Complaint Management … Tips for Small Business Success

Complaint management process is an incredibly important part of the overall service experience you deliver. Here are some tips that can be helpful for small businesses.

Oftentimes, a negative experience that a customer has with your business can be salvaged and turned into an opportunity to win them over for life.

But being able to handle negative feedback in a positive way takes plenty of practice. Your business can get a head start by following established advice on interacting with customers in these less-than-ideal situations.

Below we’ll dive into some strategies on how you can do this, but first we need to look at why handling these complaints incorrectly could be hurting your bottom line.


Why Customer Complaints Matter

Poorly handled customer complaints are one of the quickest ways you can destroy an otherwise stellar service reputation.

Complaint Management
Complaint Management.

Consider the following statistics from the Jim Moran Institute and Lee Resources:

  • Resolve a complaint in the customer’s favor and they will do business with you again 70% of the time
  • Up to 95% of customers will give you a second chance if you handle their complaint successfully and in a timely manner.

So while you won’t be able to satisfy every unhappy person who contacts you, the returns that your business may see from turning an initially bad customer service experience into a “win” are immense.

Check out our thoughts on customer focus.


Recent Value: Is Employee Engagement the Backbone of the Publix Culture?


Below, we’ll look at many essential tips that will allow you to do just that:


Complaint management … give credence to customers

Treat every customer as if they have 10,000 Twitter followers.”
—Myers Barnes

Barnes’ quote drives home the overarching point that each customer should be treated as  if they have a large following.

It’s a given that every once in awhile you’re going to run across those “barnacle” customers  who will never be satisfied enough to not complain. It’s good business sense to give them very little of your time, but you should still view every potential customer interaction as if the customer has a broad audience at their disposal. This will safeguard your business from many potentially disastrous mishaps.


Complaint management process … remember that complaints teach us something

In a recent article on, Evernote CEO Phil Libin spoke about why he loves  his angriest customers.

In particular, Libin addressed the need for balance between internal innovation and customer feedback, saying:

Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It’s terrible at telling you what you should do next.

His point mirrors the one we made in our article on why Steve Jobs never listened to customers . Innovation needs to rely on your team, but customers shouldn’t be discounted in pointing your team in the right direction.


Record and organize complaints

No matter what business you run, you’ll almost always come across the customer that wants things for free or that thinks every single one of your price points are too expensive. You should take this sort of feedback with a grain of salt in most instances.

However, if multiple customers have told you that they simply cannot figure out how to use Key Feature X, you may have a serious communication problem on your hands.\u2028

In an earlier post we showed you how to set up a simple, browsable and easy-to-use feedback system with a few key tools; you don’t have to follow our workflow verbatim, but definitely make sure relevant complaints are being tracked!


handling customer complaints examples
Handling customer complaints examples.

Define each complainer 

A recent academic publication on customer complaints presents a strong case for categorizing complainers through a selection of archetypes that most customers fall into when voicing their concerns.\u2028

The Meek Customer: Generally averse to complaining, but warrants a mention because you may need to inquire deeper to get them to reveal exactly what is wrong.

The Aggressive Customer: Outspoken and not shy about letting you know what’s on their mind. Your best bet is to avoid being aggressive back and instead react with “What else may I help you with?” Show that you’re ready and willing to hear them out.

The High Roller: Your “enterprise” customer; they likely pay you well and demand premium support for it. While no customers are fond of excuses, this customer hates hearing them.

The Chronic Complainer: This customer will contact you a lot, but that doesn’t mean that their issues should be dismissed. Patience is required here, but once satisfied this customer will have no qualms about singing your praises to others.

The Barnacle: Although the publication identifies this type as the “rip-off” customer, I find the barnacle label to be more accurate. This customer is never happy and isn’t really looking for a satisfactory response; they are just trying to get something they don’t deserve. Everything is not good enough unless they’re getting a handout, and your best bet is to maintain your composure and respond as objectively as possible.

As you likely noticed, these are the extremes that you’ll encounter. The average customer complaint will be far more moderate, but it’s important to recognize these potential personas when putting your tried-and-true customer service skills into practice.


Avoid being passive-aggressive

Hearing the phrase, “We’re sorry that you are having this problem,” is pretty infuriating from the customer’s viewpoint.

The thing is, many small business owners use this sort of language by accident. They’re trying to apologize to a customer, but coming off as demeaning or dismissive.

Just say you’re sorry. Even if the customer is being unreasonable, apologize outright and ask how you might help resolve the issue. And if you’ve come across a “barnacle,” then move on.


Transfer them but explain why

Please hold while we transfer you. Your call is very important to us.

Ugh. While you’ll experience less of this problem when handling support via email, it’s still important to get people to the right employee quickly.

Never miss an opportunity to briefly explain to a customer why this transfer will be to  their benefit. It’s hard to get any customer happy or excited about being transferred, but consider the two choices you have:

  • You are getting transferred.“Well, this stinks!”
  • You will be transferred to our ____ specialist who can better answer your question.“Well … okay, then!”

