Dealing with Complaining Customers

Published: 15th April 2011
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A customer who is complaining is an annoyed customer. Annoyance is a negative emotion and breeds dislike, or in the worst case even fury, toward your organisation. Those involved in telephone sales training know that with every complaint and claim for a full refund it is necessary for the person handling the customer to distinguish between the facts and the feelings.

There is nothing very earth shattering about the facts: a product arrived two weeks late, two services were exchanged, an item was defective. These types of mistake can happen however well and precisely your business works.

Experience shows us that the mistakes themselves are not the main problem. The situation only becomes difficult if the person making a complaint is dealt with incorrectly in emotional terms. Typical examples of incorrect behaviour in those tasked with handling complaints are statements such as:

"This kind of thing is always happening with us." "You're lucky all the same, we have had much worse cases." "That has never happened to us before, what did you do then?" "I have never heard such a thing before." "Well I can't do anything about that!" "You are not the only one who ..."

All these statements are what telephone sales training courses describe as "killer phrases". Such killer phrases can end a client - supplier relationship once and for all.

But what is the correct way to handle the emotional side of customer complaints?

First, anyone receiving a customer complaint must identify themselves with their company. The employee who simply doesn't care if things go wrong or if client is annoyed should look for another job where they do not have to deal with people. Only those who genuinely support their organisation are really affected by the complaint and can therefore act in an emotionally genuine way.

Next, let the client have their say. A customer who is complaining should not be interrupted. Simply listen and say nothing first of all. When you think the customer is finished count slowly to 5 and only after this little 'pause for thought' should you start to talk.

When you do talk, address the client's feelings with emotional first person statements. Show the client or tell them how much their complaints really affect you. With 'I' sentences like:

"I am very sorry about that ..." "I take that very seriously ..." "It matters a lot to me ..." "That gives me cause for concern ..." "I am very worried ..." "That annoys me ..." "That deeply affects me ..." "I am not happy with ..."

In this way you appeal to their willingness to be helpful. Typical client reactions to an emotional 'I' statement are:

"Of course you personally can't help it." "Of course I didn't mean you personally."

The customer recognises that you are hurt and will do all in your power to solve the problem. If the client continues to reject your emotional 'I' statements they have taken up a hostile position towards you or your organisation and, as an enemy, will try to use expressions like these against you as welcome signs of weakness.

Lastly, it is very important that whoever received the complaint should also be the one who follows it up. The same person who had the first contact with the client when they made their complaint should also contact the client again after the problem has been sorted. They should enquire whether everything has been settled to the customer's satisfaction.

A top tip I picked up from a telephone sales training course was that by pro-actively calling the complaint handler could get rid of their feelings of guilt about that customer once and for all. Indeed the up side is that the client may sense that now the tables are turned and that they now owe you something, which could, for example, be their next order. A particularly positive outcome from a potentially very unpleasant experience.


Richard Stone a Director for Spearhead Training Ltd that runs management and sales training programmes aimed at improving business performance.

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