategy for resolving customer complaints has to be top-down. Every company that cares about creating loyal customers should prioritize these first three tips.

1. Make answers to common complaints easy to find

Speed is an important factor in whether customers are satisfied with a customer support interaction. That’s where a well-organized, searchable knowledge base can help. When answers are easily accessible, it increases agent productivity, enabling faster resolutions for your customers.

2. Make sure relevant details move with the customer across channels

The era of omnichannel support has made providing an integrated customer experience across channels more complicated. But customers don't care what challenges you have on your end. If they have to repeat their complaint three different times in three different channels, they aren't likely to come away from the experience feeling better about your brand.

As such, agents need a way to find the relevant context about a customer and their grievance, such as their email, how long they’ve been a customer, and why they last reached out, the moment they start communicating with them. Arm your team with an integrated support tool that provides one centralized location for all customer information.

3.Track common customer complaints

Individual customer complaints don't exist in a vacuum. When one customer struggles with an issue, others have likely been in the same situation. To improve the customer experience as a whole, create a system for tracking all the tickets that come in so you can see trends in customer feedback. Then use that data to amplify the voice of the customer by grounding innovation in customer-centric metrics.

Part of knowing how to handle customer complaints involves keeping track of that data

Once your agents have the proper tools and processes in place, it's up to them to deliver the best response to solve the customer's problem. The next seven tips can help your agents manage angry customers better.

4. Understand the different types of customers

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for handling customer complaints—even irate customers don't all want the same thing from a customer service interaction. The right response will depend on the customer and their specific situation.

Some want a refund and others are looking more for an apology. Agents will benefit from learning to recognize the different types of difficult customers, and the best ways of handling each.

5. Cultivate the right tone of voice

It’s challenging to stay calm and keep a moderate tone when dealing with a confrontational or disgruntled customer, but paramount. And we’re not just talking about conversations that take place over the phone—we’ve all been on the other end of a passive-aggressive email or text message. Agents must strive to defuse the situation with measured responses while remaining human, which involves empathy and curiosity—sounding like an emotionless robot won't help things either. It's a tricky balance to find, but one that makes a difference.

“With every interaction, try to see it from the customer’s perspective. Rather than being transactional or judgemental, emphasize with them,” explains Brummel. A simple, “I understand,” can go a long way.

Reading your response out loud before sending it can make all the difference. Gut check for loaded language to make sure you’re not accidentally blaming the customer for anything or putting them in defense mode—even if the issue was their fault to begin with.

6. Listen before you respond

When someone's upset, one of the main things they want is to feel heard. Don't try to solve a problem before you've taken the time to understand it. Start by being present and use reflective listening. Repeat their complaint back to them to confirm you understand. For the complainer, having someone take the time to hear what they're saying, acknowledge that the grievance is legitimate, and apologize is often as meaningful as getting a refund or special offer.

“Listening before you respond is classic relationship advice,” says Brummel. “Similar to when we are in a heated situation with a significant other, we tend to want to provide an immediate answer. But you have to give the customer space to feel acknowledged before they’ll be ready to move into finding a solution.”

Instead of going straight to the solution space, you’ll also need to ensure you have the full context, which requires asking the right questions, and of course, more listening. For instance, if you’re a B2B company, you’ll want to ask questions that help you better understand what’s going on internally in that customer’s company. For a particularly angry customer, redirecting the conversation by asking follow up questions after you hear them out can help defuse the tension, too.

7. Own up to mistakes

Customers will complain about situations that are beyond your control. But sometimes businesses mess up. When you find yourself in that situation, it’s important to own the mistake.

“Take whatever feedback is there: own it, and own how your team can get better,” says Brummel. “Even better—don’t be afraid to share that moment with that customer.” For example, simply saying something like, "if I was in your spot, I would be disappointed too," shows the customer that you’re on their side, and that they’ve been heard.

8. Communicate expectations

Explain to customers upfront how long they can expect a resolution to take or how much you'll be able to do for them. Don’t promise what you can’t follow through with. People will often be understanding of any limitations on what an agent can offer, as long as a reasonable expectation is communicated from the start.

Even though you might feel like you’re letting a customer down, committing to honesty and transparency is imperative. Be real with that customer and remember that you’re not a human Google. That means it’s okay if you can’t get them the solution they’re looking for right away.

“Even though those conversations are tough and can feel awkward at first, it’s okay to say, ‘that’s not possible today, but here’s what we can do in the meantime.’ Or, ‘I don’t have that information right now, but I am going to find out,’” says Brummel. “And even if you find out that answer isn’t one they’ll like, that’s okay too.” What’s important is that you did your part in connecting with the right teams and committing to following up, which leads us to our next tip.

9. Provide the best possible solution

Once you understand the problem at hand, follow up, and determine the best path forward to resolve it. “Lack of followup will 100 percent destroy the rapport and goodwill you’ve built with your customer,” says Brummel. Whether it's a matter of talking them through troubleshooting steps, sending a replacement product, providing a refund, or a genuine apology that you can’t deliver what they were hoping for—give them something to ensure they walk away feeling better about the brand. That’s great service recovery.

10. Go the extra mile

After you’ve followed up, if you have the bandwidth, go the extra mile. Exceeding your customer’s expectations pays off—77% of customers would recommend a company after having a positive experience with it. This might mean surprising the customer with a handwritten thank you note or giving them a future discount. Or, Zappos, a prime example of a company that’s committed to creating experiences that ‘wow’ customers, sends their customers flowers when things don’t go their way.

Go beyond simply handling customer complaints and exceed customers' expectations

Handling customer complaints effectively and proactively

It’s important to have a strategy in place for reacting to customer complaints, but there are also some things you can try to proactively reduce the chances of them happening to begin with. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you anticipate customer complaints:

  • Do:
  • Send your customers surveys. Ask customers how you can do better before they reach out themselves. Use that information to provide a better experience.

  • Don't:
  • Ignore future issues. Sometimes when a customer reaches out about one issue, you’ll notice a completely separate problem arising on the side. Don’t be afraid to speak up, even if it doesn’t relate to their original request.

  • Do:
  • Embrace Artificial intelligence (AI). AI can help support teams think proactively while doing the heavy lifting for them. For instance, AI can predict bad satisfaction ratings before they happen.

  • Don't:
  • Dwell on lost customers. When customers reach out to end their relationship with your business, you want to have a win-back plan in place. But making it exceptionally difficult for a customer to stop doing business with you is a good way to turn a calm customer into an angry complainer.

There's reactive complaint handling and then there's proactive complaint handling

Customer complaints might appear like lemons at first, but they can allow you to make great lemonade. By listening and providing the best solution possible every time, you can turn the experience around. Play your cards right, and today's upset customers may become your most loyal customers tomorrow.

When handling complaints, it helps to have a customer complaint management software solution to create a unified, streamlined, omnichannel customer experience for easy and timely complaint resolution. Learn about our complaint management system and how it can help your team better handle customer complaints.