How to Respond to Customer Complaints

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AJ Beltis
AJ Beltis



Customer complaints — they come in the form of an angry email, a scathing online review, an awkward in-person encounter, a negative tweet, or an unexpected phone call. It’s tough to hear, but customer complaints result from you, your product, your staff, or your service falling short of expectations. As difficult and uncomfortable as they are, handling customer complaints is an important part of doing business, and they must be dealt with properly.

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At a time where the success of your business rests on word-of-mouth marketing and the need for positive customer experiences, you need to equip yourself and your team with a process for sourcing, hearing, responding to, and fixing customer complaints.

In this post, we'll provide a step-by-step process for responding to customer reviews and complaints, tips for gathering feedback from customers, and best practices on addressing the issues head-on.

Featured Resource: 20 Review Response Templates

Review-ResponsesHubSpot's free Review Response Templates will help you develop your strategy for responding to online customer complaints in a sincere and consistent way. Click here to access the prompts for free.

Customer complaints can come through different mediums like Google Reviews, a phone call, or even a handwritten letter. They’ll each communicate different levels of frustration and require unique solutions to resolve the issue. That said, building out and relying on a roadmap for responding to these complaints is a necessary starting point. From there, you should customize this approach for each customer interaction.

Here's the process we recommend when responding to customer complaints.

1. Listen to or read the customer's complaint.

When you have a customer complaint, your first job is to listen to the issue and focus on what your customer is experiencing. Regardless of whether the complaint is over a price increase, a bad meal, or a service outage, your customer is reaching out to you to express their frustration.

It's easy to become defensive or to write off the complaint, but keep in mind that complaints rarely exist in a vacuum— if one customer is coming to you with this complaint, several others are keeping quiet about the same one.

A customer's complaint should always be treated as legitimate, so give their story your full attention and empathy.

2. Take a moment to process the criticism.

Some feedback can hit hard. It's not easy to acknowledge that you let a customer down, but getting to the root of the problem is an essential step to properly handling their complaint.

If you get this feedback online — such as an online review or through social media — you have some time to understand where the customer is coming from. This will be a bit harder if you're getting this criticism in real-time, like in person or over a phone call. The latter situation calls on you to put yourself in your customer's shoes sooner than later and truly prioritize fixing the issue — which can only be done if you listen to the complaint and digest the meaning within it.

3. Determine what action you'll take to address the problem.

Customer complaints can be commonplace, so chances are you'll know how to solve an issue almost immediately after listening to the details behind it.

However, as you're well aware, sometimes a complaint comes completely out of left field and you're not sure what to do. If you need some time to think about the best course of action, be honest with your customers. Tell them you need time to figure out how you can best make it up to them and provide a timeline for when you'll reach out with a solution — or better yet, ask customers what they need for you to make it up to them, and figure out if their request is doable.

4. Thank the customer for their feedback.

We’ve harkened back to this idea a few times, but it's important — the majority of customers who have complaints with your business will not communicate them to you. That can leave you totally in the dark about how your customers really feel. Therefore, the first thing you should say when responding to a customer complaint is "thank you for letting me know."

There's no law that states customers have to share feedback or leave a review. Some customers feel uncomfortable confronting businesses with negativity and would rather just ignore the issue or stop doing business with you altogether. The information that feedback contains can radically improve your customer experience, so even if the comments don't make you feel good in the moment, you should still thank customers for their insight.

5. Apologize and reiterate your understanding of the issue.

Immediately after thanking the customer, you should apologize for what happened and express empathy by explaining your understanding of the situation.

For example, let's say an account manager working for an ecommerce platform receives an email from her client, saying his online payment system temporarily went down. The response should start like this:

This response thanks the customer for sharing feedback, apologizes for the issue, explains what led to the situation, and shows an understanding of how the issue affected the customer. The customer should now understand that his account rep fully understands the reason for the complaint and values his business and feedback.

6. Clearly outline your plan to remedy the situation.

If the example above ended after those two paragraphs, this issue would hardly have been handled well. A proper response to a customer complaint is incomplete without an explanation of what happens next.

These days, it's best practice to go above and beyond when remedying customer complaints. Let's return to the example of the broken payment processor, and pick things up where we left them to show how we can remedy this situation:

This explanation outlines the improvement to the service and compensates the customer for his potentially lost revenue. Now, he knows more information about the issue, what's being done to prevent it from recurring, and is getting free software for sharing his criticisms — this kind of response encourages customer feedback and makes it more likely this customer will share his opinion moving forward.

7. Thank the customer again and offer follow-up information.

If you've followed the steps up until now, the complaint should be sufficiently addressed and your customer should feel like the issue has been fully resolved.

If that's the case, thank the customer once again for reaching out and offer follow-up information or instructions if the customer needs to get back in touch with you.

This step is particularly important for online reviews, which contain much less back-and-forth discussion (if any) compared to complaints made over email, on the phone, via social media, or in person. If customers are writing a review online, they might not have the contact information to follow up with the best person, so consider leaving the name, phone number, and/or email address of the person to speak to at the end of a negative online review.

8. Check in to see if the customer is happy with the result.

After some time has passed, you should follow up with customers to see if they're satisfied with the resolution.

The time frame is definitely fuzzy for this one — some issues can be followed up with a few days or even weeks after they were resolved, while more time-sensitive ones warrant a follow-up within a day.

