Responding to Complaints: Part 1

22 September 2011

  Image by Niklas Hellerstedt

Complaints range from very minor irritations that customers (or colleagues) experience, to huge problems that have the potential to damage a company’s reputation.


We can often deal with minor irritations in person or over the phone. Many times a simple apology is all the customer wants to hear. (Customer service tip: If you do deal with customers over the phone, whenever they call with any kind of problem, always apologise for the inconvenience. That will go a long way to maintaining a good relationship with them.)


Huge problems, on the other hand, will probably need to be handled by your company’s PR and/or legal departments.


In this series we’ll talk about ways to deal with complaints that fall between these two extremes.


Thanks for that!

One thing to remember is that people who complain about us or about our businesses are doing us a favour (at least most of the time). They actually care enough to give us feedback on problems or mistakes. There’s nothing worse than losing a customer who has never complained about anything. You don’t know if or why they might have been dissatisfied.


So even though getting a complaint might make you feel bad, it’s the only way to learn and improve (just like learning from any mistake). And giving complaining customers timely, sincere responses is definitely one of the ‘cheapest’ ways to retain them.


The aim of responding to complaints

As it is with writing a complaint, the primary aim of responding to them is to maintain relationships. We do that by making things right again. And no matter how big or small the problem, respond to every complaint without delay.


Keep the tone of your response warm and polite. Do not make excuses for the problem. And most of the time, explaining why the problem occurred is probably not necessary.


Types of complaints

There are two primary types of complaints: justified and unjustified.


Justified complaints are about a legitimate problem that was the result of a company doing something wrong. Some examples include

·      late deliveries

·      faulty products

·      poor service quality

·      mistakes on invoices or statements.


Unjustified complaints come from people who think a company did something wrong, but they actually didn’t. This can happen, for example, if the customer doesn’t remember things correctly or if they haven’t held up their part of a contract and don’t want to admit it. In some cases (luckily a minority), unjustified complaints come from perpetual ‘career’ complainers who are just trying to get more from a company.


The complaint response plan

In the next few posts, we’ll go into more detail about appropriate responses for both justified and unjustified complaints.


For now, here is a general structure for letters responding to complaints:

1.    Open by referring generally to the complaint.

2.   Apologise for the problem (whether it’s your fault or not).

3.   [For justified complaints] Offer compensation and/or say how you will fix/have fixed the problem for the customer.

4.   [Optional] Explain why/how the problem happened.

5.    [Optional] Say what you will do to avoid a recurrence of the problem.

6.   [For unjustified complaints] Refuse the request; optionally, offer a one-time goodwill gesture.

7.   Invite the customer to contact you if they have further concerns.

8.   Close with thanks for their feedback.


Is an apology an admission of guilt?

Many people are concerned that apologizing is the same as admitting guilt, and they fear that they or their company might be liable for damages.


This is not something to worry about most of the time. (But if you’re in doubt, ask your PR or legal department for their advice before you respond.)


What a sincere apology does is to demonstrate empathy with the complainant. It starts the healing process of rebuilding goodwill between the two parties.


A simple ‘We do apologise for the inconvenience you have been caused’ makes you sound more human. Try to imagine getting a response that didn’t have some kind of apology in it. To me, it would sound very cold and uncaring.


Certainly, if you’re responding (for the 10th or 20th time) to a ‘career’ complainer, you probably won’t need to apologise again. But we’ll discuss how to deal with that kind of person later.


Next week . . . dealing with justified complaints.

 Please feel free to send me specific cases that you’d like help with.

Copyright 2014 DeGolyer Associates Ltd |  Contact Deborah at: