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How to Handle Complaints

Customer ServiceYou may have experienced it.

It’s a typical busy day in the office. You’re fielding calls, answering e-mails, greeting people as they come into the office.

Then someone calls who is angry before you answer the phone. They are ready – expecting – a confrontation. They have reasons to be upset and are determined you’ll hear them all.

After forty years of experience in the business world — often as the front desk person – I’ve learned how to respond.

I’ve learned how to unruffle feathers. I’ve learned when it’s important to be firm and when to give in, when to insist on what’s right and when to turn the other cheek.

If you’re the target of a complaint – whether or not it’s justified – here are my suggestions for responses to avoid, and some you might want to try.

Don’t defend yourself. Or even worse, attack the complainer. A sentence that starts with “but I” or “but you” will only engender an argument about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Do acknowledge their distress. “I appreciate how hard this has been for you,” or “I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience this.” It shows your empathy for their situation, no matter who’s to blame.

Don’t make excuses. If you messed up, even if the situation was beyond your control, people don’t want to hear excuses. Just say “You’re right.” It’s amazing how those words douse anger.

Do make a plan. After you admit fault, move on. Work out a way to resolve the situation. Ask, “What would you like me to do now?” or “This is what I can do for you.” If they’re just venting because they’ve had a bad day, this will expose the real problem.

Don’t speak for other people. As an employee answering for a co-worker or employer, this means you don’t tell someone that so-and-so will fix it. It makes you a liar when they don’t fulfill your promise. Don’t make excuses for other people, either. Maybe they did mean what they said!

Do all you can do. Sometimes all you can say is that you’ll let the decision maker know of the complaint. If it’s personal, the best thing you can do is to tell the complainer to speak directly with the third party.

Don’t rely on your memory. Do keep records. If it’s a matter of compensation, make sure you have written verification of all agreements and communication, and know where to find it.

Don’t ever be rude. I can’t think of one excuse for rudeness or name-calling. If you never do business with this company again, if you never see this person again, rudeness serves no good purpose. And it’s unprofessional.

Do take the high road. Thank the critic for the criticism, whether it’s just or not, whether or not you agree with it. “I appreciate your input” are good words here. It’s not that the critic is always right; it’s just not that important, if all that’s hurt is your pride. The important thing is getting the job done, doing it well and knowing you have acted professionally and gracefully.

An advantage of being an independent contractor is that you don’t have to accept every assignment that comes your way. If a client wants something for nothing, if they’re never satisfied, if they quash your creativity, if they demand work from you that goes against your principles, you have the freedom to fire them.

You don’t have to provide good customer service to those who are no longer customers. Other professionals will appreciate your integrity, your expertise and hard work.

It’s your turn: How do you appease an angry person? What about suggestions on how to handle chronic critics you can’t fire?


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  1. February 3rd, 2010 at 10:54 | #1

    A couple weeks ago I called T-mobile, to share with them my disappointment with their telephone service in our area. I have had T-Mobile for 5 years now, and I’ve not seen a change in my immediate area outside of Jackson.

    The first rep I got, did EVERYTHING you said NOT to do. She was not sympathetic, she did not sound understanding and basically told me “too bad.” But if you want to change to another carrier you WILL have to pay $200. I was getting to the “anger” mode and decided I needed to change reps. I asked to speak to someone else, please.

    This person did not hesitate…she sent me right to “Shari”.

    Now, Shari was completely opposite and Immediately said something like, I understand your frustration. Let’s see what I can do to help you. It was amazing how that little bit of empathy also changed my attitude (getting my dander down). I did not get the answer I wanted nor does it look like it is changing in the near future, but Shari followed all of your rules above and made it much easier for me to try to make her understand my dilemma.

    Just thought I’d share….:)

  2. February 3rd, 2010 at 12:01 | #2

    That’s EXACTLY what I’m talking about, Phyllis. Thanks for the great example. Even though the result was the same, you have some hope that maybe it will change in the future.

    You also got the impression that Shari would have helped you if she could, but the first rep didn’t want to help. Even though they might lose your business in the future, you’ll have a somewhat favorable impression of the company because of Shari’s helpful attitude.

    It was smart of you to ask for a different rep, too. A lot of people would have just given up in disgust. No one likes their frustration — or any emotion — casually dismissed as if it doesn’t matter.

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