How to Handle Complaints and Keep Your Customers

Lee Polevoi by Lee Polevoi on July 9, 2012
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Let’s face it: Customers complain all the time. When a delivery arrives late, a product falls short of its promise, or a service is perceived as inefficient, patrons often make sure the “offending” business knows about it.

And that’s the good news, because at least they’re giving you a chance to make things right. In worst-case scenarios, disappointed customers never tell you what went wrong, yet they talk to friends, family, or colleagues about their “horrible experience,” which can really hurt your business.

Savvy small-business owners encourage feedback. However, keep in mind that how you — and your employees — respond to complaints will speak volumes about your commitment to customers (and how much you value their business). People are rarely as upset by the initial problem as they are by being utterly dismissed. For example, a company that insists it’s “done nothing wrong” or replies “there’s nothing we can do” adds insult to injury and, more often than not, loses that customer for life.

Here are a few tips for handling complaints and keeping your customers.

  • Know that the customer is always right. Customers are keenly aware of their rights and options. They judge a business by how well it responds to their complaints, and they know they can decide to go elsewhere if they’re aren’t satisfied. Yet many customers want to remain loyal, especially those who take the time to complain, because they expect that something the matter to be resolved. These are often a company’s most valuable customers.
  • Say you’re sorry — and mean it. Whatever the issue, whatever the complaint, be prepared to offer a sincere apology. In many cases, that’s all the customer wishes to hear.
  • Listen and empathize. Allow the customer to vent her frustration, then repeat back what was said so she knows you were listening. Don’t get defensive or attempt to downplay the issue. Thank the customer for taking time to bring the matter to your attention, and reaffirm your commitment to providing quality service.
  • Describe your solution, then take action. After a complaint has been lodged, the natural next question is, What are you going to do about it? Here’s where actions speak louder than words. Offer a quick fix whenever possible, and outline the steps you plan to take. If the situation is complicated, imagine how the customer would like the problem resolved and provide a realistic timeline for your response.
  • After you take action, follow up. Let the customer know when you’ve resolved the problem and, if appropriate, offer a gift certificate or a discount on his next purchase as a sign of good will. If he doesn’t reply, follow up. Ask: Is there anything more we can do for you? Be sure to let him know you appreciate his business.
  • Train your staff to be “complaint-friendly.” Make it easy for customers to provide feedback. Train your employees to deal with complaints on the spot whenever possible. Instruct them to always respond politely, with a sincere promise to make things right. Set up a system for addressing complaints, so that issues can be resolved promptly. Never let a dissatisfied customer slip through the cracks.

Your efforts will be well worth it: Just as customers leave when they feel they’re being ignored, those who have a positive experience after complaining may stay loyal for years to come. It’s in your power to keep them coming back.

Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.

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