Effective Complaint Management: 10 Steps to Customer Success

Customer asking a question and support team member answering.

There’s a statistic that’s been making the rounds in the customer service world for several years. Quoted as coming from Lee Resources, it suggests that for every customer who files a complaint, 26 more customers had the same experience—but they defected instead of complaining.

Maybe the number of non-complainers is higher, and maybe it’s lower, but the point is this—not all unhappy customers tell you they’re unhappy. When they take the time to reach out and complain, it’s because they want you to know that, in their eyes, you messed up. 

Complaints are opportunities for you to fix things.

Responding to customer complaints is challenging, no question, but it becomes much easier if you have a complaint management process in place.  Here’s an outline of what such a process would look like, informed by best practices in complaint management.

Step 1: Listen and Empathize

One reason why customers complain is that they want to feel heard and understood. When you start the complaint management process by simply hearing the customer, you establish a tone of empathy that will help the customer trust you.

Consider this sample letter of a complaint to management:

Dear manager,

I have been a loyal customer to your brand for 10 years, but the experience I had last week is making me seriously consider never buying from you again. I purchased a swimsuit online and went to return it in-store, where the clerk told me that the sale was final. It didn’t say anything about a final sale on the website! I told her so and she was very rude, telling me that she couldn’t process the return. I will never buy from your site again.

There’s no way to know for sure how much of this scenario is fact and how much is interpretation. Chances are good that there was a note about a final sale that the customer didn’t see, and the salesperson may not have been “rude” at all. That’s not the point at this stage. The point is to welcome the feedback and start a relationship

This is the kind of complaint that might come in via email or social media. If you have to respond in writing, the “empathy” stage will be your first and possibly second sentence, after which you may need to launch into resolution. For instance:

  • I’m so sorry you had this experience.
  • That must have been so frustrating for you!

If you’re on the phone, you might need to listen for a bit longer. When they’re ready to let you speak, reassure them that you’re “on their side.” 

Step 2: Become an Advocate

Empathy is only the first step. Customers also want to know that you’ll fix the problem and make them satisfied again, otherwise they wouldn’t take the time to reach out. Memorize this sentence: 

I’m going to make this right for you.

The “for you” keeps the customer at the center of the issue. The “make things right” language reassures them that your goal is not to dismiss them but to resolve the problem. It doesn’t hint at any particular fix, and that’s important. You need to know more before you make any promises—otherwise, you risk not being able to follow through.

Step 3: Learn More

To resolve the issue, you need to know as much about the circumstances as possible. You need to understand:

  • The specifications of the product or service that gave rise to the complaint
  • Whether the company has any related policies in place
  • Whether the customer had any other communications with the company around the issue 
  • The full chronology of events leading up to the complaint

This could be a short process, as in the case of an example like the one above, or it could be a more extended endeavor involving multiple company reps and copies of emails. In some situations, you may need to get back to the customer later.

Avoid the temptation to cut the investigation short and expedite your reply. Remember, customers become frustrated when they have to repeat themselves. If you take the time to educate yourself, customers will notice and appreciate the effort.

Step 4: Reiterate the Core Issue

When you listen to understand instead of listening to respond, you communicate a genuine interest in what the person has to say. It’s called “active listening,” and one of its core tenets is clarifying what you heard before you respond.

By this point in the complaint management process, you’ve heard a lot about what went wrong. Your customer probably wonders if you were paying attention and whether you want to understand or just get them out of your service queue. You need to convince them that you are trying to understand and that you do care.

The best way to do this is to summarize the problem. Use phrases like:

  • Let me make sure I understand.
  • Do I have this right?
  • So what you’ve told me is…
  • It sounds like…

As you tell the customer’s story back to them, pause at regular intervals and listen for their attempts to add or correct information. 

Step 5: Identify the Cause

Once you know the story of the complaint, you can identify why it happened. Sometimes it will be the company’s fault, in which case you’ll need to move toward rectifying the issue. Other times, the customer was misinformed or lacks a crucial piece of information.

In the swimsuit example, at the beginning of the article, that piece of information might be the company’s return policy.

Whatever the reason for the problem, explain it to the customer. Apologize if the fault was with the company. If not, tell them why the problem happened in a gentle and respectful tone. Continue to communicate that you’re going to help them find a solution.

Step 6: Ask the Customer to Suggest a Solution

Many customers will already have an idea of what would “make it right,” so ask them what they want. Much of the time, it’s something that a service rep is already authorized to provide. That’s the easiest and most satisfying outcome. 

Other solutions may require higher-level authorization or negotiation. Either way, you need to keep the customer in the loop.

Step 7: Explain Next Steps

Whether you can execute the solution yourself or not, your first job is to tell the customer what happens next. Keeping them informed is another way to show you care. 

If you need to request authorization, tell the customer exactly what needs to happen and give them a time frame for getting back to them.

If the customer wants a resolution that isn’t feasible, you need to find a middle ground. Tell the customer that you need to confer with the rest of your team. Then, collaborate to come up with an option that’s as close as possible to what they want.

The latter scenario is tricky to navigate, so remember the basic concepts of communication and understanding. Call the customer back and explain the solution that you’ve come up with, focusing on what you can do instead of what you can’t. Tell them how the solution benefits them and what you will do to make it happen.  

Step 8: Make It Happen

Sometimes you’ll be the one to move the solution forward. At other times, you won’t. Either way, make sure you know what’s happening and when so if the customer does contact you to ask about progress, you’ll be able to update them.

Step 9: Report Back

When the problem has been fixed, contact the customer and let them know. Use the channel that you’ve been using so far. Don’t de-escalate from phone to email, for example, unless the customer has asked you to do so.

Summarize the solution that you and the customer agreed on and tell them what’s happened. For instance, if you’ve offered them a refund, tell them how the money was returned to them. 

Close by reminding the customer that you care about their experience and invite them to contact you if they have any further questions. Express your commitment to continuing the customer relationship.

Step 10: Offer Something Extra

Post-resolution is an extremely effective time for companies to “go the extra mile.” If there was an error with an order and the customer asked for their money back, give them a coupon toward their next order. If they’re getting store credit, add a coupon.

For a major customer or a bigger issue, you might need to offer a more significant add-on. Use your judgment—the goal is to go beyond fixing the problem to exceeding expectations.

A Final Note

Dealing with angry customers is no one’s favorite part about customer service, but making it right can be extremely satisfying. You’ll have the most success if you take the time to develop a standard complaint management process, complete with step-by-step strategies for finding a resolution.

You’ll need to have easy access to customer information no matter what the issue, so consider investing in a process management software for customer support. This way, you can provide hands-on guidance for your reps, easily track the resolution of issues and have a one-stop resource for customer information. 

In no time, you’ll say goodbye to the frustration of messy resolution attempts.

Discover Pipefy for Customer Support

Managing your customer in an unstructured way, using several tools at the same time, can cause more frustration than actually bringing positive results. That’s why using a Process Management software is so important.

Pipefy will help you not only manage your customers’ complaints but will also prevent problems from happening. With our plug-and-play template, you’ll be able to receive requests from your customers, execute them according to your standards, and automate the support services to lower response time and cut costs.

Now it’s your time: put these steps into action and let’s make the customers succeed!

Written by
Isabelle Wuilleumier Salemme
Head of Customer Support @Pipefy. She uses her extensive Pipefy knowledge to help users make the best of Pipefy via support and writing informative content pieces. Besides being in charge of support, she's an avid reader, a coffee lover, and a professional photographer.
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