Step-By-Step Guide: How to Handle Customer Complaints
Illustration by Bronwyn Gruet

Many customers will continue doing business with you after they've been dissatisfied and complained.

In fact, according to the service recovery paradox, a complaint is an opportunity that can actually result in the customer having a more positive view of your business after a complaint is resolved than before they ever had a problem.

Being able to assess and address customer complaints efficiently is key to making this happen.

What are customer complaints, really?

Customer complaints are often a sign that there's a disconnect between what customers expected and what you delivered. Sometimes that disconnect is caused by a customer's unreasonable expectations or incorrect assumptions. Other times, it's caused by something your company is doing wrong.

A customer complaint might be the result of your marketing copy leading them to believe something incorrect about your product/service — or of your user experience setting customers up for failure. Or it could reflect a problem that's happening outside of your direct control (e.g., third-party shipping issues).

The only way to find out is to give credence to customer complaints to determine if they contain genuinely useful feedback.

A 5-step process for handling customer complaints

To uncover the reason you received a complaint from a customer and solve the problem in order to retain that customer, use this five-step process for handling customer complaints.

Step 1: Dig deeper by asking the right questions

Complaints — even angry ones — can contain insights, and it’s your job to seek out the point of friction. Socratic questioning can help you get to the source of the issue.

Ask your customer questions like:

  • What do you mean by...?

  • Could you provide an example?

  • Could you expand on that point further?

And ask yourself questions like:

  • What other information do I need?

  • What am I assuming here?

  • Why is this complaint important?

Often, complaints are the result of problems that need to be solved. Asking the right questions helps you get to the root of the complaint, figure out if there's a way to resolve the issue, and determine if the complaint contains genuinely useful feedback.

If you determine that you aren't the right person to help with the customer's complaint and need to transfer them to someone who can, make sure to explain why. This can be as simple as saying, "I’m going to set you up with our specialist who will get that squared away for you right away."

Step 2: Identify the type of customer you're dealing with

A study from the University of Florida found that when dealing with customer complaints, you may run into one of the following types of customers, each "motivated by different beliefs, attitudes, and needs":

  • Customers who aren't shy about letting you know they're upset. When responding, avoid mirroring their confrontational behavior; instead, react with firm politeness.

  • Customers who pay well and demand premium support for it. When responding, avoid excuses and just get to the solution. Consider creating a VIP folder and workflow to make it easy to identify and respond to their complaints.

  • Customers who contact you frequently. Stay patient and avoid coming across as frustrated when responding to these customers. When satisfied, they often become repeat customers and advocates for your company.

  • Customers who don't want to complain and may just take their business elsewhere without ever letting you know there was a problem. You'll have to actively reach out to these customers to solicit and resolve their complaints; otherwise, you may never hear their feedback.

These are broad descriptions and, of course, your customers will present a more complex mixture of motivations and behaviors, but being aware of different persona types can help you respond most appropriately to the real person you are assisting.

Step 3: Respond to the customer quickly

When it comes to unhappy customers, a speedy response goes from being a nice-to-have to a necessity. Complaints are best resolved as soon as possible.

A customer leaving a feature request won’t mind at all if it takes you a day to respond, but customers who are in a “pulling my hair out” situation want a resolution yesterday. Make responding to them a priority.

It can be useful to set up a folder that's separate from the main support queue where you can filter less-than-ecstatic messages. Here, the team can see immediately which emails are from customers who need help right away.

Step 4: Present a solution, and verify that the problem is solved

After you've identified the root cause of the customer's complaint, found a solution, and sent that solution to the customer, it's important to verify that the solution you proposed actually solved the problem. There are a couple of ways to do this:

  • If you can't verify that the solution is working, add this line to the end of your communication: "Please let me know if there's anything else I can do for you. I'm happy to help!"

  • Verify that the solution is working, then reply with: "I've tested this myself and it all appears to be working as expected, which you can see here: (include screenshot). But please let me know if you're still running into issues."

In some cases, it may even be worth reaching back out to the customer after a few days have passed to make sure that everything is resolved.

You may also want to consider monitoring any satisfaction ratings you receive on the conversation in your customer service software. Negative feedback may be a sign that there are still issues that need to be addressed (though there will be times that you've done everything you can do and the customer will still leave upset).

