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How to handle customer complaints with care

Nick Darlington,

Writer

24 May 20220 min read

Handling customer complaints can be tricky as no one complaint is the same. But if you equip your team with the right skills, knowledge, and tools, it doesn't have to be. Here are eight tips and email templates to handle complaints with care.

Receiving customer complaints is a big part of working in customer-facing teams. But accepting this fact doesn't make the job any easier. Responding to complaints is hard, especially as no complaint is the same and some customers can be demanding.

Can you blame them? No one likes spending unnecessary time on hold or on email.

But if you think about it, complaints are one of your biggest opportunities—if they are handled with care.

Read on to learn:

  1. Why customer complaints matter

  2. What the top types of customer complaints are

  3. How to handle customer complaints with eight important tips

  4. How to respond to complaints with the right email templates

Why handling customer complaints can be your biggest opportunity

While a customer complaining publicly can damage your company's reputation, things don't have to get to that point. You just need to handle complaints early and handle them well.

Customer complaints highlight problems with your service or product. It's just up to you to find solutions to improve these issues and prevent future complaints. They're also a chance to turn unhappy customers into loyal ones. Handle complaints properly, and you can flip negative experiences into positive ones where customers go out of their way to recommend you.

Complaints can help boost profits when handled in a timely manner. Research by Harvard Business Review also confirms this. A study of tweets to airlines found that customers who had their tweets answered in five minutes or less will spend roughly $20 more on a flight ticket.

7 types of customer complaints to watch out for

Knowing what customers typically complain about helps you understand what to expect so you can prepare to give the best response. 

Here are the seven top customer complaints.

  1. Defective product complaints

A product breaking or not working as intended is a common reason for complaints. Maybe the durability wasn't up to par, or maybe there was a noticeable fault from day one. 

But the fault isn't always the company’s. Maybe the customer doesn't know how to use the product and mistakenly thinks it's broken, or the customer broke it due to misuse.

 Agents should investigate the problem and resolve it — either finding a replacement if it's faulty or educating the customer on how to use it.

  1. Frustrations over agents sidestepping the actual issue

Hands up if you've ever felt frustrated because an agent never addressed your issue and instead dodged it by providing some generic response? 

I recently experienced this when I called my internet service provider to ask why YouTube was buffering despite me picking up a fast internet speed. I politely asked if they were shaping my line. 

They responded a day later via email, saying the internet speed was fine on their end, despite me still experiencing the problem. There was no mention of YouTube or line shaping, a reason why this may happen, or a resolution. 

  1. Annoyance at long waiting times while on hold 

We've all been there…You call a company's support center and get told you're the "2nd or 3rd" person in the queue and your issue will be attended to as soon as possible. 

You're also told you may have to wait a while due to a high call volume (isn't this always the case?). Many customers don't bother waiting, and hang up. Those who are patient enough may get through, but there are no guarantees because the call may drop.

Some customers who don't get through might call back to complain. Others won't and may instead choose to share their negative experience with people. That’s why it's important to have enough agents to meet the demand and handle the problem quickly. 

  1. Shipping errors

Have you ever been exicited for an order to arrive after days of anticipation? Day after day you look at the tracking information and wonder when my order is coming. It finally comes… And it’s the wrong order. Or, the order doesnt even show up.  

  1. Constantly being transferred between departments

Nothing is more frustrating than customers emailing or calling the support center, only to be transferred from one department to the next without any real help.

Customers end up answering the same questions and repeating themselves because agents haven't been updated with any background information. 

If this frustrates you, you have a pretty good idea it will do the same to your customers.

  1. A lack of follow-up to the initial ticket

Customers will often expect follow-ups to their initial ticket for updates on the outcome. Customers will have different expectations for the frequency of these updates. Some will expect more regular communication while others are more patient—and won't.

Agents need to set clear expectations on communication and realistic timelines on when the problem will be resolved. They should also provide updates as events unfold to give customers peace of mind that the issue is being handled.

  1. Feature requests

Feature requests aren't technically a complaint. But they occur so often that we thought it was important to mention them, especially as they remove agents from more productive work.

While some feature requests may be worth fulfilling if many users want them, fringe use cases generally aren't.

Agents need to know how to respond to these requests, even if it means politely telling the customer that it's not something the team can realistically work on right now, despite it being a fantastic suggestion.

Related reading: The right way to respond to feature requests.

How to handle customer complaints: 8 important tips

Now that you understand the importance of customer complaints and the common ones that pop up, let's look at eight tips for handling them.

  1. Invest in proper software for managing customer complaints

Training reps on how to respond, listen, and communicate with customers is crucial—and something we cover in detail in the seven tips after this one.

But, without proper tools and processes, agents will get bogged down by inefficiencies that lead to poor service and unhappy customers.

 Without the ability to route messages to agents best equipped to deal with them, customers will likely get transferred between multiple departments before finding the right person.

