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Turning Complaints into a Competitive Advantage

by Blog

Complaints are one of the most critical forms of customer communication because they contain valuable insight for how to improve your business, increase customer satisfaction, and, in turn, boost revenue. However, it’s rare for a business to handle complaints well. After all, when a customer is delivering a complaint, there’s often lots of negative energy delivered your way and it can be hard to respond positively or see it as the gift it is in the moment. 

In her book, A Complaint is a Gift, Janelle Barlow shares a formula for handling customer complaints in a way that benefits your business and leaves your customers feeling happy and heard. 

In this post, I’ll share why complaints are fundamental to your business and how to best handle them using Janelle’s formula. That way, in the future, you’ll be confident in your ability to respond positively and proactively to them—no matter how nasty the delivery—so your customers leave happy and you walk away with valuable market research. 

Master this, and your business will stand out like none other. 

The Value of Complaints

Although receiving complaints isn’t usually fun, it’s something that you should want as a business owner. After all, if you don’t know when your customers are unhappy, how can you improve? You could be missing out on repeat customers and deterring potential customers without even knowing it. 

By definition, complaints are the communication of something your customer deems “unsatisfactory” or “unacceptable” from your business based on what they’ve come to expect. Somehow, some way, expectations were not delivered. And now they’re telling you about it. 

This information is gold—even if the medium (the complaint) isn’t the easiest to hear.


Three Truths and a Lie About Customer Complaints

Truth #1: Your goal should never be to decrease or eliminate customer complaints. This just shuts down communication. So long as you are growing to unprecedented heights as a business, there will always be new challenges and new room for improvement. 

Truth #2: Another hard truth is that, if your customers aren’t talking to you, you can bet they’re talking to others. And the others are likely your audience, too. Not good. By making it easy to talk to you, you eliminate the chances that your unhappy customers complain to their family, friends, following, or worse, leave a negative review on public review sites. When they do that, the damage to your business is exponential, and you won’t even know it because potential customers simply never enter your orbit. 

Truth #3: HOW you handle a complaint is the true make-or-break moment when it comes to preserving the relationship with your client. Chances are, the upset or mistake isn’t what could drive your customer off forever, you are.

A lie: The customer must be having a bad day or is just plain crabby and difficult, right? No! Regardless of how the complaint is delivered, there’s still a valuable message inside the emotion that must be extracted. Pull away from the emotion, don’t take it personally, and you’ll unearth what they’re really saying. This is the information you need to take action.

In reality, complaining customers want three things: 

  1. To be heard.
  2. To get what they were denied.
  3. An apology (possibly). 

As an example, I used to get a car wash at an underground parking garage while getting my haircut. After awhile, they started to tack on additional fees, so what used to be $30 was $50. One time, one of the fees wasn’t communicated upfront and the change was missing from my cupholder. I sent an email to inform management, and instead of feeling heard, getting a resolution, or receiving any semblance of an apology, I received an extremely reactive and abrasive response. 

Needless to say, I teach how to handle complaints and I know how to communicate respectfully and clearly when something doesn’t go well. When faced with the opportunity to resolve the complaint and retain a loyal customer, this person missed the boat.


The Complaint is a Gift Formula 

To handle complaints effectively, in A Complaint is a Gift, Janelle offers a simple, 8-step formula to resolve the issue and recover customer loyalty.

  1. Say thank you (and mean it). Done right, this can instantly diffuse tension in you and the customer. 
  2. Explain why you appreciate the complaint to show you care and strive to improve. For example, “Thank you for letting me know because now I can do something about it.”
  3. Apologize for the mistake. Take responsibility and be genuine. People can tell when you aren’t. 
  4. Promise to do something about the problem immediately. You may not be able to promise a specific solution yet, but you can promise your action towards finding a resolution.  
  5. Ask for necessary information so you can get to work on resolving their issue. What happened? Did something go wrong?
  6. Correct the mistake – promptly. If it’s something you genuinely can’t do, respond with alternative choices. 
  7. Check customer satisfaction at the end of the exchange or with a check in call afterwards. For example, “Thank you for letting me look into this for you. Is this what you were looking for?”
  8. Prevent future mistakes by making necessary changes and communicating them with the team. 

A complaint is an opportunity to find exactly who your target audience is, what’s important to them, and what they want and need. Most people don’t like complaining and will avoid it, leave dissatisfied, talk about it, and possibly never come back. 

Appreciate those that choose to express their dissatisfaction. They’re invaluable.

I can’t promise that after reading this you’ll love receiving complaints. After all, we can’t control how a customer might choose to deliver a complaint. But we can control how we respond.

There’s more to learn when it comes to continually up-leveling your business in times of crisis. Click here to join our email list (we carefully guard it and never abuse) and receive your free copy of the Never Waste a Crisis ebook.