Correcting the Complaint Conundrum

I remember when companies had complaint departments, which means I’m probably dating myself. Today however, handling complaints seems to be all about customer service, giving directions, or reciting policy. It’s completely understandable. After all, “Customer Service Department” sounds far better than “Complaint Department.” Plus, it honestly makes a better-looking sign. Many companies have just gone out of their way to avoid handling complaints altogether; effectively sending the message that it does little good to try. Worse yet, they are missing opportunities to turn a complaint into an order and build a solid customer relationship. 

My take is: Bring on the Complaints. By learning to love your complaining customers, they know that they can have the courage to give you honest feedback, so corrections can be put in place. Here’s my challenge for you: 

Accept the Facts. Complaints Happen.

Instead of dreading them, look at it from the point of view that when properly handled, every complaint is an order waiting to happen. So, how does one properly handle customer complaints? It’s important to begin with the idea that most customers care little about getting their money back. Naturally, it’s normally the first response they hear when they raise a complaint. Customers have already spent the money for the product. They expect good quality products or services as promised to them by you and your company. You are “the face of the company,” so how would you like to be treated if you were in their shoes? Approach customers to let them know you are serious about making changes and sincerely ask for suggestions on how to improve, what products, needs, or services they might be struggling to find, and reward them for their time.

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Understand first that your company has broken the most important rule in customer relationships: wasting the customer’s time. Perhaps they had to make a second trip there and back again, which has cost them more money and ruined their schedule. This effectively turned a three hour job into a seven hour job. Even worse, they now look bad to their boss and fellow workers. With this perspective in mind, it’s easy to understand why they may be a little hot under the collar.

First say absolutely nothing. Just give the customer a moment to blow off steam. Wait patiently for them to pause and catch their breath; then ask the question: what will it take to make this right and how can we make up for any inconvenience? 

Once a customer hears this response they must stop and think. It could be a simple request for product replacement or money back. Remember this: giving money back does little good. The canned response of “We can refund your money in full.” will not help you or the situation. They will simply take their money, say thank you, spend it elsewhere, and remove your opportunity to build trust. Instead, offer sincere concern for their needs. “What other projects are you working on? We would like to help by making up for your inconvenience as well as addressing this problem.” Chances are customers have multiple projects in the works. Offer suggestions and when necessary invite a third party to join the conversation to address any technical questions. In situations such as retail sales, personally escort your customer to the product location, while asking open-ended questions designed to make the customer think of his/her needs. 

An Anecdote 

Several years ago, my little company designed and built a custom machine to meet our customer’s specifications. Actually, we exceeded the specifications because we knew how engineers think: always wanting better performance. And our design included opportunities to boost performance when needed. Within a few days of the machine’s start-up, the customer called. He was really upset about some of the design specification and was yelling at me so loudly everyone in the office could hear. Finally he stopped and took a breath and I calmly asked “How can we correct our oversight?” Now remember, I could have said “We actually exceeded your specifications so this is on your team.” Of course this would have just added fuel to the fire. He was already upset, but looking for opportunities to fix the problem. His answer was: “It’s custom- built! What are the choices, if any!?” I had my opportunity to rise to that challenge. 

My response was “Our design team provided extra mounting support and threaded hole locations to accommodate larger drives if necessary.” After a pause he asked me what made us think of including this in the design. My answer was “we engineers are always looking for higher performance.” His next question was “what’s it going to take to make this happen?” We had larger drives in stock and just had to issue a new purchase order, and credit back for existing drives. 

Within fifteen minutes, he was back on the phone with a new order and said they would keep the original drives as spares. When it came time to build another machine, the order was issued to us, without the normal Request for Quote (RFQ). There was no competition. This customer came directly to us as we were his vendor of choice. 

It’s certainly easy to see how this scenario could have been handled improperly and would have resulted in major losses for our company, difficulties for the customer, perhaps loss of a promotion. Instead we gained a good customer for life. And yes, he got that promotion.

James Cendoma has decades of experience as a customer, supplier, guest speaker, and entrepreneur. He has worked in manufacturing industries and sales all over the northeast. Author of the book Pep – Profit and Extreme Performance, he focuses on helping clients achieve their best practice success through troubleshooting, sales coaching, networking, and consulting. Contact at