Handling Complaints

If there’s one ingredient in the recipe for small business success, that stands above all else, it has to be survival. Without the survival instinct you’re just spinning your wheels, aimless, like a boat without a rudder. But if you’re in business for the long haul, then your first requirement should be to ensure your survival rate by paying attention to what’s going on around you.

With that being said, let’s look at ways to ensure your survival. High on the list of survival techniques is learning how to handle customer complaints the moment they crop up. Each complaint not resolved quickly puts your survival in jeopardy. In today’s business environment you must learn to appreciate and cherish your customers. They are your future. They may only need you occasionally, but you need them more; you need them for a lifetime. Ask anyone in the service business today, someone who’s been around for a decade or two or longer, what’s the most important aspect of staying in business?, and they will almost always say “customer loyalty or holding onto your customers.” Here is where opportunity thrives and is the subject of our discussion. You don’t need a high IQ to learn how to turn a complaint into an opportunity to establish loyalty.

In my 48 years in the service business, I’ve never seen the competition to hold onto customers so fierce. The internet, along with social media, reviews and blogs, provide an almost instant evaluation of your customer’s experience with you to the public. In some cases, before you have the chance to pull out of the driveway someone’s posting a review. That’s why handling complaints promptly is so crucial.

Customers expect satisfactory service. They not only expect it, they deserve it. A service company that doesn’t meet that requirement stands a good chance of a limited life-expectancy. Why? Because unsatisfactory service stands out more than satisfactory service.  It’s much easier for a consumer to remember a service company that trips-up in the customer satisfaction department, than it is for them to remember a job-well-done. While customers may likely forget the great job you did last week, they most certainly will not forget a troubled job or a rude technician or having to wait weeks for parts. Complaints thrive in mis-management. It only takes one small mishap or misunderstanding to set a customer off on a path of resentment, which will almost always result in a complaint, which can land you on the “Do Not Call” list. Don’t let this happen to you. Respond to complaints hastily, before they heat up. Don’t let them ferment, don’t ignore them. In some cases, service organizations take so long to respond to a complaint that the customer forgets what they were complaining about, leaving the situation in limbo. Leaving them in a frustrated and dissatisfied state seeking relief elsewhere.

Here is what you can do to ensure a long and prosperous run:


First, let’s identify what a complaint is.  A complaint is an expression of pain, such as the psychological pain of inconvenience, of dissatisfaction,  or resentment. In simple terms, complaints are expressions of expectations that have not been met. But a complaint can be an opportunity in disguise, as long as you attend to it ASAP.

Here’s what Janelle Barlow, co-author of “A Complaint Is a Gift,” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has to say, “Apologize for the inconvenience. Promise to do something about the problem immediately. Take responsibility. Ask for necessary information. Correct the mistake–promptly. Check customer satisfaction. Prevent future mistakes.”

Service providers all too often blame the consumer for mistakes they complain about and sometimes twist the situation around to imply that the customer is at fault. That’s not the recommended way to run a legitimate company. Consumers have a right and even an obligation to complain about sub-par service, disgruntled technicians or sloppy workmanship.

You can use these complaints to show the customer you care, that you run a reputable company, that they are important to you. Ignoring complaints is never good for business. It’s self serving, and over the long-run, it will come back to kick you in the bud. Remember what I said above about handling complaints, attend to it right away. It’s is never a good idea to procrastinate. If you want to survive in this competitive environment, if you want to celebrate your twentieth, thirtieth or fortieth year in business, it’s imperative to address complaints as soon as they surface to avoid building up animosity and frustration. Don’t give the customer a chance to get angry. Defuse the situation ASAP. No one wants to do business with an organization that serves itself.

Handling complaints and disgruntled customers is an art form. Whether due to sub-par service, defective parts, traffic delays, unsatisfied customers can become loyal customers when a caring and concerned owner steps in. Here is an opportunity to establish yourself as a respectful person or company. An opportunity to instill a sense of caring and trust and most importantly, reliability. Handling complaints quickly presents you with an opportunity to establish ongoing relationships and connect with customers by fixing a service or product breakdown. No one is going to criticize you if you put your customers first. It’s good business and a necessary ingredient for success.

Most often, attending to a customer complaint, no matter who’s at fault, can lead to more business for you in the long run, and under the right set of circumstances it may lead to a referral. Actually, it’s better if a customer speaks up and whines a bit, what better way is there to show off your communication skills and your ability to rectify the problem before they write a negative review or bad-mouth your company. I’m not suggesting you look forward to complaints, I’m suggesting that you respond to them the moment they crop up. Remember the adage: “If you snooze, you lose.”

Here’s an example of how I handled a recent complaint. I received a call from the other day from a loyal customer who claimed that his credit-card was charged for a repair that wasn’t completed. His refrigerator needed an evaporator coil but he had to leave for a meeting and said he would call to schedule an appointment for the install. We added some freon to his sealed-system to hold him off and told him to monitor it to see if it improved. We wrote out an invoice and collected his credit-card info and assured him we wouldn’t process the charges until the job was complete. We waited for his call. A month went by and we still hadn’t herd from him.

Somehow, unintentionally, his credit-card was processed and he called to complain. I asked him if his refrigerator was working properly and he acknowledge that it was. I told him that our diagnosis was correct, that his evaporator coil was leaking freon and it needed to be replaced, but he didn’t want to here that. He wanted a full refund because we said that we wouldn’t process the charges until the job was complete. I told him we were entitled to be paid for recharging his sealed-system, but he kept harping on the fact that we processed his credit-card before we did the work. So I put myself in his shoes and looked at it from his point-of-view and saw that we were indeed at fault, even though it was a mistake and even though he requested the repair. I was now in a situation where I had to make a decision to acquiesce or prepare for an argument. I chose the former and issued a complete refund to his credit-card account. I felt that it was more important to salvage the relationship by giving in and letting him win.

Speaking of giving in and letting him win reminds me of a philosophy I learned when I was struggling to build my business some thirty years ago. I came upon a book by Dale Carnegie titled “How To Win Friends and Influence People. Since it was first published in 1936, it has sold 15 million copies world-wide. I was so enamored by its content , that I enrolled in some Dale Carnegie courses, one of which was “Public Speaking.”

I’ve adhered to Dale Carnegie’s philosophy throughout my life and can attest to its viability and highly recommend it as a course of study to anyone wishing to develop a winning attitude when dealing with consumers. To this day, I still carry a wallet-size pamphlet called “The Golden Book.” that spells out his golden rules. I’ve been carrying it with me since 1983. In just four short pages small enough to squeeze into a corner of my wallet I have a complete philosophy on dealing with difficult circumstances and the difficult decisions we must make in our business. I highly recommend it.

Finally, let me re-iterate how important it is to deal with customer complaints right away and how dealing with them will ensure your chances of a long survival rate and a reputation of good-standing in the your community. In closing, of the 12 Golden Rules postulated by Dale Carnegie there’s one that I’ve used over and over again with tremendous results: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.”


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