Complaint Handling Skills – Part 2

Complaint Handling Skills – Part 2

Complaint managers or those handling dissatisfaction at all levels need to be patient, articulate, and able to balance fairly the interests of the organisation with those of the consumer. They should also be able to communicate legitimate consumer complaints to management to help determine whether there is a need for changes in organisation policies or procedures.

All customer-facing staff should be familiar with the operations of the company and with its products or services. Training can strengthen communication skills and heighten staff awareness of the special needs of customers from different cultural, economic or educational backgrounds. Complaint-management staff should also be familiar with consumer protection laws and with the operations of third-party dispute resolution mechanisms, to which particularly difficult complaints may need to be referred.

Steps for effective complaint and dissatisfaction management:

  1. Define where you will receive complaints and who will receive them from.
  2. Develop a system for record keeping of complaints and monitoring them.
  3. Process and record the complaints – log them, categorise them and assign them to be dealt with.
  4. Acknowledge the complaint, early and often, to the complainant and make the response personal rather than a mechanised response. Acknowledge both the feelings and the facts of each situation.
  5. Investigate and analyse the complaint in a fair way and record it.
  6. Resolve it in a consistent way, follow your organisation’s policy, and keep the customer informed.
  7. Follow up – ask them if they are happy with the procedure and outcome.
  8. Periodically review complaint reports, summarise your findings and develop recommendation to improve.

Empathy and trust

Empathy and trust will allow you to handle complaints effectively, improving relationships and communication, complaint handling, customer retention and help to avoid misunderstanding or defuse conflict.

Empathy and trust are essential to understand others’ positions, develop solutions, win and retain business, and avoid conflict (prevention is better than cure). These days, we need to be more effective communicators to be successful in business – and in life.

One-sided persuasion is not sustainable and is often insulting, especially when handling complaints. Trust and empathy are far more important in achieving and sustaining successful personal and business relationships.

The essence of empathy is to really understanding the other person’s position and feelings. Being able to ‘step back’ and achieve a detachment from our own emotions is essential for effective, constructive relationships.

Part of the ‘empathy process’ is establishing trust and rapport. Creating trust and rapport helps us to have sensible ‘adult’ discussions. Establishing trust is about listening and understanding to the other person, not necessarily agreeing (which is different – sympathy). It is listening without judging. To listen empathically you need to understand how the other person is feeling, what is going on beneath the words they are expressing, whether they are annoyed, angry, excited, nervous, frustrated, etc. Once you understand how they feel, you can then relay this understanding back to them (‘I can see you are frustrated’) and this builds trust and rapport.

It is difficult and rarely appropriate to try to persuade another person to do what we want. They will end up doing what they want anyway. Instead, we must understand what the other person wants, and then try to help them achieve it, which often means helping them to see the way to do it. This will build trust.


Of all the communication skills, listening is arguably the one which makes the biggest difference. It is also the most difficult to put into practice. Most of us have had years of trying to influence people by persuading them rather than listening to them. Think about it from your perspective – how do you react when someone tries to persuade you? How would you feel if they listened to your complaint instead?

Even the best speakers in the world can become unstuck by never listening. Have you ever heard of anyone being accused of listening too much? What about talking or saying too much? Listening does not come naturally to most people, so we need to work hard at it, to stop ourselves ‘jumping in’ and giving our opinions. Mostly, people don’t listen – they just take turns to speak. We all tend to be more interested in announcing our own views and experiences than really listening to and understanding others.

But we all like to be listened to and understood. Indeed if you listen to and really understand the customer’s (or staff member’s) complaint, they will then listen to your point of view.

Handling complaints in your organisation

The principle of ownership is central to complaint handling. If you receive a complaint or query, you continue to own it until it is resolved, even if you get help or delegate it. You must always follow up and check on progress and eventually resolve it to the complainant’s satisfaction. The measurement and monitoring of complaints, from receipt to resolution is also vital. The organisation must have suitable systems, processes and commitment to do this, especially from the very top.

There is a difference between understanding someone and agreeing with them. Everyone in the organisation should have the training, motivation and ability to understand and to convey that they understand; they should be able to see the reality of the customer’s position and feelings, whether they are right or wrong. They should also have the training and authority to ‘agree’ where appropriate (which has implications, positive or negative, for authorisation levels and compensation offerings).

Activitely seek complaints and feedback: the organisation should welcome complaints and should encourage staff to ask for them. Complaints enable quality improvement and ultimately improve relations with customers (the vast majority of customers are more loyal, after the complaint is resolved satisfactorily than they were before the complaint arose).

One of the reasons the Japanese have been so successful in manufacturing is that they see a complaint, mistake or defect in production as an opportunity to improve, and that is exactly what a complaint is – a gift from your customer! A gift in the form of an opportunity for you to improve what you do. Use the ‘over-compensation’ principle: always look after complaining customers extremely well – generally regardless of whether they are right or wrong.

Organisations often begrudge compensating complaining customers which is completely illogical, because complaints are relatively rare and the real cost of compensation is relatively inexpensive, and yet the benefits from customer satisfaction, increased loyalty and positive word-of-mouth, are enormous by comparison.

Trust and rapport
Here are some pointers as to how you can develop empathy skills for all staff, especially in situations where customer retention is a strong priority (and it should be for most businesses, as it costs much more to find new customers than keep the ones you’ve got):

  1. Explore all the wrong ways things have been done, both in your organisation and experiences staff have had outside the organisation. For example, how people have reacted when being persuaded into something.
  2. Then discuss and identify good rapport-establishing phrases and questions, then practise and demonstrate suitable tone. Your style must be highly sympathetic and interested (the tendency is for the tone to be confrontational, competitive, challenging, etc, which makes matters worse).
  3. Identify suitable empathic information-gathering questions – what do we need to know in order to help, how to ask for this information, and how to position the need to ask questions in the first place, once initial rapport has been established.
  4. Identify approaches, and ‘ready-made’ phrases, to review customers’ situations objectively with the customers – ‘let’s look at this together and see what the options are…’ – rather than the tendency to go head-to-head and counter the customer’s position with superior argument, justification or, worse still, implied or direct threat, such as penalties, etc. (It’s easy to fall into the confrontation trap because so much sales training and experience is based on the power of persuasion, which in itself can be highly confrontational in defensive scenarios.)

Key points to remember

Make it easy to complain

  • Have a complaints procedure that is clearly publicised, free and easy to use
  • Give everyone an equal opportunity to submit a complaint by ensuring customer information is easy to understand and available in alternative formats such as large print, Braille or audio
  • Adopt a consumer-focused approach and be open to feedback

Keep customers informed

  • Contact people who have submitted a complaint (complainants) immediately to acknowledge receipt of the complaint
  • Keep complainants informed about the progress of their complaint and provide updates on request
  • Track complaints from initial receipt until the complainant is satisfied or a final decision is made

Keep clear records

Make a record of complaints as soon as they are received, including:

  1. A description of the complaint
  2. The products or services complained about
  3. The remedy requested by the complainant
  4. The due date for a response
  5. Any action taken