What are customer complaints? How do you handle them?

Customer complaints can help make your business better. Here are some steps for handling them in an impactful way.

By Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Published February 10, 2020
Last updated June 24, 2022

No matter how hard you work to deliver high-quality products and amazing customer service, unhappy customers are inevitable. No business can completely skirt the reality of customer complaints.

But for companies that know how to handle consumer complaints, these issues can become more of an opportunity than a liability. That might sound counterintuitive—how can a complaint be seen as anything other than a bad thing?

When handled with care and empathy, a complaint is a chance to strengthen your relationship with a customer and improve your product or service. The key is being able to assess and resolve consumer complaints efficiently and effectively.

In this guide:

customer complaints

What are customer complaints?

Customer complaints are pieces of negative feedback about a company’s product, service, or support experience. They often occur when customer expectations aren’t met. Consumers may complain when they receive the wrong product size, wait on hold for hours, experience technical difficulties, and numerous other reasons.

This type of customer feedback is usually communicated directly to the business, either in an email to the support team, a survey, or a feedback form. But sometimes, customers will express their dissatisfaction in public channels such as social media, community forums, and online review sites.

How to analyze customer complaints

Instead of looking at customer complaints in a vacuum, you’ll want to identify trends in negative feedback. With the right customer service software, your service team can record customer complaints so this data can be analyzed and shared with other teams across the business. You can also use surveys to collect customer feedback proactively. Community forums are another key source of customer feedback. Here are a few guiding questions when analyzing customer complaints:

  • Has this happened to the customer before?
  • Have other customers’ experienced this as well?
  • What team does this impact and how can you be sure they see the feedback?
  • What is your company’s policy for resolving the complaint? For example, do you offer a full refund for a dress that ripped three months after purchase?
  • How can you make sure the customer doesn’t experience this again?

Consider a Voice of the Customer program, a program that businesses use to collect and analyze customer feedback about their brand, products, or services.

Customer complaint resolution

Customer complaint resolution is a form of service recovery that enables the business to resolve a customer complaint and make the experience a positive one for the customer. It involves breaking down internal silos to share customer feedback across teams, moving toward a better customer satisfaction (CSAT) score, and affecting change where necessary to improve the overall customer experience.

10 steps for handling customer complaints

  1. Make answers easy to find
  2. Ensure relevant details move with the customer across channels
  3. Track common customer complaints
  4. Understand the different types of customers
  5. Cultivate the right tone of voice
  6. Listen before you respond
  7. Own up to mistakes
  8. Communicate expectations
  9. Provide the best possible solution
  10. Go the extra mile

There are two levels to handling consumer complaints effectively. Your support agents have to respond to the situation directly, and your company has to equip agents with the right tools. Success requires taking a few key steps at both levels.

1. Make answers easy to find

Speed is an incredibly important factor in providing a positive support experience. That’s where a well-organized, searchable knowledge base can help.

When answers are easily accessible, agents can find solutions to problems more quickly, enabling faster resolutions for your customers. Agents will also have more time on their hands, so they can focus on resolving complex issues.

Customers should have access to a knowledge base, too. It will empower them to solve problems on their own. Use chatbots to distribute resources, and use relevant keywords so the content is searchable. You can also organize your knowledge base in a way that makes it expedient for visitors to find the answers they need. For example, at Zendesk, we categorize our knowledge base by solution because our clients often have product-specific questions.

customer complaints

2. Ensure relevant details move with the customer across channels

If customers have to repeat their complaint three different times in three different channels, they aren’t likely to come away from the experience feeling great about your brand.

Arm your team with integrated support software that houses all customer information in one centralized location. This allows agents to find the relevant details about each customer—including their grievance, contact information, and purchase history—from the moment they start communicating with them. The conversation can stay connected, no matter how the customer chooses to interact.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

3. Track common customer complaints

Individual consumer complaints don’t exist in a vacuum. When one customer struggles with an issue, others have likely been in the same situation.

Use customer service software to track all the tickets that come in so you can see trends in customer feedback. Did support tickets spike after the release of a new feature? Do customer concerns get resolved at a snail’s pace? Are clients satisfied with their support interactions?