Use your gut here — it's better to over-communicate after a customer complaint than the other way around, as it shows you really do care about the problem and wish to make up for it.

9. Incorporate changes from customer feedback.

After all is said and done, it's time to follow through with your promises. If you complained about a mishap and were promised a change that didn't happen, wouldn't you be pretty upset?

Not every complaint warrants a change in business strategy. For example, if one customer complains her shipment was damaged, this doesn't mean you need to overhaul your entire supply chain. However, if 100 customers complain about having damaged shipments, maybe you should look into your warehouse or shipping centers.

This is on you to listen carefully, draw connections between complaints, and determine if larger action is warranted. If you receive multiple complaints about one employee, one product, or one feature, that probably means there's a problem with that employee, product, or feature that needs to be addressed.

Tips for Responding to Customer Complaints

1. Stay calm, even when it’s not your fault.

It would be naive to pretend every customer complaint is a valid one. Sometimes customers get things wrong, mix up companies, and make mistakes. It can be frustrating to proceed calmly without letting the customer know where they went wrong immediately upon leaving a negative review, but don’t give in to the temptation.

You’ll still want to follow the steps above to diffuse the situation and be empathetic. Once the customer is calm, you can kindly explain to them where the mix up happened and offer a genuine explanation. Once the customer understands the issue, you can politely ask that they remove the negative review — that’s if they don’t offer to do it first. Remember to assume positive intent during encounters like these, a bit of calmness and understanding can go a long way when resolving customer complaints.

2. Avoid Deflecting Blame

As a member of the customer service team, the buck stops with you. If your sales team makes a huge blunder, don’t let the customer know that. After all, they don’t care who did it, they just want a solution. Plus, it doesn’t build trust with the customer or your sales team to throw them under the bus.

Get comfortable accepting criticism that has been misplaced. Instead, you can relay the feedback behind the scenes in a respectful manner — a training refresher can be the perfect forum to address the root cause of a complaint without playing the blame game.

3. Put Yourself in the Customer’s Shoes

A bit of empathy makes all the difference when resolving customer complaints. After all, you’re a customer more often than you’re a customer service representative, so put yourself in their shoes when handling complaints. How would you want the issue resolved? What would make you do business with your company again?

Provide the customer with a fair and constructive experience to get through the turbulent situation. Put their feelings and needs first as much as you can within the scope of your customer service policies.

4. Seek the Customer’s Permission

Before you spout off a decision in haste, ask the customer for their permission to allow you to solve the problem. “I understand how inconvenient this is for you. Can I share a few options I’ve come up with to make things right?” It seems obvious that they’d want you to fix things, but asking for permission in a heated exchange gives the customer a moment to willingly cooperate and come to the best solution. It puts you on their side and positions you both against the problem rather than customer vs service rep.

Bonus Tip: Build a Response Plan and Bank

If your business receives feedback often, make sure you have a documented brand voice and response strategy in place. Remember, you may want to download and customize these review response prompts if you find yourself spending too much time responding to reviews each week.

Complaint Response Examples

1. Sample Letter Responding to a Complaint

What works about this letter is that it allows the customer service representative to take responsibility for solving the problem. Instead of deflecting blame onto the “company” as a whole by using “we” statements, the rep uses “I” statements to make the conversation more personal. This is a genuine way to build trust with the customer and assure them that their feedback isn’t falling into a void.

2. Sample Email Responding to a Complaint

This simple, yet effective email covers all the basis of handling a customer complaint. It acknowledges the customer’s issue, offers an apology, and goes above and beyond to resolve the matter. Finally, the rep extends gratitude to the customer for doing business with the company and expresses interest in continuing the relationship now that the complaint has been handled.

3. Sample Phone Script Responding to a Complaint

Representative: “Hi there, thanks for calling Pearl Provisions. With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with today?”

Customer: “Hello, my name is Pam. I’m not happy with the service I received last week at Pearl Provisions. My family’s food was served cold and I didn’t receive any acknowledgement of the issue by the manager.”

Representative: “Pam, I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience at our restaurant. I understand that the meals you received were not served according to our high standards and there was no recourse to make things right.”

Customer: “Yes that is correct and I’d like some sort of redress for the inconvenience.”

Representative: “Pam, I can assure you that I’ll make things right. We hope you’ll give us the opportunity to earn your business again. First, I’ll pass your feedback to the manager of the restaurant and confirm that this incident will be reviewed and resolved. With your permission, I can also mail you a gift card that you can use at the restaurant anytime within the next month. Does that sound like something you’d be interested in?”

Customer: “Yes that would be great. Thank you.”

Representative: “Alright, let’s get that gift card mailed to you.”

Restating the issue goes a long way in this complaint response example template. In doing this, the rep assures the customer that they understand the problem and the impact it’s having on their business. Following this up with an applicable solution makes this a practical template that can be customized for just about any type of complaint.

Handling Customer Complaints

Responding to customer complaints is never fun, but it's part of the job. Taking the time to develop a strategy for responding to these complaints and handling each incident with care shows your customers that you value them. This makes it much less likely that they’ll do business with a competitor. Keep these best practices in mind the next time you go to respond to a review, a tweet, or have a conversation with someone who shares feedback with your business.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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