The Support Team’s Guide to Responding to (and Avoiding) Customer Complaints

Angela Stringfellow

8min read

Managing customer complaints will forever be a part of customer support, but that certainly doesn’t mean it's easy. Studies have found that 96% of unhappy customers don't complain to the business directly. More than 9 out of 10 unhappy customers (91%) will simply never do business with a company again following a bad experience. You may never even know what caused them to lose faith in your brand.

The bad news is that those unhappy customers will tell 9 to 15 of their friends and family members about their poor experience, and 13% of unhappy customers will tell 20 people or more. While managing customer complaints can be challenging, you want your customers to tell you when they're unhappy (and why) so that you can make it right. That way, you'll avoid the negative publicity and brand reputation damage that comes from unhappy customers telling everyone they know about their bad experience. On the plus side, when you make a customer happy by resolving their concerns, they're likely to tell four to six people about their positive experience, resulting in positive word-of-mouth marketing.

So how does a support team manage the complaints they do receive? There isn't a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but one thing is clear — customer support teams should be listening. Surveys have found that 79% of consumers who share complaints about poor customer experience online say their complaints are ignored. That leaves a lot of room for improvement, and there is some real incentive to improving. Simply responding to a complaint can increase customer advocacy by 25%. The most successful brands have loyal customers who share their products and services with family and friends, generating repeat business and new opportunities for companies.

Since the customer support team plays such a central role in managing complaints effectively, we’ve created this guide to help you navigate the murky waters of handling customer complaints. You’ll find some key insights to help you respond to complaints as well as tactics to prevent them from happening in the first place.

In this guide, we’ll cover the following topics:

Common Types of Customer Complaints

Customers might complain about a wide variety of issues, and some complaints may simply be a reflection of the customer’s frustration or their need to be heard. Other times a complaint will point to a substantive issue within your company that should be fixed. In many cases, customer complaints are a combination of these two. Some of the most common types of customer complaints are related to:

  • Poor product quality or missing features
  • Dissatisfaction with pricing
  • Online reviews due to a specific bad experience
  • A misunderstanding (such a missed delivery)
  • An unhappy service visit or support issue

Thinking about your customer complaints in specific categories can help you identify standard solutions for resolving different types of complaints easily. It can also help your service team understand where the majority of issues may be coming from and help them prepare for handling any new complaints.

How Customer Complaints are Communicated

Today’s customer support team should be monitoring multiple communication channels. Omnichannel help desk platforms make this task much more manageable, yet it can still be overwhelming. Email is one of the most common sources of complaints and often makes up a large volume of customer contacts that a support team receives. Using a shared inbox can give your entire support team access to each communication and help prevent missed requests or delayed responses.

Another common source of complaints is phone calls, which can present unique challenges for a support team, such as the potential for long wait times. Live chat is a relatively newer form of communication that has become popular as an easy way for customers to message support staff. Complaints can also come from social media channels, public review sites, forums, and in-person interactions with staff.

Responding to Customer Complaints

How a company responds to complaints can often say a lot more about the company’s opinion of their customers than their marketing and branding. Preparing the actual response is a critical moment, and a lot is riding on how well these communications are received. Most customers that take the time to make a formal complaint expect a satisfactory response. The following are some recommended steps for responding to a complaint that will help customers feel understood and lead to an acceptable resolution.

Know Your Customer

Before anyone in your company makes a formal response to a complaint, your team should have detailed background information on your customer. Arming your support team with detailed customer information may not always be possible, such as when an in-person complaint is made, but it can make a huge difference. If possible, support staff should review information about the buyer persona and any relevant customer history. It helps to know who you are communicating with; it could be a loyal, long-term customer or a customer who has made repeated complaints and is at risk of churning. Having employees that are knowledgeable about your products will also ensure that they are capable of handling complaints.

Respond Quickly

While it may not be possible to respond immediately with a complete solution, it's essential to acknowledge a customer complaint as soon as possible. Your support staff should use a personalized message and reach out quickly. According to Statista, 83% of customers who make a complaint on social media expect a response within a day. Among them, 46% expect to hear back in an hour or less. While that's a short window, it's vital to get in front of the issue and set clear expectations with the customer. Even a brief reply letting them know when they can expect a detailed response can help.

Acknowledge the Issue

Even with a quick reply, it is also important to comment on the specific issue directly. Simply receiving an automated message that the complaint has been received is not enough for most customers today. The best replies will acknowledge the specific issue to show the customer that they have been heard and understood. It is also helpful to apologize for the issue and any inconvenience it may have caused.