Leverage that data to amplify the voice of the customer and improve the overall customer experience.

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. Some want a refund, while others care more about an apology. The right response will depend on the type of customer and the specific situation.

  • Angry customers often feel they have been wronged and want to express themselves, so let them speak without interrupting. Listen to the problem, try to understand what went wrong, and search for a solution. When dealing with angry customers, sometimes it helps to use templates that can de-escalate the situation.
  • Impatient customers want things done at their own pace, which is usually at breakneck speed. Reassure them by letting them know you’re trying to resolve their issue as fast as possible.
  • Vague customers don’t provide many details and may even say a lot without saying enough. Ask probing questions to pull out the information you need. You can also clarify their statements by saying, “Just so I’m clear,” and repeating what they said to you.
  • Demanding customers aren’t easily satisfied and expect more than you can give. Apologize for the inconvenience they experience, and try to resolve their problem quickly.
  • Challenging customers have fixed opinions and might want to tell you how to do your job. Suggest solutions, but don’t force your advice on the customer.

5. Cultivate the right tone of voice

It’s challenging to stay calm and collected when dealing with a confrontational or disgruntled customer, but it’s paramount that agents do so. 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 diffuse the situation with measured responses while remaining human. Stay empathetic and curious—sounding like an emotionless robot won’t help things, either. It’s a tricky balance to find but one that makes a big difference. A simple statement, like “I understand” or “I’m here and ready to help,” can go a long way.

“With every interaction, try to see it from the customer’s perspective,” Brummel advises. “Rather than being transactional or judgmental, empathize with them.”

“With every interaction, try to see it from the customer’s perspective.”

It’s beneficial to read your response out loud before sending it. Gut check for loaded language to ensure you’re not accidentally blaming the customer for anything and putting them in a defensive 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. So don’t try to resolve consumer complaints before you’ve taken the time to understand them. Start by being present and using reflective listening. Repeat the customer’s complaint back to them to confirm you understand.

Taking the time to hear what the customer is saying, acknowledging their grievance, and apologizing to them is often as meaningful as giving them 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 person space to feel acknowledged before they’ll be ready to move on to finding a solution.”

“You have to give the customer space to feel acknowledged before they’ll be ready to move into finding a solution.”

To ensure you have the full context, ask the right questions. For instance, if you’re a B2B company, you’ll want to ask questions that help you better understand what’s going on internally at that client’s company.

For a particularly angry customer, consider asking follow-up questions after you hear them out to diffuse the tension further.

7. Own up to mistakes

Customers will complain about situations that are beyond your control, but sometimes, your company will be in the wrong. When you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to own the mistake. Taking responsibility for your actions demonstrates that your business values integrity, and it will increase the customer’s confidence in you.

“Take whatever feedback is there: Own it, and own how your team can get better,” suggests Brummel. “Even better—don’t be afraid to share that moment with that customer.”

“Take whatever feedback is there: own it, and own how your team can get better.”

For instance, 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

Be upfront with customers about how long it may take to resolve their issue or how much you’ll be able to do for them—don’t make promises you can’t keep. 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.

According to Brummel, “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.’ And even if you find out that answer isn’t one they’ll like, that’s okay, too.”

Although you might feel like you’re letting a customer down, committing to honest communication is imperative. Be real with the customer, and remember that you’re not a machine. It’s okay if you can’t get them the solution they’re looking for right away.

9. Provide the best possible solution

Once you understand the problem at hand, follow up and determine the best path forward to resolve it—whether that’s talking the customer through troubleshooting steps, sending a replacement product, offering a refund, or genuinely apologizing when you can’t deliver what they were hoping for. Give them something so they walk away feeling better about the brand.

10. Go the extra mile

If you have the bandwidth after following up, go above and beyond for the customer. You might surprise them with a handwritten thank you note, a bouquet of flowers, or a discount code.

A thoughtful gesture might just be the thing that turns a buyer into a loyal customer.

Examples of different types of customer complaints

Here are examples of different types of customer complaints and what you can do to resolve them.

