How to respond to customer complaints

The customer’s not always right, but they need to feel like they are!

There’s really no better way to start your day than with a glowing testimonial on Facebook or in your inbox from a happy customer – it’s a breath of fresh air and a gentle reminder that you’re on the right track in business!

But that pit in the stomach feeling when the subject line reads “NOT HAPPY!” is enough to make you want to pack it all in and go back to a desk job. It’s an awful feeling and if you don’t manage it properly it can etch itself into your brain and become the sole focus for too long! But as a small business owner with all the decision making rights for your brand, you have so many opportunities to turn a disgruntled customer or client into a happy one, and it comes down to your communication with them.

How to respond to a customer complaint

 Step 1: Change your mindset and your language.

Early on in my career, I worked for a company that spoke not about complaints, but about feedback and opportunities, and I’ve carried this with me ever since.

By flipping the sentiment from negative to positive, your outlook will improve, and you will be in a position to think clearly and objectively about what the customer is actually saying. Treating it like a complaint will cloud your judgement and you’ll be making decisions based on emotion rather than reason.

Step 2: Respond through the same channel that the customer approached you, but keep the details private

There are so many ways customers can get in contact with you and the medium they choose shows you what they prefer. If they reach out to you by telephone, call them back – don’t send them an email because you don’t want to have to face the conversation. Similarly, if you are tagged in a negative Facebook post, use this forum to acknowledge the message, don’t call them just because you have their contact details in your database.

There is a caveat to replying publicly and this is that you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry in public. Acknowledge? Yes. But take further conversations offline through private messaging and then where possible through phone and email.

Step 3: Acknowledge, empathise, remind and suggest a solution

When you’re ready to sit down and draft your response, the most important thing you can do is not only read the words, but read between the lines. Find what it is that the customer is frustrated with the most. Sometimes there’s a list of things outlined and other times there’s just one, but delve deeper into why that person is so unhappy with their experience – this is called acknowledging and is the key to ensuring a successful outcome because you’ve really listened to your customer and that means you can really work toward a solution.

We’ve all been disgruntled customers at some point. Think back to a time that you weren’t satisfied with your purchase – for me, it was a pizza! I had ordered a gourmet pizza and when we got it home, it was sub-par, didn’t come with the sides that were promised and the pizza wasn’t even CUT! It was enough to make me reach out to the business.

I told the manager my grievances, but they weren’t what I needed a solution for. When I look back on the situation, I was looking for a remedy for what these components caused. I purposely spent more on quality and taste which I chose over the cheap $5 pizza I could have had, and it was a waste of my money. I was ultimately disgruntled at not getting value and not getting what I was promised by the brand.

Can you see how this changes what the manager should respond with? If they went on face value, then they could just promise to cut the pizza next time and offer a voucher to come back. Knowing the deeper emotion means connecting with the deeper issue. Instead, the manager could receive the exact same message from me but read between the lines and apologise for not providing the value that I had expected from the brand and assure me of a top-quality experience I’ve come to love about the brand on my next visit. It’s this advanced communication that shows you have empathy for the individual.

The next step is one I call ‘remind’ – and it has a dual function in the process. It reminds the customer that this isn’t the norm but also offers you the chance to back yourself or provide some defence as to the reality of the situation (just be super friendly when you raise these points!). It’s a great opportunity to take the focus off the negative and back into something positive about your business.

Finally, you need to suggest a solution. The customer has come to you for a reason and they want you to fix it! But fixing doesn’t necessarily mean a free meal or a 10% off voucher. It could be promising staff training or looking to stay open later, fixing a shopping cart issue on your website or reviewing your menu. Use the information you gathered in your reading between the lines research, and try and solve THAT problem for your customer.

Now – here’s the really good stuff!
I’ve developed this customer complaint template that you can use next time you get that pit in your stomach when you open a customer feedback email.

Hi xx

ACKNOWLEDGE – Thank you for taking the time to let me know about [insert situation].

EMPATHISE – I can appreciate that would have [how would it have felt/impacted?] and for this, I am truly sorry.

REMIND – At [business], [brand promise that wasn’t met ie: quality/fast delivery/customer service] is a brand value we uphold, and it is saddening on a personal note that we have fallen short on this promise. I can assure you that [insert back up statistic or vision to remind them that this is an isolated event].

SUGGEST – To remind you of the exceptional standards that you’ve come to love, I would love to [insert solution]. Please let me know if this is of interest and we’ll be in touch further.

Kind Regards

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