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How to Deal with Complaints — 7 Steps

How do you deal with someone who complains — whether it’s a customer of your company, a customer of your department, or even an employee or family member? How do you turn the complainer into a supporter? Here are some steps to take:

1. Listen
If you’re going to make the complaint go away, then first you have to listen to what the complainer has to say. Take notes so the complainer will see that you’re serious. If there is a factual basis to the complaint then get those facts using the old reporter’s list of questions: who, what, where, why, when, how. If there’s no factual basis — it’s just the way the customer “feels” — then try to determine why the customer feels that way.

2. Take Responsibility
If it’s a problem you’ve caused (or your department has caused), then take responsibility for the problem. Even if there’s the slightest chance that your department has caused the problem, you still need to take at least partial responsibility. Many times the customer will be much happier just having someone acknowledge that the problem exists, even if there’s nothing you can do about it.

3. Apologize
Acknowledge the customer’s feelings. Say something like “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you’re having difficulties” even if your department didn’t cause the problem. Showing empathy puts you on the same team as the customer and lets you work together to solve the problem.

4. Offer a Solution If a Solution Exists
Some problems have immediate solutions — or at least workarounds. If a solution or workaround exists, then offer it.

5. Offer a Future Solution
If a solution is coming in the future, then tell the customer. But be careful not to build false hopes or commit to something that can’t be delivered. Don’t be specific about a date unless you’re absolutely sure, and even then you should use qualifying terms. For example, you could say, “We expect this problem to be solved in the v3.0 release which is currently scheduled for next June. But if difficulties are encountered then the solution may not appear until the software release after that.”

6. Deal with Disappointment
Many times a customer will be unhappy with news of a future solution. After all, the customer has the problem now and wants it solved immediately. Let the customer know if there’s something that he/she can do to influence the priority of the solution. Would a letter or email to the right person help? Could the solution be implemented sooner if other tasks were delayed? Help a disappointed customer deal with the priority issues.

7. Follow Up Later
Add the customer to a list of follow-ups related to the particular problem the customer is having. When a solution is implemented, let the customer know. If the solution is moved up in priority (or down in priority), let the customer know as well. Keeping the customer informed will go a long way toward turning an irate customer into a supporter.

When the Complaint Isn’t Something in Your Area
Many non-work-related complaints fall into this category. It’s not your fault that the government is doing this and not that. It’s not your fault that human nature causes people to make mistakes — sometimes huge mistakes. Here’s what I think about people who complain about this sort of stuff:

  • They see people and organizations doing things that they fundamentally disagree with (or just don’t understand), and they don’t like it.
  • They feel helpless and out of control. Many times they’re afraid.
  • They talk about their concerns because it makes them less afraid. Talking about a fear — sharing the fear with others — makes them feel like they’re not alone in having the fear.
  • These people are not looking to solve a problem. They’re not looking for the truth. They’re just looking for a companion in fear — someone who can acknowledge the fear and make them feel better.

Fear is the difference between a solution-seeker and a complainer. Sometimes you have to recognize the fear, validate it, and separate it from the problem before you can begin to actually seek a solution.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gina Simmons April 24, 2010, 5:25 pm

    Excellent tips. Empathy training should be a requirement for all customer service.

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