  • Long wait times
  • Inability to speak with a human
  • Needing to repeat information
  • Unfriendly support agents
  • Insufficient agent knowledge
  • Inconvenient customer service hours
  • Difficulty finding information
  • Lack of support channels

1. Long wait times

By the time a customer calls you with a complaint, they’re already feeling frustrated. So putting them on hold for a long time makes the problem worse. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, nearly 60 percent of customers said being left on hold is their least favorite part of a service interaction.

Long wait times could mean the volume is too high for your customer service team to handle. Take a look at the peaks and valleys in contact center demand, and try to staff those times to match. You may also be able to deflect some customer service inquiries by including self-support options where customers can find answers to their questions. Customers often prefer to resolve issues themselves, so it’s a win-win.

2. Inability to speak with a human

Automated phone systems can help triage tickets for your staff and answer common customer questions. But when a caller gets stuck in a loop without any way to talk to a live rep, they get irritated.

Offer direct support on various channels—phone, messaging apps, live chat, and email. With the right omnichannel customer service software, agents can easily switch between channels without losing customer context. For example, if a customer reaches out to your support team on Facebook Messenger but then wants to speak with someone on the phone, an omnichannel approach ensures your agents can keep the conversation going seamlessly.

3. Needing to repeat information

Customers don’t want to recount their problems to reps over and over again. This can happen when they’re transferred between agents or when your agents can’t access the customer details they need to provide better support. Either way, the result is the same: When customers have to repeat themselves multiple times, they get frustrated.

Customer service software, like Zendesk, can remove this pain point from the process. The right tech stack can connect your agents with the information they need to effectively help a customer—no repetition required. Agents can see complete customer profiles, like the one below, so they can resolve issues faster.

customer complaints

Image source

4. Unfriendly support agents

Over 30 percent of consumers say friendly support agents are key to a good customer experience. When your customer service team is kind and empathetic, they can brighten up someone’s day and build a better reputation for your brand. But when they don’t have these necessary soft skills for the job, it leaves a bad impression on buyers. And when a customer is already upset, an unfriendly agent only escalates the situation.

You’ll want to solve this customer service complaint proactively. Hire empathetic agents, and provide empathy training for existing team members.

A good service recovery program can also help remedy angry customers after the fact. For example, Birchbox agents are empowered to follow up with customers who rated their initial interaction poorly.

5. Insufficient agent knowledge

A lack of customer information is usually a back-end problem. Customer service agents need quality technology to effectively access, track, and update the information they need as soon as they need it. When teams don’t have the right ticketing system and internal processes in place, customers are often left waiting on hold or transferred between departments.

An automated ticketing system connects customer information across channels. With this tool, agents can seamlessly work together to solve problems and meet customer demands.

6. Inconvenient customer service hours

customer complaints

Many customers expect to reach support teams when an issue comes up—and to get an answer fast. According to the Sprout Social Index, 40 percent of consumers expect a response from businesses within an hour, while 79 percent expect a reply within the first 24 hours.

This complaint is common for companies that don’t provide support on the weekends and for global organizations that offer customer service that’s reflective of only a single time zone.

An AI chatbot is a great way to expand your customer support hours. When agents are off the clock, a bot can handle the repetitive, basic queries that come in. Chatbots can also capture preliminary customer information and create tickets for agents to address when they’re back at their desks.

Global companies may also want to try a follow-the-sun model, a type of workflow in which customer issues can be handled by and passed between offices in different time zones. This can help increase responsiveness and reduce wait times.

7. Difficulty finding relevant information online

Customers want to take care of problems themselves: 70 percent say they expect a business to have a self-service portal available to them. Yet only a third of companies offer some form of customer self-service—whether through a help center, chatbots, or an FAQ page.

A stellar knowledge management system is the best way to handle this complaint. But building a knowledge base or online community is only the first step. Customers also complain when self-service resources are out of date, so you’ll want to have a plan for refreshing your online content. An AI-powered knowledge base can flag outdated articles and recommend new articles to write.

