02.03.20167 min read

The Basics of Responding to Customer Complaints

Customer complaints are timeless. No matter the size, nature, or success of your business, you’ll always have at least a small percentage of people who aren’t happy with what you do. The idea that you can’t please everyone is as true today as it was a century ago.

But never before in history has it been easier for customers to complain. To criticize a business, customers don’t have to take the time to talk with you. They can simply pick up their phone, type a few angry sentences, and hit send—via email, review sites like Yelp and Google, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, or any number of online forums and discussion boards.

And, unlike the old days, customers don’t have to be loyal to any one business: They’ll just Google your competitors. According to a customer service survey by American Express, more than a third of customers said they immediately consider switching companies after a single negative experience. 

Despite these challenges, though, small businesses still have an advantage over larger companies in offering superior customer service. Small businesses don’t have to route complaints through call centers or get approval from the legal department to remedy a situation. By being proactive and thoughtful about customer feedback, small business employees can create positive experiences that help customers feel appreciated and loyal. Here are the basics on establishing a plan for responding to customer complaints.

Preparing for complaints

Talk as a team

The best time to figure out how to respond to complaints: before the complaints ever occur. Talk with your staff about handling scenarios like angry emails, policy disputes, and discount requests to ensure your company’s responses are delivered consistently and confidently. No customer is reassured by a response like, “Um, I don’t know; I’ll have to ask my boss.” Include your whole team in the discussion: All employees represent the company, regardless of whether their roles directly involve customer service. 

Find complaints before they find you

Customers tend to take their complaints online as a last resort, as if your company would only respond to them in the event of public shaming. On every platform, make it easy for customers to find email addresses and phone numbers on every platform so that customers know they have outlets for feedback.

Better yet: Be the first to start the complaint conversation by sending post-purchase emails and surveys to customers. If you’re using automation software like Infusionsoft, you can send these emails automatically after every purchase. The software can also alert you to negative feedback so that responding rises to the top of your to-do list. By taking a proactive approach, you’ll discover more feedback that helps you improve your business: Most companies hear from only 4 percent of dissatisfied customers, according to the book "Understanding Customers."

Responding to complaints

Don’t leave them hanging

One hour is the new one business day. More than 85 percent of customers think businesses should respond to emails within an hour, according to a survey by Toister Performance Solutions, a firm that focuses on customer service training. Similarly, 42 percent of customers expect one-hour response time on social media, according to a survey from the social media research project The Social Habit.

Many customer complaints can’t be resolved in 60 minutes or less, but they can at least be addressed. If you need a few days to investigate the customer’s complaint, tell her so now, not after those few days. Your failure to respond might lead the customer to believe you’re not on top of customer service—or worse, that you don’t care, which only worsens the situation.

If you won’t be able to respond quickly, consider setting up an automatic response. With Infusionsoft, the completion of a “contact us” web form can trigger an email that tells the customer you’ll get back to her as soon as possible. While that email can’t resolve the complaint, it can reassure the customer that her message didn’t disappear into an online black hole.

Listen and apologize

No matter the business or the complaint, the first two steps of resolving a customer complaint are the same. Step one: listen to the customer’s experience in its entirety. Step two: apologize. 

Ideally, these conversations would take place in person or on the phone, but that doesn’t mean Yelp reviews and Facebook comments should be ignored. Digital marketing strategist Jay Baer says businesses should address every complaint, on every channel, every time. “I’m not suggesting that the customer is always right,” Baer said in a webinar, Hug Your Haters: Customer Service in a Digital and Social World, “I’m suggesting that the customer is always heard.”

You don’t have to plead guilty to an offense every time a customer complains, but you do need to consider his point of view—to listen without interruptions. Make it clear that you understand why the customer is upset, even if you don’t agree with him. You may not be sorry that he simply didn’t like your product, but you can still be sorry that he had a disappointing experience. 

The simple act of listening and apologizing can be therapeutic enough to resolve the problem. Researchers at University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom conducted a study with two groups of eBay customers who had given negative feedback. In a request to withdraw the comments, one group was offered an apology that cited a manufacturer delay, while the other was offered a small amount of money. Ultimately, a simple “sorry” proved more valuable than the cash: 45 percent of participants withdrew their comments after receiving the apology, compared with only 23 percent of those offered compensation.

Focus on the solution

After you’ve listened to the customer’s complaint and apologized, you can offer your side of the story—not an excuse, but an explanation. A customer’s misunderstanding or lack of information could have contributed to his complaint, and learning more about your company’s intentions might help settle his emotions.

But keep it short: The more you say, the more you might create opportunities to start another argument. Instead, shift the conversation away from the problem and toward the solution.

Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep: You’re not going to drastically change your company’s offerings or operations based on the opinion of one person. But maybe you’re going to talk with an employee or adjust a process that caused the problem in order to prevent it from happening again. By explaining the actions you’re going to take, you show the customer that you valued his feedback and gave it serious consideration.

If you can afford it, give the customer a financial incentive for a future purchase. If a restaurant settles a complaint by reducing the bill, the customer still might leave with a negative impression of the service. Offering a gift card compels the customer to come back for an additional—and hopefully, more positive—experience with your company. According to "Understanding Customers," it takes 12 positive experiences to overcome one unresolved negative experience with a business.

Making the most of complaints

Customer complaints can be stressful, uncomfortable, time-consuming and just plain annoying. Still, you should be thankful for them. Unlike 96 percent of dissatisfied customers, complainers took the time and energy to tell you how you could improve your business. Sure, by speaking up, they might hope something’s in it for them. But there should be. Always thank customers for their feedback, even negative: Without it, you wouldn’t truly know how to provide the good service that keeps them coming back.

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