How to Handle Customer Complaints

How to Handle Customer Complaints: A Step-by-step Guide

Although handling customer complaints can seem unpleasant at first, they offer businesses valuable opportunities to improve their service and a chance to spot patterns and trends. A complaint handling procedure can help guide your team with unhappy customers.

catherine heath

Last updated: February 21, 2022

7 mins read

It’s true – We all dread customer complaints.

And that’s not just because we know we’ve done something wrong. A complaint feels like the relationship with the client is over, and with a bang, at that.

But luckily, that’s not always the case. In fact, one research study after another proves that customers are happy to continue doing business with you after a complaint. Well, provided you’ve addressed and resolved their issues, of course.

In this guide, I’ll show you exactly how to do that. We’ll discuss how handle a customer complaint so that, afterward, they love your business even more.

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But first, let’s see why customers complaint, in general.

5 types of customer complaints

Unhappy customers come in many forms. Here are 5 of the most common types of customer complaints you’ll need to know how to handle.

Why is understanding the reasons for customer complaints important?

Because as you’ll see shortly, knowing why customers decide to reach out and complain, in general, will help you develop a step-by-step plan of action to handle those complaints.

So, in no particular order, here are the most common reasons why customers complain to businesses:

1. The product is out of stock

Businesses are happy when products are out of stock because it means they have had lots of sales. This scenario isn’t so good for your customers though, as they also want to lay hands on these desirable items and they won’t be at all pleased if the product is unavailable.

When products are unavailable for a long time then customers start complaining to your support reps. They want to know when the product will be back in stock and they may be dissatisfied with your business. If the product is out of stock for too long then you might have customers considering your competitors.

2. Defective product

Imagine the excitement of anticipating your delivery, only to realize that your new product is broken or defective in some way. Unhappy customers will be disappointed and angry, reaching out to your service reps for a solution.

In this scenario, sometimes the product isn’t actually broken but customers just don’t understand how to use it. This is an opportunity to educate your customers and guide them through using the product successfully.

3. Late delivery

Customers expect their orders to be delivered on time and it makes sense, since they have probably paid for a certain delivery package. If their order is late the customer may be inclined to complain to your support team and even expect a refund on their delivery.

It might even have been an urgent delivery and a customer’s birthday surprise could have been ruined as a result of the company’s actions. Sometimes the business may have little control over the shipping process, but you should take responsibility anyway in order to appease your dissatisfied customers.

4. Service failure

If your company delivers a service it can be an unpleasant experience for customers when that service goes down, for whatever reason. It goes without saying that if you have a service outage then you should proactively update all of your customers and issue an apology.

Customers will be disappointed if a service they pay for is unavailable and it may negatively impact them. Customers who experience an outage are likely to complain to your business about the lapse in service and expect you to make amends.

5. Unsatisfactory customer support

Sometimes customers complain because they have already interacted with your customer service team and had a negative experience. Perhaps they experienced a long wait time, had to repeat their problem to multiple people, or encountered an unfriendly customer service rep.

It can be disheartening to hear that customers have had a bad experience with your service team, but you should be grateful that they chose to voice their dissatisfaction. Whatever the problem, businesses need to work hard to resolve these complaints and maintain a good reputation for customer service.

And this is how to handle customer complaints – A step-by-step guide

Step 1. Listen, listen, listen.

You know – It’s tempting to jump right into handling a customer complaint.

Not to mention that you simply might want to shut them up so that you don’t have to hear more about your mistake.

But in reality, when dealing with customer complaints, the most important thing you can do is to listen to your customer’s story and try to understand what their problem is fully.

You can’t possibly hope to help your customer if you don’t allow them to explain what’s gone wrong. This can be hard to do, especially when your customers are rude.

You might not consider the problem that important but a customer has taken time out of his or her day to make the complaint. The least you can do is take that complaint seriously and try to get to the root of the issue.

Demonstrate active listening by allowing your customers to speak without interrupting, and then rephrasing back to them what you think the problem is to check you understand. It may be difficult for customers to express themselves when they are upset which makes it even more important to pay close attention to the words they are using.

Sometimes, even just listening to a customer can go a long way towards resolving a complaint. Upset customers just want to be heard and you’ll be doing them a favor by listening to them.  Make sure you fully understand customer complaints before you try to address them.

Step 2. Dig deeper and ask questions

Now that the customer has had the opportunity to let go of everything, it’s your turn to talk.