8. Lack of support channels

Customers want to reach companies on the channels of their choice. According to our Customer Experience Trends Report, 40 percent of consumers want to connect with businesses over their favorite channels. And 93 percent will spend more with companies that offer their preferred option to reach customer service. So if you offer support on only one channel, customers are likely to complain, especially if it’s a channel that’s inconvenient for them.

Ask yourself: What channels do your customers spend most of their time on? You may find that it’s messaging. Our report revealed that consumers are increasingly turning to social messaging apps to contact companies. Inquiries over WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and others jumped 36 percent last year—higher than any other channel.

Importance of customer complaints to your business

Customers don’t complain just to make your company look bad—they want you to respond with a solution. If you handle the feedback well, you can turn a negative situation into a positive one.

When customers bring issues to your attention, they expect you to swing into action immediately. A prompt response can prevent a slightly dissatisfied customer from becoming an indignant customer who leaves you for a competitor.

“Customer complaints are the biggest opportunity a business has to repair a fractured relationship with a customer,” says Jonathan Brummel, director of enterprise support at Zendesk.

“Customer complaints are the biggest opportunity a business has to repair a fractured relationship with a customer.”Jonathan Brummel, director of enterprise support at Zendesk

If you don’t address consumer complaints, it can make the situation much worse. One angry customer’s complaint can be amplified and influence the opinions of many others. Research shows that almost 9 in 10 customers read online reviews of local businesses. Imagine a prospect not doing business with you because of negative reviews you left unattended. You should always acknowledge complaints and do your best to correct the situation.

For example, when a customer took to Twitter to complain about the bad service they received, the Instacart support team was quick to jump in and resolve the problem.

customer complaints

Image source

Listening to customer complaints is integral to good customer service. Plus, it can help you improve your products or services. A request for a new feature, for instance, can enable you to better serve your customers.

“Customer complaints are great for business intelligence,” says Brummel. “They can help uncover a gap in your system or process and allow you to fix it, or they can 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.”

Benefits of customer complaints

  • Customer complaints provide valuable customer feedback for your business to learn from
  • Resolving a compliant can prevent a dissatisfied customer from churning
  • Customer complaints reveal customer pain points
  • Responding to complaints has a postive impact on brand reputation
  • Customer complaints are an opportunity for your customers to engage with your service team to build a better, more personalized relationship with your brand

Create customer complaint guidelines and policies

Support leaders will want to develop policies and guidelines for how agents should address the most common customer complaints. Here are some guidlines to think about:

  • How quickly should agents respond to an angry or disappointed customer?
  • When can agents give customers a discount to make up for a bad experience?
  • Is there a specialized team that handles customer complaints for VIP customers?
  • When should agents escalate a complaint to a manager or another team?
  • How should agents document complaints?
  • Do you have a service recovery program?

Proactive customer complaint handling

While it’s important to have a strategy in place for reacting to customer complaints, it’s even better to proactively reduce the chances of them happening in the first place.

  • Send customer surveys to ask how you can improve your products, services, or support interactions. Use that information to provide superior experiences.
  • Don’t ignore potential issues. Sometimes when a customer reaches out about one problem, you’ll notice another arising on the side. Don’t be afraid to speak up, even if it doesn’t relate to their original request.
  • Use AI to predict bad satisfaction ratings before they happen.

If you’re about to lose a customer and your win-back plan fails, don’t make it hard for them to leave—this can turn a calm customer into an angry complainer. It’s better to let them go on a good note than to let them leave with a sour taste in their mouth.

Quick tips to resolve consumer complaints

How do you deal with customer complaints?

Businesses that deal with customer complaints effectively use customer feedback as an opportunity to learn, improve, and save a customer from churning. They take the steps needed to resolve the customer’s issue and share the feedback with the right team.

What are the most common customer complaints?

Some of the top issues customers complain about include long wait times, an automated system that makes it hard to reach a human agent, and having to repeat information multiple times.

How can customers file a complaint against a company?

Businesses should make it easy for customers to get help when they experience issues and provide feedback by supporting them over the channels most convenient for them. CSAT surveys are also a great way to glean customer feedback and learn why a customer might be dissatisfied.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

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