Use Active Listening

One of the best ways to truly understand a customer’s complaint is to employ active listening. In addition to showing empathy, it is also helpful for frontline employees to put themselves in the customer's shoes and see things from their perspective. Active listening and practicing these skills should be a central part of any customer support training program.

Ask the Right Questions

Even with all the right intentions, not getting to the root cause of an issue makes it impossible to find a workable solution. Your support staff should learn how to frame questions to get the full picture. There may not be much time to engage in dialogue with the actual customer, but you will need to have as much information as possible to develop a proper action plan.

Present a Clear Solution

When wrapping up the issue, you should always outline a clear plan of action with specific steps. The customer should have an opportunity to review and accept the solution or provide any additional feedback. Customer complaints can be an excellent opportunity to turn a negative situation into a positive outcome. It can make the difference between retaining a customer and losing them to your competition.

Follow Up

Checking in with a customer after an issue has been resolved is an excellent practice that demonstrates that you genuinely care. In addition to ensuring that nothing was overlooked, you can also use the opportunity to offer a special discount on a future purchase to encourage the customer to give you another chance. At the very least, it gives you a chance to engage the customer again and collect additional feedback.

Learn From the Complaint

One final step that should be taken with customer complaints, particularly when you receive the same complaint from multiple customers, is to make sure that it is captured – along with the solution or resolution – in a knowledge base and reviewed with your support team. There may be an opportunity to communicate helpful information to customers that can prevent future complaints. Repeated complaints from several customers may also highlight some key areas for improvement internally.

Tips for Avoiding Customer Complaints

Properly resolving complaints is a necessary part of providing excellent customer support. However, having an unusually large volume of complaints could mean there are support, service, or product issues that need to be solved. Receiving multiple complaints about the same topic can also mean you have a more significant problem. These situations, left unaddressed, will lead to customers becoming dissatisfied with your product or services and an increase in customer churn. The following tips outline a few proven strategies that help decrease the likelihood of receiving future complaints.

Create a Seamless Customer Experience

Complaints related to your website's or application's features and functionality are usually a clear sign that there are issues with your user experience. Problems like these are best solved by clearly mapping out your customer experience. When your support team can see the big picture, they will have an easier time investigating individual issues that may lead to a customer complaint. A customer experience framework also gives you a useful outline from which to conduct targeted surveys to learn more about what customers think.

Implement New Technology

One of the easiest ways to reduce wait times and improve customer support efficiency is to take advantage of new technology. With so many hardware and software tools on the market, there are hundreds of different solutions that can improve your support capabilities. Integrations between systems, such as a help desk, ERP, and CRM, can make it easier than ever to combine customer, product, and support data so your team can make more informed decisions.

Open New Communication Channels

Some customers today refuse to wait on the phone or send an email and prefer to communicate their issues by text or through other channels. Your support team should be easy to contact and available on the platforms that your target customers spend most of their time on. Opening up new communication lines makes it easier for your support team to hear and respond to issues. You may also identify solutions that can prevent small problems from growing into more significant issues later on.

Set Clear Expectations

Many customer complaints are simply the result of broken promises, both big and small. Making clear commitments from the start of any customer support engagement or sale is one of the best ways to avoid future issues. Even if you provide an exceptional service quality, if the customer feels misled, it may lead to a complaint.

Build a Proactive Service Culture

Nobody enjoys putting out fires from problems that could have been prevented. Another way to avoid complaints is to create a company culture that embraces being proactive. Doing so encourages your employees to solve customer issues as soon as they notice a problem. It can also dramatically impact your customer experience as your entire company places a higher priority on customer satisfaction.

Provide Excellent (and Ongoing) Training

Your employees are your most valuable asset, especially when it comes to customer support. Nothing can replace the personalized touch that your support staff can bring to each interaction. When dealing with complaints and difficult customers, it's essential to provide excellent training for new and current employees. Some training best practices include rehearsing customer complaints, learning how to deal with negativity, and studying excellent service examples. It's also a good idea to provide your support team with email templates and other tools that make it easier to reply to customers, while allowing them the flexibility to personalize and customize interactions to address unique circumstances. The more your support team can focus on the individual customer and their problem, the more likely they are to resolve the issue.

Today’s customer support teams handle a large volume of customer requests and must also manage the occasional complaints. Having a set process for replying to customer complaints is a valuable asset, and many improvements can be made to reduce future issues. While they may be hard to deal with, customer complaints can help any organization develop useful product features, improve service offerings, and create a compelling customer experience.

Additional Resources for Managing Customer Complaints

For more information on managing, responding to, and avoiding customer complaints, visit these resources:

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