Thursday 24 October 2019

How to handle complaints from your customers

Effective management of gripes will help keep customers, protect future sales and avoid costs

With the best will in the world and with the best products and services, everyone gets complaints
With the best will in the world and with the best products and services, everyone gets complaints

Alan O'Neill

A Carlsberg ad on TV years ago showed an employee walking along a quiet corridor in Carlsberg's head office. Hearing and old-style telephone ringing relentlessly in the distance, he established the sound coming from behind a door with a sign that read 'Complaints Dept'.

On entering, he scraped the dust from the telephone and answered it. It turned out the caller had dialled the wrong number. The implication was that Carlsberg never receives complaints.

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For the rest of us, the concept of never having a complaint is very unlikely. With the best will in the world and with the best products and services, everyone gets complaints.

It might not even have been caused by you. Perhaps you were relying on a third-party contractor or a storm caused a power failure… or whatever. Your challenge is two-fold. How to address complaints favourably when they happen and how to prevent them recurring.

When it comes to handling and managing complaints, there is no room for complacency.

We know customers will defect when they have an issue unresolved which, in turn, has serious implications for customer retention and your future sales potential. An effective complaints management process is an essential focus for any organisation of any size.

How often have you experienced a service provider handling complaints badly? I witnessed a disaster unfolding at a Lufthansa ticket desk last week in Warsaw. A very stressed customer was totally confused about the code-share agreement with Lot Air and wanted to change his ticket. The ticket agent was so dismissive and rude she caused the escalation.

Customers may deliver the complaint badly and that can cause defensiveness in the service provider or tempers to flare.

That's unfortunate, but why should we expect the customer to have finesse when making a complaint? Why should we expect that they have the natural skill to deliver their feedback in a professional way? When customers have a bad experience their emotions are high and their expectations go up.

EPCAF - a Model for Service Recovery

Customers seldom have the effective communication skills to make a complaint or, indeed, don't always know who to make the complaint to. For that reason, it makes sense for everyone in your organisation to know how to recognise a complaint in the first place and to have the skills to handle them effectively. EPCAF is an effective model I have been using for years. It will work in almost every situation and can be learned by all who interface with a customer.

E - Empathise

Stephen Covey said: "When you show deep empathy towards others, their defensive energy goes down and positive energy replaces it."

The customer is most likely irate that something has gone wrong. Maybe they gave a gift to a friend that turned out to be faulty and they are now embarrassed. Perhaps they missed their flight because of you. In a B2B world, imagine if your customer was waiting on your raw materials to fulfil an important customer order. Even if the customer is wrong and blames you unfairly, you still need to handle it professionally.

The customer expects a row as that is what their past experiences have taught them. Empathy at this early stage is critical. When you empathise you effectively show great understanding and put yourself in their shoes. Phrases such as "you must be really disappointed about that" or "I'm sorry you've had a bad experience" will usually help to calm them down.

And don't worry, when you empathise you're not agreeing with their issue. You're simply showing that you're listening. If you are defensive or argumentative, that will inflate the situation. More than likely then the eventual solution will cost you money in compensation of some sort.

P - Probe

The customer will have told you their story in their own way. It may have been peppered with jargon, profanities or with limited or useless information which is not helpful to you. In order to understand the issue, the implications and, indeed, the causes of the problem, you will need to establish the full facts. That is why you must ask appropriate open questions to get more detail.

C - Clarify your Understanding of the Situation

Summarise your full understanding of the issue. This has the effect of showing the customer you have listened fully and that you care. It also gives you the opportunity to check if you've missed an important piece of information.

A - Agree an Action

It is now time to agree a solution. Agreeing a solution is usually the better tactic here than telling the customer what you will do. By telling you might risk disagreement, which you may have to back down from again. Usually customers will be reasonable at this point, particularly if they feel you have listened.

F - Follow-up

Don't screw up all your good work by not following through on your promises. The cynical customer is, of course, expecting you to forget and mess up again. Prove them wrong and show that you truly have taken their complaint seriously.

The Last Word

Years ago, there was data which suggested that when customers are happy with their experience, they tell an average of five people. When they are unhappy they tell nine people, due to their emotions being more alert. But that was before social media.

In a show of hands in a recent Kara Academy Workshop, 80pc of participants admitted to using TripAdvisor and other review sites to help make decisions. So that old 5:9 is way out of date now.

There is also the cost issue. Data will show that when complaints are handled badly they end up costing the service provider hard cash. However, when the service provider is honest and professional early on, the double win in terms of a relieved customer and no financial cost is obvious.

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to

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