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How to Handle Customer Complaints

You’ve contacted your utility company, mobile phone provider or ISP one time or another. And in these cases, your call, email or online chat was likely to have been answered by a customer service employee, whose tasks include acting on complaints, or referring these to the technical support or other departments as necessary. Big companies can afford this. However, if you’re running a small business or if you are a freelance professional, chances are you run the ship on your own, and this includes handling customer inquiries and complaints.

I run a few online services where I’m the sales guy, the marketing guy, tech support and even customer service rep. The great thing about being all these is that the buck stops with me. With most customer service calls, you get passed to and fro. If your inquiry can’t be addressed by the frontliners, you get passed on to tech support. If it’s about your money, you get passed to billing. If you want a new service or an upgrade, you get passed to sales. I’ve experienced a call in which I was passed around and around. I ended up just listening to the what are probably scripted statements uttered by people who don’t really understand their products and services.

In the event that you get an angry email or telephone call complaining about your service, what do you do?

Understand user expectations. Many of my complaints about my mobile service are better addressed by getting online and searching through forums. Most of the time, when I call my cellphone provider’s customer service number, the staff can only regurgitate scripted information that is most of the time irrelevant and even useless, because they really cannot understand the context of my call. But, if you really use your own product and service, you get to understand it from deep within. You know how to work it, and you know how to hack it, if need be. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer, so you know where he’s coming from. Be your own customer yourself, and see if you appreciate your own product offering.

Get additional information. Sometimes, customers in their anger would just blurt out generic statements like “My email is not working. Please fix it,” or “Your service sucks. I want my money back.” The best thing to do in these cases is to ask for specifics. If you suspect it’s a system-related issue, ask for the operating system, browser, and even the version they use, which could have an incompatibility or known issue. Or you can ask for the exact date and time that their issue had occurred. Or if you run several services from under one brand, you might want to ask for specifics like which product it is they’re complaining about.

You might get additional information from your own records, and this might also be helpful in diagnosing the problem and in your eventual resolution. Whatever the case may be, don’t just take the complaint at face value. Dig deeper. Try to see it from different perspectives. The solution might just be there somewhere.

Act quickly. Most big companies make you go through red tape before you get your complaint acted upon. In some cases, it’s really logistical issues that cause the delay, such as when there are physical repairs needed. But when you’re a small business, you have the flexibility to act quickly. If all it takes to make your complaining customer happy are a few clicks of the mouse, then it would be worth it.

Offer a refund or discount. If you suspect that your customer isn’t really the right match with your service, then be gracious enough to offer a refund. Of course, if it’s a physical product that’s being contested, you would want it returned. But if it’s an online service, a membership, a subscription, or any online material, then it’s probably best to offer a refund without much fuss. Goodwill goes a long way, and you develop good business relationships based on goodwill. Your irate customer might end up purchasing from you again if you treat him well.

If a refund is too drastic, you can offer a discount. The same goodwill concept applies. If a customer sees you’re gracious enough to offer some of his money back for the trouble, then chances are he will stick it with you.

Follow up. After acting on a complaint, check with your customer if the resolution is to his satisfaction. You might want to follow up a few weeks after, just to check on things. Your customer might be able to give you a few insights on how to make your service better.

In the end, when you don’t get to see your customers face to face, there is always the temptation to slack off. But rather than brush aside these calls for help, why not seize the opportunity to prove your worth as a business person. Fix things. Talk to people. Connect. Improve. This is what complaint resolution is all about.


  1. By Victoria Blount posted on August 6, 2009 at 8:00 am
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    This is a really helpful article, another useful point is to preempt the complaint, not always possible. But if for example i receive a request to make a change on a website, but i am unable to immediately do this due to a heavy work load, instead of waiting until the customer chases me, i would give them a call or send a email to update them on the progress, apologies and reinforce the fact that at the next available opportunity i will complete their alterations. This way your one step ahead, and save yourself a complaint further down the line.

  2. By Christian posted on August 7, 2009 at 9:08 pm
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    Very good article. I’m still curious as to how I’m going to sue one of my clients. She demanded revision after revision after revision. I quote one for free, then charge by the hour. Tried being nice with her being a fellow artist.. Now I get screwed…
    Good post though

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