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happy customers

Have you ever made a complaint as a customer or client? How were you feeling at the time? Were you happy with how your complaint was handled?

According to recent research from NSW Department of Fair Trading:

  • 73% of people will tell you if they are dissatisfied.
  • 52% of those who don't complain believe it wouldn't help if they did.
  • 66% of customers who complain are not satisfied with the way their complaint was handled.
  • 90% of these will never purchase from you again.

The simple fact is that you are probably pushing profits out the door if you don’t have staff who are properly trained to handle complaints or deal with difficult customer behaviour.

Let's look at three really good reasons to love your complaining customers:

1. They are committing their time – if you really think about it, it takes time and effort for your customers to complain. They could just throw their hands in the air and walk away from your business instead. So the customers who you do hear from, the ones who do make the effort to communicate their dissatisfaction to you, are very valuable. They are essentially acting as the spokespeople for all the other unhappy ones out there, giving you the opportunity to notice patterns of non-delivery or disservice and then address them.

2. It's an indicator of loyalty – it's usually your most loyal and best customers who actually take the time to complain. We can often think that the customers who are complaining are doing it because they hate us, but it's usually the opposite. They are the ones taking the time to bring things to your attention precisely because they have a vested interest in you getting it right the next time.

3. It's free business development consultancy – when someone complains, it's usually not the first time the issue has happened. That means it's probably not an isolated incident and chances are other people have had similarly unsatisfactory experiences. No matter what medium they're using to complain, you can appreciate their comments as free information about what it's like to deal with your organisation. So think as complaints as free consultancy for continual improvement.

With these three things in mind, let's look at six steps to best deal with these brave souls who have gone to the trouble of helping you build a better business.

Six steps to deal with a difficult customer:

1. Listen – listen intently to the customer and don't interrupt them, argue with them or invalidate their perspective in any way and don’t be too quick to agree in order to wrap them up and move them on. Do more 'listening to understand' and less 'speaking to be understood'.

2. Thank them – sincerely thank them for taking the time to bring this to your attention. Let them know that you are grateful for it and that you appreciate it.

3. Acknowledge and apologise – acknowledging someone's feelings or perspective on a situation is different from from accepting responsibility for it. Reflecting back the emotion they are expressing and apologising for it can often diffuse a situation. "I can imagine you would be feeling frustrated by that. It sounds like a pretty tough situation. I'm so sorry you've had that experience." Pay attention to your tone of voice as you do this – it's important to not only be sincere, but to sound like it.

4. Express your desire to help them – it sounds like a no-brainer, but being clear about your desire to help them and resolve the issue can go a long way to de-escalating a complaint. Ask them what solution they're looking for. It usually will fall into one of three categories – they want justice, to win or to be acknowledged. Listen carefully for which of these lies behind the solution they say they want, then look for ways to give them that solution.

5. Act quickly – act on the solution with a sense of urgency and if the agreed upon solution will take a while to enact, keep your customer abreast of developments with regular updates.

6. Follow up – in your follow ups, be sure to address the four 'W's: Why, When, Where, Who and How? This will provide a greater sense of completion, no matter what stage of resolution you are at.

Attitude of gratitude

As a parting thought, remember to adopt an attitude of gratitude toward your complaining customers. Without them, you might still have a business, but with them, you have a greater chance of having a new and improved business able to serve all your customers better.


NSW Department of Fair Trading, N.d. (September 2012), Available from


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