Without this brief but relevant insertion, customers won’t know that you are actually trying to do the right thing.


Handling customer complaints … investigate with supportive questioning  

handling customer complaints
Handling customer complaints.

There is a fine line between simply following up after handling a complaint and inadvertently inviting customers to complain even more.

Let’s look at the following two responses:

  • “Is there anything else wrong?”
  • “How else can I help you today?”

Asking a customer who just complained a leading, negative question such as #1 will lead to nothing good. Conversely, inquiring how you may be able to further assist a customer lets them know that you are willing to stick it out if they have any other issues to address.


Time is critical

There have been some pretty strong cases for spending more  time with your customers, but you saw the data above … complaints are a slightly different beast that greatly benefit from being resolved quickly.

A customer leaving a feature request won’t sweat the fact that it took you a day to get back to them. However, unhappy customers want resolution yesterday, so you need to make responding to them a priority.

In almost every other instance I would encourage you to slow down your service, but in this case you need to make moves to right the wrong as soon as possible.


Verify the resolution

Have you ever tried to contact customer service through an online form, and after you hit submit there wasn’t a single follow-up notification on whether or not action had taken place?

This is frustrating, because you don’t have a clue where your issue—and any hope of resolving it—stands.

The same thinking applies to resolving customer conflicts via email or phone. You want to be absolutely sure that the customer is clear on the resolution that occurred and that it met their needs. So if you’re not ending your responses with an inviting question to do more, then start now.


Drop all formalities

Customers want to be treated with respect, but if you stop treating customers like regular people and start talking like a corporate stiff then they won’t interpret the interaction as genuine.

Research suggests that personalization is powerful  when interacting with anyone, but especially with your customers.

Remember that you’re not speaking to the Queen of England, so refer to your “chat” with a customer rather than your “correspondence” with them, and speak as if you were talking with an acquaintance. A little familiarity can go a long way toward getting customers on your side.


Resolving customer complaints … involve them 

You already know that you don’t have to “buy” an amazing customer experience , so throwing freebies at customers over issues that could have been resolved in other ways is a surefire way to lose your shirt.

Instead, if a complaint is genuine and the mistake is on your end, involve customers in resolution decision-making through phrases such as, “What do you think would be fair?”

Yes, the barnacle customer will try to use this opportunity to take more than they deserve, but this language brings out a reasonable side in most people, and you’ll likely get asked for much less than you might have offered if you hadn’t solicited their input.


Know when to stop

If a customer wants to cancel their account, do it for them right away. Better yet, let them cancel without having to call your company at all. It should be just as easy to cancel as it was to sign up.

Winning customers back with exceptional service is an important aspect of your business that you should focus on (and the thesis for this whole article!), but when customers already have one foot out the door let the parting be as frictionless as possible.

Customers aren’t necessarily done with you for good just because they cancel their account once, so don’t hassle them as they exit. Remind them what they’ll be missing by simply being sincerely helpful.


Get to where you can take action

People love to complain on Twitter, but it’s hard to successfully resolve a complaint within that channel.

Instead, refer people to an email address they can contact with their issue andassure them that you are ready, willing and able to get this problem resolved right way.

Trying to achieve anything more in limited spaces like social media just results in a public back-and-forth that rarely goes anywhere productive. The key to improving your service is to guide people into a channel where you can truly address their problems.


Don’t take it personally

You and I both have bad days from time to time, and your customers do, too, so don’t hold it against them.

Even with the absolute worst barnacle customers, you need to practice pushing their mistreatment aside and recognize that you can’t control how miserable people act—but you can control how you  react.

Stay positive, knowing that the next amazing customer is likely right around the corner.


The bottom line

To be effective in this new era, we as marketers need to see our jobs differently. No more just focusing on metrics like clicks, video views or social media shares. We must successfully integrate our function with other business functions to create entire brand experiences that serve the customer all the way through their experiences throughout the business.


We can do better. Much better. But first, we need to stop seeing ourselves as crafters of clever brand messages and become creators of positive brand experiences.


There can never be enough focus on continuous improvement on brand marketing, independent of how well the business is doing. It seems we all are looking to take our success to a new level. This is an excellent time to make a statement with their brand marketing. Changing before you have to is always a good idea.



Need some help in building better customer trust from your customer engagement? Creative ideas to help grow your customer relationships?


Call today for a FREE consultation or a FREE quote. Learn about some options to scope your job and pay for results.

Call Mike at 607-725-8240.


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Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of your business. Find them on G+Twitter, and LinkedIn.  


Digital Spark Marketing will stretch your thinking and your ability to adapt to change.  We also provide some fun and inspiration along the way. Call us for a free quote today. You will be amazed how reasonable we will be.


More reading on customer engagement from our library:

Whole Foods Customer Engagement Using Social Media

Is Employee Engagement the Backbone of the Publix Culture?

13 Employee Engagement Lessons From Best Employee Brands

Positive Attitude Is Everything for Customer Engagement


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Complaint Management … Tips for Small Business Success