How to deal with customer complaints

Customer matters

27 February 2020

When you own your own business, you do everything you can to make your customers happy. But unfortunately, that’s not always possible.

It’s very likely that, at some stage, you’ll get a customer complaint. If you want to create positive customer relationships and maintain a good reputation, it’s important to deal with them in the right way. Not only that, but you could also be breaking the law by failing to protect your customer’s consumer rights and not following the appropriate procedures.

Here, AXA breaks down the best ways to handle complaints so you can keep your customers satisfied and coming back again and again.


What is a complaint?

A complaint is simply a statement somebody makes saying they are not satisfied, and they can take several different forms.

Some complaints will be more obvious to spot than others. Not all complaints involve raised voices or harsh exchanges, and the customer might not explicitly state that they're making a complaint. Lots of people find the act of complaining awkward because they don’t want to appear to be making a fuss. But if a customer is expressing any kind of dissatisfaction, whether in person, over the phone or online, they’re technically making a complaint.

For example, a customer might say ‘I wasn’t too happy about the service I received but it doesn’t matter now’. Even in these circumstances it’s important to recognise that this customer is complaining and, even if they dismiss it, you should still get to the bottom of why they’re feeling the way they do. 


Tips for handling customer complaints

Don’t take it personally

When you own a small business, you put your heart and soul into you work. You really care about your customers and you’ll do anything to make sure their needs are accommodated. That’s why it’s easy for small business owners to let their emotions take over when they’re dealing with an unhappy customer.

Just remember that a customer’s frustration is usually caused by the situation they find themselves in, rather than at you personally. For example, a self-employed gardener might not be able to finish a job because of an unexpected rain storm. The customer will be upset that their garden isn’t finished when they thought it would be, not because the gardener didn’t do the work.

Acknowledge their feelings

Even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, or if you know the customer is being unreasonable, it’s still important to acknowledge they’re feeling unhappy or distressed about something. Recognising someone’s feelings doesn’t mean you’re accepting fault or liability. You might say something like ‘I can appreciate you’re feeling frustrated’ or ‘I understand that you’re upset’. Your customers will appreciate the sentiment and you’ll demonstrate just how much you do really care. It’s also a great way to diffuse a tense or awkward situation and it will help you build successful and trusting customer relationships.

Say sorry

It’s easy to underestimate the power of an apology. For many customers who complain or express dissatisfaction, all they want is for you to say sorry. It’s important to take ownership and hold yourself accountable when things don’t go according to plan, and a genuine apology is a great way of doing that. But it can be hard to swallow your pride and apologise when you haven’t done anything wrong.

In these circumstances, you should think about things from the customer’s perspective. If you feel like you’ve been mistreated, it’s only natural to want an apology when you think you deserve one.

Offer a solution

As we’ve mentioned, sometimes an apology is all a customer wants. But for more complex issues, finding an appropriate resolution to their complaint can be tricky. Some people just want to know the issue has been fixed and that it won’t happen to them or other customers in the future. Others will expect and, in some cases, might deserve to be compensated for their inconvenience.

If you’re not sure how to find the right solution, ask the customer how they would like the situation to be resolved and start from there. You might not be able to do exactly what the customer wants, but it’ll give you a good starting point to compromise with an outcome that works for you and the customer.

Thank them

Yes, seriously! Let your customer know that you appreciate them taking the time to talk to you about their concerns. Thank them for sharing their feedback and explain how it will help shape the way you do business in the future. After all, a customer complaint can offer great insight into the products or services you offer that you, as a business owner, might never have thought of.


How to respond to a complaint in writing or email

Reply as soon as possible

Customers don’t like to be kept waiting, especially when they’re unhappy about something. Even if you don’t have time to look at it immediately, let the customer know that you’ve received their complaint and explain that you’ll investigate and will be in touch with an outcome. It sends a clear message to the customer that you’re serious about resolving their issue.

Be professional

Even if the customer is communicating in a casual way, it’s important to maintain your professionalism in your response. This is true for all customer correspondence, but especially so if you’re dealing with a complaint. You can still maintain a friendly tone of voice without using slang or being too over familiar. For example, you could say ‘Hi there, thanks for getting in touch. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can’, but you wouldn’t say ‘Hey, thanx for letting me kno, will give u a bell later :) ’. 

Answer all their questions

Some questions aren’t framed as such, or they can get lost in among other points. So, it’s important to read or listen to a complaint carefully and pick out the questions you can answer immediately. And if there are any questions you can’t answer, let the customer know that you’ll investigate and confirm when they can expect to hear back from you.


What happens if I don’t resolve a customer complaint?

The law protects consumers when they buy goods or services. If things go wrong and consumers don’t think their complaint has been dealt with properly, they can contract several organisations for legal advice. Their complaint might be referred to the Trading Standards Officers who can investigate the issue further. Or, they can speak to an ombudsman who investigates complaints on behalf of consumers for free. 

If a customer thinks they have explored every possible avenue to resolve their complaint, they can use the small claims court. Individuals can claim up to £10,000 in England and Wales, £5,000 in Scotland and £3,000 in Northern Ireland.


How can I avoid customer complaints?

Improving your customer service skills is an easy way to reduce and avoid customer complaints.

Three easy ways to improve your customer service skills

1) Be an active listener

 When you’re an active listener, you pay close attention to what someone’s saying. You’ll give verbal nods during the conversation, like saying ‘uh huh’ or ‘yes’ when someone raises a new point. And, you’ll be concentrating on what they’re saying rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next. When the person has finished speaking, you’ll ask open-ended questions that specifically relate to what they were talking about, paraphrasing and reflecting as you do so. Active listening is the key to a successful conversation and, if done correctly, will make your customers feel valued.

2) Empathise with people

Putting yourself in a customer’s shoes is crucial to providing good customer service. Empathising isn’t always about ‘treating others as you would like to be treated’, because being empathetic isn’t about what you want or think. It’s about understanding another person’s feelings and perspectives and using that to guide your actions.

You might say something like ‘I can understand why you feel like that’, or ‘I can appreciate how frustrating this situation is’.

3) Use positive language

Communicating in a positive way can help you create long lasting and trusting relationships with your customers. Language is a powerful tool and using the right words can have a positive impact on a difficult situation.

Instead of saying ‘We can’t provide that service today and it won’t be available for another two weeks’, you could say ‘We’ll be able to provide that service in two weeks’ time’. There are also ways to frame negative sentences in a positive way. For example, you could say something like ‘I don’t know the answer right now, but I’ll find out for you’. Or, you might say ‘Good question! Let me find out for you’. 


When a customer complains they’re also giving you an opportunity to retain their business for the future – resolve their complaint successfully and they may buy from you again. By turning a negative interaction into a positive experience, you could even increase their sense of customer loyalty towards your business and build a brand ambassador.


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