But again, don’t just jump into resolving the issue. Dig deeper.

Follow up what they’ve told you with probing questions that will help you get to the heart of the matter. The aim is to establish a dialogue with the customers that will help to uncover hidden issues and hopefully lead to a more effective resolution to the problem. 

There are all sorts of questions you can ask, depending on the circumstances:

  • How often has this problem occurred?
  • Does this problem occur every time you use the product?
  • Have you tried restarting the device?
  • Can you show me a screenshot of the problem?

Customers will often be upset when making complaints and they may not explain their issue in the most logical way. If you apply thoughtful follow-up questions then you are much more likely to be able to find a solution that makes everyone happy.  Ultimately you want to understand the root cause of the customer’s problem.

Be sure not to annoy customers by asking them to repeat themselves – repeating themselves to different service reps is one of the things that customers hate the most about customer service.

Step 3. Apologize sincerely

Part of your objective is to bury the hatchet between you and the customer. And there is no better way than apologizing for the inconvenience the customer has experienced.

Even when the situation is not your fault, offering a sincere and heartfelt apology can go a long way towards appeasing customers who are complaining. Many customer complaints could be easily resolved with a simple apology from the company and you wouldn’t even have to offer them any monetary compensation.

Apologizing to the customer just means you’re sorry for their experience, not that your company is necessarily taking the blame. Hearing an apology makes customers more open to a possible solution and gets them out of the mindset of feeling hard-done-by.

If your business has made an error, then it’s even more important to apologize quickly. Customers want to feel that businesses are taking ownership of the problem and operating in a transparent way.

Step 4. Provide a resolution

Most of the time, you may think customers are trying to make life hard for you but what they really want is a resolution to their complaint. They want someone, somewhere to compensate them for the hardship they have suffered and you are the representative of the business who can make the situation right.

So it’s important to help customers actually solve their problem, whether that’s walking them through the necessary steps to fix a product, sending out a replacement product, issuing a refund, or any other number of scenarios.

The faster you can provide the solution, the happier your customers will be. It’s important to empower service reps on the front lines to be able to issue compensation instead of having to waste time escalating the issue to a manager.

Step 5. Thank the customer for complaining

It sounds counterintuitive but you should always take the time to thank the customer for complaining, because without their complaint you wouldn’t have the opportunity to fix the problem. The majority of customers just leave a business without bothering to complain, and that’s why you really should thank customers for giving you a problem to solve.

Thanking customers should sound sincere and be more than a simple “Thank you for your time.” You should tell your customers exactly why you’re grateful for their complaint and ask if there’s anything else you can help them with.

Customers will be happier when they feel appreciated by your business and get the impression that you truly value them as a customer. 

Step 6. Follow up after the resolution

It can be tempting to forget about customer complaints as soon as you have resolved them since you’re so relieved the interaction is over. But we strongly recommend following up with the customer a few days after the interaction to check they are happy with your solution.

Taking this extra step to satisfy customers can be the difference between an average support interaction and one that is more positive and memorable. When you follow up with a customer, you take the opportunity to address any further issues and make sure the customer’s problem really was resolved.

Even if there are no further problems, it can still be helpful to gather more feedback from your customers to check on your company’s performance in how they handled the complaint. Was the customer satisfied? What could be done to improve?

How to develop a process for handling customer complaints

Your proces should include:

  • Outline to customers how they can make a formal complaint to your business
  • State exactly what your company will do handle and resolve complaints

When you have a policy in hand you will be in a good position to develop a complaint handling procedure. Your procedure will ensure consistency when handling complaints and can be followed by all members of your team.

Your procedure should include all of the steps we have outlined in this post.

  1. Respond in a timely manner
  2. Listen to the complaint
  3. Ask clarifying questions
  4. Apologize for the issue
  5. Discuss resolutions
  6. Thank the customer for their input
  7. Follow up on the solution

And that’s it…

That’s the best process for handing customer complaints.

Naturally, you might need to tweak it slightly to your needs. But overall, if you follow these six steps, you should have no problems not only handling and resolving customer complaints but also, strengthening your relationship with them in the process.

Good luck!

catherine heath

Catherine is a content writer and community builder for creative and ethical companies. She often writes case studies, help documentation and articles about customer support. Her writing has helped businesses to attract curious audiences and transform them into loyal advocates. You can find more of her work at

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