Like it or not, learning how to resolve customer service complaints is part of life. All businesses receive complaints from customers. Sometimes, those complaints are a little disingenuous. However, the majority will highlight genuine issues relating to the gap between expectation and the actual experience.

For a cherished few, the complaint will be more an expression of frustration that the brand/company in which they have invested so much cash and emotional energy has fallen short. It is akin to the disappointment of a parent when their child has performed below par in school exams. It is a setback and needs to be addressed, but there is always an opportunity to make things right and return stronger than ever.

80% of customers don’t complain; they just don’t come back.

If this is true, it follows that for all the customers who have a grievance against your customer service, only 20% stay around to express their disappointment. You will never see the other 80% again. Remember how expensive it was to acquire each customer in the first place, and you will understand the expense of letting this group evaporate. There is a clear need to win these customers back, quickly. Worse still, every unhappy customer is likely to tell at least ten others. Ouch!

Further, your customers probably know how your products, services and staff are performing better than you do. Not necessarily as individuals, but as an aggregated group, their feedback will give you essential information about opportunities to improve current products/services, as well as pointers for future product development.

Learning how to handle customer complaints should be a positive experience

Customer complaints are actually great news (well, to a point!). If handled correctly, the resolution will bring a customer back stronger than ever. At the same time, the business absorbs unrivalled feedback about that area of the business which is most important – i.e. the bit that is currently frustrating customers. Learning how to resolve customer service complaints then positions itself as a positive process.

I once recruited a young gentleman in a customer service role. His recent employment didn’t strike me as particularly helpful for that role at first; he had been working as a debt collector for the past five years. My mind conjured up an image of two heavies standing at the doorway of a family who had fallen on hard times, salivating at the opportunity to remove all goods to the value of the outstanding rent or, worse still, evicting them from the house by force.

I asked my interviewee how he had managed to stay in a role for so long, it sounded quite stressful. Without hesitation, he answered that he was motivated to help people get their lives back in order. He then went on to tell me about numerous occasions when he was able to guide people towards support that ultimately set them on a new, debt-free, path.

His answer completely wrong-footed me. My interviewee didn’t see his role as collecting debts.  He had seen the abuse directed at him as a cry for help and an opportunity for him to try and put things right. I recruited him on the strength of this dialogue, and he turned out to be an excellent customer service representative.

Handling customer service complaints is the time to earn your crust

After all, managing the status quo is easy. But don’t keep the pleasure to yourself, ensure all your staff learn how to resolve customer service complaints. You will see the irony in this situation. If the complaints are genuinely about customer service (and not actually about your products or services), then training staff how to deal with these complaints should also be teaching them how to provide better customer service in the first place. After all, they are likely to be the same staff.

These two processes are two sides of the same coin. When delivered effectively, the training should be empowering for staff and give a very mature feel to your business in the eyes of the customer.

So, having established the urgent nature of resolving customer service complaints effectively, here is a suggested 9 point plan to achieve this:

Resolving customer service complaints in 9 easy steps

1. Mindset – Take a moment before confronting the situation, whether a phone call, email or face-to-face. Remember that you are not there to win. Put yourself on the same side of the fence as your customer. Think of them as a close member of the family who has expressed a concern that they would like to talk about with you. This forthcoming conversation isn’t a battle. Also, remind yourself not to take any criticism personally; after all, they hardly know you. Just prepare to help your customer and look forward to some excellent feedback for your company.

2. Set the Scene – This mainly applies to a face-to-face situation. Ideally, introduce yourself to the customer and suggest taking them somewhere a little quieter; perhaps you are boiling the kettle, and they could join you for a cup of coffee. Soft lighting and comfortable chairs would be a bonus.

If they have launched into their opening salvo as you are approaching, then follow steps 3 and 4 below, nod regularly and at the first opportunity, try and take them to that other place.

Customer complaints - lower the temperature

This change of venue will enable you to continue to lower the temperature of the situation as well as preventing them from scaring off your other customers. You are now in a position to invite your customer to let you know about their concerns.

3. Listen – No, really listen. Maintain eye contact and nod regularly. Don’t move your lips. Or worse still interrupt. The slightest mouth opening will send signals that you are rolling a response around your tongue before they have finished. It tells them that you have second-guessed their problem and need them to be quiet so you can educate them.

