Golden rules of complaints handling

A man is complaining to a waitress in a cafe

Dealing with customer complaints provides an opportunity to identify and rectify problems in your business. The way you handle complaints can also help you to develop your relationship with your customer, allowing you to demonstrate that you value their trade by taking their concerns seriously

If you want to demonstrate that you put customers first, you need to develop a culture where complaints are welcomed and and are used as lessons that help you improve your business. 

  1. Develop a complaints policy - Have a clear, flexible, welcoming and open policy on complaints. No one likes being criticised, but you want customers to complain rather than just walking away.
  2. Set up a complaints handling process - Complaints can highlight problems with internal processes, training, specific employees/managers, products and customer service. Log and analyse all complaints. Share information about complaints so your team can tackle specific problems.
  3. Train your staff in complaints handling - Give your employees the skills and confidence to tackle difficult customers and support them in their actions. Excellent complaint handling isn't easy; it can be stressful and feel unrewarding. Confirm its importance in providing great customer service.
  4. Make complaints a priority - Staff should be aware that complaints are a top priority issue in your business. Anyone who deals with complaints must have sufficient authority to resolve them completely.
  5. Ensure you process all complaints - Nowadays there are five main ways to complain - in person, by email, online (including social media), by telephone or by mail - and your organisation must be able to handle all of these efficiently.

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How to handle complaints

Realistically, every business will receive a complaint from time to time. The way you response to a complaint will determine whether you successful resolve the customer's issue and retain their business.

There are several key stages when handling a complaint:

  1. Thank the customer for complaining. A complaint is a gift. Consider yourself lucky that the customer is prepared to give up their time to let you know they have a problem, instead of just walking away.
  2. Say that you are sorry that the problem has happened. This is not an admission of guilt on your part, it's good manners.
  3. Put yourself in your customer's shoes. You will have more empathy with the customer and you should find a solution more quickly.
  4. Start with the view that the customer has a valid point, not that they are trying to rip you off. There are some professional complainers out there, but they are in the minority. If you are a local store, you probably know them anyway. Accepting that the customer may well have a point should trigger ideas for an acceptable resolution.
  5. Get the facts first. Letting the customer give you all the information helps you fully understand the situation and, if they are emotional, will give them time to calm down.
  6. Correct the mistake. Don't leap straight into giving them something. While it's very tempting to give the customer a gift, or vouchers, too often it is done instead of solving the problem. This can lead to more complaints about the same thing in the future because the root cause of the problem hasn't been hasn't been fixed. Make sure that your definition of the right fix is the same as the customer's.
  7. Learn from every complaint. Do something! Fix the process; train staff in the issue; eliminate the fault. Wherever possible let the complaining customer know that they have helped you resolve a problem - they'll feel great and come back again and again (and will probably tell their friends).
  8. Minimise reasons for complaints. Do you have a culture of continuous improvement? Do you check customer (and employee) satisfaction regularly? Do you check the quality of the goods sold in your organisation?
  9. Always respond. Make sure that everyone who complains gets a rapid and appropriate response.
  10. Listen to your staff. They are much closer to the customers than you are. Ask them for their views regularly and make changes when they are sensible. Make sure their complaints are handled too.
  11. Lead by example. Make sure you always set a good example to staff and make complaints your personal priority. Reward good complaints handling.

Remember - it costs at least five times as much to gain a new customer as to keep an existing one. Keeping a complaining customer should be the top priority, and at these cost ratios you can afford to be generous in your time and effort.

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