Turning Customer Complaints into a Competitive Advantage

Receiving a complaint from an irate customer is seldom a pleasant experience. But customer complaints also provide businesses with valuable feedback about the quality of their products and services. By developing processes for fielding complaints, your company can identify weak spots in need of correction, increase the chances of retaining valuable customers, and gain a reputation for responsiveness and outstanding customer service.


Regardless of how hard you and your employees work to keep customers happy, complaints are bound to occur. Simply being prepared for the possibility that a dissatisfied customer could complain generally makes it easier to deal with the complaint when it is made. Bear in mind that, for every customer who kvetches, there could be several more clients who have kept quiet but are unhappy with some aspect of your company’s products or services. Those “squeaky wheels” may be annoying, but they could be telling you something that other equally dissatisfied customers were too shy or too busy to communicate.

When talking to complaining customers in person or on the phone, listen as patiently and attentively as possible, taking notes if necessary. Rather than interrupting customers after they have stated their initial complaint, allow them time to fully explain the source of their frustration and why they are upset. Simply giving them the chance to “vent” can help to defuse any feelings of anger or indignation. You may even find that, by giving people who are particularly agitated a chance to lay out their complaints without interruption, they will eventually calm down and realize that the problem is not really as acute as they imagined.
After customers have finished speaking, repeat what they told you and ask questions if necessary. Thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention. While you may sometimes believe that customers are in the wrong or have overreacted, apologizing for any inconvenience they have experienced, without directly acknowledging any error, can often be enough to defuse any potential conflict. It may also be helpful to remind complaining customers that you value their business and intend to do your best to take care of the issues raised.

Respond as promptly as possible to customer complaints that arrive in the form of letters, e-mails, or voicemail messages. If you are unable to resolve the problem immediately, call or write the customer to acknowledge that the complaint has been received and provide a time frame within which you intend to address the problem.

As businesses grow and take on more employees, complaint handling becomes more complex. To ensure that major complaints made to lower-level staff members do not slip through the cracks, you should establish procedures for recording and passing on complaints to the appropriate managers. If, however, minor complaints are a routine part of your business, you may wish to encourage front-line personnel to resolve some of these complaints themselves and give them the authority to offer dissatisfied customers some small compensation for the inconvenience they experienced, such as a discount or a gift voucher. Train employees in how to respond to complaining customers and provide them with guidelines on how to proceed if a complaint cannot be resolved on the spot.

While it may not be possible or desirable to log every customer complaint, your business should have procedures in place for tracking all significant customer complaints from the point at which they were made through to resolution. Consider conducting surveys to gauge customer satisfaction levels, or call a meeting of staff in customer-facing roles to discuss what types of customer complaints or other types of feedback they have been hearing, both negative and positive. Once the key sources of complaints have been identified, talk to staff about ways to alleviate these problems and provide better customer service in the future.


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