Five Tips to Turn Customer Complaints into Productive Communication


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Fielding complaints is often considered the most difficult and least enjoyable part of a career in the customer service industry. However, in their 2005 book Complaint Management: The Heart of CRM, Bernd Stauss and Wolfgang Seidel assert that it is also the most important element for any successful business. The authors found that effectively handling complaints doesn’t just keep a company from losing customers; it actually builds happier, more loyal customers. In short, someone who lodges a complaint and walks away satisfied becomes a better customer than those people who keep their gripes to themselves.

Dealing with a fired-up, dissatisfied customer doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In fact, when handled with skill and understanding, these interactions can be rewarding experiences, both personally and professionally. Keep the following five tips in mind the next time you are face-to-face, or ear-to-ear, with a patron looking to give you a piece of his/her mind.

  1. It’s Not Personal

    Anger is an off-putting emotion. It pushes the recipient to respond in kind and leap to a defensive position before launching a counterattack. Customer service professionals know better. They step back and assess the situation. What do angry people need? First and foremost, they need to blow off steam. They need to feel they have the listener’s attention, that they are being heard and understood. They are not angry with an employee; they are angry with the product or service that has failed to meet their expectations.

    During this initial phase, it is important to give affirming verbal cues. If the customer is lodging a complaint in person, the recipient’s body language should be open, understanding and earnest. As is often the case in any business interaction, keeping quiet is probably wise at this stage of the game. In the best-case scenario, the customer will talk himself/herself through the problem and may even reach a solution that works for all parties involved.

  2. Work to Understand

    Effectively managing a complaint is dependent upon accurate and insightful fact-finding early in the conversation. Asking the right questions shows the customer that the company’s representative is anxious to resolve the problem. It also should elicit feedback that will help the company improve its product and process. As Stauss and Seidel make clear, there are two objectives in handling a complaint: to satisfy the customer; and to aggregate and report data provided from these interactions to prevent future occurrences.

    Assuming the customer service professional stayed calm and listened to the content – rather than the emotion – of the complainant’s opening salvo, this step is the logical follow-up. If parts of the complaint didn’t make sense, this is the time to fill in those gaps and get a complete picture of the situation.

  3. Genuinely Empathize

    The most important aspect of customer service is taking responsibility for the customer’s experience, from initial contact to resolution. That means making a personal connection. In today’s automated, hyper-segmented business world, consumers can feel adrift in a sea of buck passers. True customer advocates are rare and valued.

    As the management training company MTD Training discusses in its e-book Dealing with Conflict and Complaints, if a company has not implemented or acted on a strategic complaint management system, there is a good chance a customer service rep has dealt with the same complaint multiple times in the same day. The trick is to beat back complaint fatigue and step into the customer’s shoes. It may be just another call to you but to the person on the other end of the line, it’s a make-or-break deal that will dictate future business decisions.

  4. Know the Corporate Culture

    Everyone has heard the cliché: “The customer is always right.” It sounds good but it may not be de facto policy in all companies. In order for customer service professionals to be effective, they must be familiar with the decision-making models and tools at their disposal. In general, small, up-and-coming businesses will do whatever it takes to retain a loyal customer base. In contrast, large corporations have the flexibility to undertake a more complex cost-benefit analysis, asking the question: “How much is the continued business of this customer really worth?” It sounds harsh but it may be the reality for some big businesses.

    Customer service employees must understand what their supervisors expect of them and how much authority they have to resolve complaints. That way, they can steer angry customers toward officially sanctioned solutions, whether that means refunds, replacements, store credit or other perks. Ideally, managers will give their employees the autonomy to handle conflicts. Not doing so simply creates a cumbersome bureaucracy of middle management, not to mention increasingly agitated customers who are weary of demanding to “speak to a supervisor.”

  5. Communicate Openly and Follow Up Often

    Again, it’s all a matter of taking responsibility for a customer’s dissatisfaction to ensure they feel they have a trusted friend on the inside. If the complaint and proposed resolution are complex and require a supervisor’s approval, it is vital to stay in frequent contact with the customer and provide status updates. If the matter is simpler, a quick synopsis of the plan of correction should suffice, with a follow-up call to ensure all went as expected.

Successfully defusing an explosive situation can provide a feeling of great accomplishment. In many ways, customer service professionals are the frontline heroes of the business world. Not only do they keep customers satisfied and coming back for more, they provide the rest of the company with crucial data necessary to improve operations and increase the all-important bottom-line.


  1. Jessica –

    It’s easy to agree with your approaches for handling complaints that are received. That said, in both B2B and B2C business sectors, the large majority of customer complaints that exist are never expressed. And, the unexpressed complaints may be completely different than those that come into the company; so, addressing and resolving registered complaints may only marginally reduce customer risk and churn.

    Our long-time recommendation is to identify these complaints through outbound customer communication and/or research, and then determine the degree to which the registered and unregistered complaints are leveraging behavior, as identified in an interview with CustomerThink a few years ago:

    Michael Lowenstein, Ph.D., CMC
    Executive Vice President
    Market Probe (

  2. Thank you for your comment, Michael. You make a good point in that a company can’t solve problems if it doesn’t know problems exist. Your interview reveals some great insight into this problem of communication.

  3. Thanks for this article, Jessica.

    Generally, customers never like to get angry. The fact that the customer calls a hotline center means he or she has an issue that only someone knowledgeable (that’s us) to help. I have heard horror stories about customers becoming more aggravated because the people who supposed to help never provided the solution. That’s why businesses have to put themselves in their shoes too: If they call, they are looking for the right reasons for things that have gone wrong.

    Aside from having open communication, these customer complaints also offer us the opportunity to test the effectiveness of our customer-handling management processes. It is because these concerns can also point us to areas of improvement: Call handling, handling time and status monitoring. This makes continuous training more vital than ever.

    Happy to know you have mentioned that customer service professionals – the agents working the phones all day, the training, and quality assurance ensuring the quality of the calls – are the front-line heroes of the business world. The work is not easy but making customers happy is just worth it.


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