This reaction is scarily easy to perform, so resist the temptation to build your answer before they have finished. Just listen. Even if your customer begins to rant uncontrollably, remind yourself that this doesn’t necessarily mean that what they are saying is invalid. Be inclined to believe what they are saying. They might genuinely have a point about your product or service.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Epictetus, Greek philosopher, died 135 CE.

4. Start writing – Have you ever been in a meeting when you brief a member of staff to carry out a detailed task and they just nod without taking notes? How frustrating is that? How much faith do you have that they will get it right? That is how your customer is thinking. So, after that initial period of intense listening, start to write. Don’t abandon listening but give that non-verbal clue which says that the customer is making sense to you and you are intensely interested. Pause, listen, then write some more.

5. Validate the complaint – If you remember nothing else about handling customer complaints, remember this one. You may have just received a verbal assault. You may know the answer to the problem. You may think the customer is completely wrong and only needs to be put straight.

Quite often, what a customer wants even more than having their problem solved, is to be heard. They want someone to understand the pain and anguish they have suffered trying to order a product from your website that turns out to be out of stock. They want someone to appreciate the inconvenience of finding traces of peanuts in their flapjack which they couldn’t eat because they have a nut allergy. The flapjack packet should have mentioned it. If only someone could admit to understanding their frustration.

So, before you do or say anything else, ‘validate the complaint’. In other words, give them what they want most of all – peace of mind that someone understands. Say something like: “Yes, I can understand that must be very frustrating”. I guarantee that you will have just diffused 60% of their anger. In one sentence you have told your customer, “I have listened, I have heard your problem, I have felt your pain, I understand your frustration, and I know what to do to resolve the situation.”

Of course, there are other elements which will support this line. A sympathetic tone would be helpful, for example. So might an apology regardless of whether you think your company is in the wrong or not.

6. Repeat back the complaint – Having delivered the complaint-validating line above, you can now repeat the customer’s complaint back to them. Paraphrasing someone’s previous comments are the best way to confirm that you have listened, understood and care. It is also important to make sure that you both agree upon the nature and detail of the complaint. Try to avoid too much company jargon and use the language of your customer where possible. Thank them for bringing this issue to your attention.

7. Ask questions – reinforce your concern and unwavering desire to fix the problem by asking some pertinent questions. Try and ask open questions, in other words, not those that require a simple “yes” or “no”. “What was your experience like trying to get hold of customer service?” “Tell me about the process you followed on our website.” etc. Open questions encourage your customer to pour out more frustration and give you more significant quantities of information to take back to your business. They will feel much better, and you should have all the facts.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, I just stay with the questions much longer.” Albert Einstein, Theoretical Physicist, died 1955.

8. Satisfy the complaint – Explain to the customer precisely what actions you are going to take as a result of their sharing their problem with you. For a typical customer service complaint, this may involve talking to the relevant member of staff, putting in place new training for all staff, updating website information, escalating the matter to a more senior manager and so on. The exact process would entirely depend on the nature of your business, your products/services and the customer.

Happy Customer

Avoid offering excuses and reply honestly. If you think the company has made a mistake, then feel relaxed about saying so. If you don’t know the solution, then say so. Let them know that you will find out the solution quickly and by when you expect to have a response. Make sure they have your contact details. Above all, follow through and ensure that you deliver everything you have promised.

9. Correct the fault – In other words, put steps in place to stop it happening again. Make sure that the feedback filters through your company to best effect. Remember, this is the gold standard of customer feedback and needs to be nurtured. You would prefer not to be confronted by the same customer with the same problem at some stage in the future. That could be a whole lot trickier.

One final thought: Don’t forget that your impeccably trained staff will only be able to deliver the very best customer service if efficient systems and processes support them. At the very least, ensure that you have implemented a CRM system which will give you a 360-degree view of each customer and ensure each case is handled meticulously.

So, customer complaints are part of life. Without them, perhaps your company isn’t trying hard enough. Learning how to resolve customer service complaints, or in fact, handling customer complaints of any kind is a critical skill for you and your staff to develop. Done well it provides robust feedback and can engender great loyalty from someone who nearly became an ex-customer. How wonderful is that?

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