Step 5: Log the complaint so you can track trends

If you've gotten one complaint from one customer about one specific issue over the last 10 years, that issue might not be worth addressing. But if you're getting multiple messages from multiple customers who all shared the same complaint, that's the beginning of a narrative.

To identify high-volume complaints, you'll need a system for tracking them. At Help Scout, we use the Help Scout + Jira integration to track customer complaints so we can capture them, monitor how often we're hearing recurring concerns, and follow up with each customer directly when the issue has been resolved.

Whatever system you use, the key is to make it easy to capture meaningful complaints and track the volume of customers who are bringing up similar or identical issues.

How to handle negativity as a support professional

Handling customer complaints is just par for the course for support professionals, but that doesn't mean it won't take a toll on you emotionally from time to time.

So in addition to providing you with a process for handling customer complaints, we wanted to share these tips from Jeremey DuVall, Support Engineer at WordPress VIP, on how to keep yourself from feeling down on days when there's lots of negativity in the queue.

Rehearse objections ahead of time

By rehearsing potential objections ahead of time, you can prepare before real-life negative interactions occur. Before launching a new product or feature, think about things that might attract polarizing opinions. This has three purposes:

  • Tackle negativity — First, tackle negativity to force everyone to confront the fact that some customers might not like the change you're making. Addressing that ahead of time prevents anyone from looking at the situation with rose-colored glasses.

  • Discuss rationale — Second, discuss the rationale for the change. If the decision to make a change was well-thought-out and backed by data, you can move forward knowing you made the right decision, even if it ruffles some customers' feathers.

  • Rehearse answers — Lastly, rehearse your answers and get everyone on the same page. It’s not about creating support robots who copy and paste the same replies to customers; it’s about creating a consistent support experience for customers.

Balance negativity

In To Sell Is Human, Daniel H. Pink discusses how door-to-door salespeople experience “no” a heck of a lot. How do you keep your head up amongst that level of negativity?

Pink points to research on positivity ratios — the number of positive interactions to negative ones. If the ratio is high (say, 10:1), you’ll think nothing can go wrong (not necessarily realistic). A ratio of 1:1 is too pessimistic; the glass is half empty. A ratio of 3:1 is just about right.

While we don’t need to focus too specifically on the exact ratio, we do need to have tools in place to boost positivity when we feel ourselves slipping down the negativity slope. Here are some ideas:

  • Happy file: Create a happy file just for yourself. In that file, keep amazing interactions you've had with customers and conversations that always put a smile on your face. When you feel down during the day, looking through the file is a quick way to pick yourself back up.

  • Team kudos: At the end of every month, have one person read through all the awesome comments from customers and pick out the best one for each person. If you forget about how awesome your teammates are, this is an easy, quick reminder.

  • Happiness #hugs: Aggregate awesome comments from your customers and post them to a company-wide feed with the hashtag #hugs. When you’re having a bad day, it’s easy to view the tag feed and get a huge boost.

Master explanatory style

We can explain negative interactions after the fact in a couple of ways. The feedback is either "permanent, pervasive, and personal," or "temporary, specific, and external."

When you view a negative interaction as permanent (not going away), pervasive (everyone feels this way), and personal (there’s a part of me that plays into this), you feel like you have little control over your environment. Things are happening to you.

The alternative to “permanent, pervasive, and personal” is “temporary, specific, and external.” In this light, negative interactions become more manageable and actionable.

First, negative interactions probably aren’t the norm (if they are, you’re doing something wrong). Second, negative feedback is usually specific to a certain product or thing. Finally, it’s external. It’s generally not about you or anything you are doing.

How do you put this into practice? Conduct personal reviews of negative feedback every so often to do the following:

  • Look for areas where you could have improved in the interaction (details you missed, ways you could have improved the service, etc.).

  • Practice self-talk so these interactions don’t feel personal. This practice prepares you to stomach any waves of negativity you might run into when navigating the queue.

How to handle customer complaints the right way

Some people aren’t going to like what you build. That’s the cost of shipping things out into the world. If your product is great enough, there’s a good chance you’ll hear polarized opinions about it.

But by preparing ahead of time, maintaining appropriate positivity ratios, and framing feedback as temporary, specific, and external, you can arm yourself with ways to handle the negativity so you can address customer complaints efficiently and use them to create loyal customers.

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