Similarly, without tools that give reps visibility into the entire history of client communication, agents will have to ask questions the customer has already answered, which can cause frustration.

Investing in customer support software makes it easy to create the right support workflows. It also gives your team visibility into the history of client communication through a shared inbox.

  1. Remain calm—customers just want to be heard

Complaints can feel like a personal attack whether they are the truth or not; they're often just a customer venting their frustration or highlighting a problem.

Regardless of how you feel, keep your composure so you can respond without emotion. The complaint is an opportunity to improve. This will help you view it as constructive feedback so you can frame your response appropriately. 

For instance, you could say: "Hi [insert name]. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Please, know that this is not our standard of service. We will do everything to resolve your problem and put steps in place to ensure it doesn't happen again, such as [insert steps]. Please will you…"

Of course, in some cases, you and your team may be dealing with a customer who's verbally attacking your team. This is never okay—and you should act swiftly to deal with this difficult customer.

  1. Listen to your customers—it will help you respond with empathy

Customers want to be heard and listening to them without interruption—besides saying things like "I understand" or "tell me more"—shows you're trying to understand their problem. It shows you care. 

An excellent skill to practice is reflective listening. Reflective listening involves listening to a customer complaint and repeating it back to them to confirm you understand the problem. 

For example, if a customer says this to an agent:

"You're now the fifth person I have spoken to about my issue of not being able to log into my account. My problem still hasn't been resolved after explaining it multiple times.

The agent could respond with:

"I'm hearing you're frustrated for two reasons. First, you can't log into your account. Second, you're being transferred between departments without a resolution where you repeatedly have to explain yourself. Is this correct?"

  1. Apologize and thank the customer

Apologizing to the customer is an essential part of any professional customer communication. It's not an acknowledgment that you're wrong but a first step in showing the customer you're willing to resolve their complaint.

Thanking them for reaching out is also crucial. It shows you value constructive feedback and view complaints as an opportunity to improve.

  1. Gather any extra information for clarity

After remaining calm, listening, apologizing, and thanking customers for contacting you, take the time to understand what the problem is and gather all the facts. 

Ask any probing questions for clarity. For example:

  • Can you elaborate on that point?

  • Can you explain what you mean by…?

  • Who did you speak to about…?

  • What did [they/the other agent's name] tell you when they spoke to you?

Also, if possible, avoid asking questions the customer has already answered. We understand this may not be possible if the customer has been transferred to you without a proper handover or a way for you to view a history of prior communication. 

But to avoid this in the future, use a shared inbox that gives everyone access to the history of communication with that client. It also allows your team to collaborate on answering an email. A shared inbox will allow you to tag another rep for their input and help before sending it to the customer.

  1. Provide a solution—customers want action

The solution you provide will vary depending on the complaint/. Sometimes the issue can be resolved on the spot. Other times it cannot. 

Agents should be upfront and honest to inform customers the issue is a top priority and they will get back to the customer within a specified time.  

For example, "Unfortunately, I cannot resolve this now as I need to speak to my manager first. Please give me your number, and I'll call/email you within [insert time, e.g., two hours]." 

Agents must then set a reminder to follow up with the customer.

  1. Communicate—customers want updates

Just because the customer problem can't be resolved immediately, doesn't mean the customer shouldn't be updated regularly

These updates show customers you're working on the problem and care about it. It's also a sign of a professional company that values its customers.

  1. Follow-up after the problem has been resolved

Now, the icing on the cake – the follow-up. It shows customers they're important to you and that you genuinely appreciate them. Use it as an opportunity to reiterate you're sorry and ask if there's anything else they need help with. 

4 email templates for handling customer complaints 

Let's look at four templates your team can use as a starting point when responding to a complaint. 

After all, why start from scratch when you can use tried and tested templates? Yes, these templates are molded around responses customer reps actually gave their customers!

Example 1: Responding to the incorrect item being delivered

The first email template is based on a response from Le Creuset to an email I sent to inform them they sent me the wrong item and that I wanted to exchange another item for something else.

Hi [client name],

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Please accept our sincere apologies for this error.

We have escalated this to our [insert important person, e.g., senior warehouse manager] to address this with the team, so it doesn't happen again.

We will arrange the collection of both items [insert courier] at no extra cost. They will be returned to the warehouse, where we will action the exchange. I will personally check that the correct product is dispatched to you. 

The remaining credit of [insert amount] will be refunded onto the card used to pay for the initial order [insert if a credit is due to the client].

Please package the product safely into the sealed box to avoid any damage in transit.

Thank you kindly.

[your name]

What makes this email response so great:

The response covers many of the tips for handling customer complaints well: a thank you, an apology, and a solution. The agent also remained calm and viewed the complaint as an opportunity to improve, mentioning that the senior warehouse manager would be informed, so it doesn’t happen again.

Also preempted questions I had about crediting the difference between the new and old item while providing the extra touch of personally checking the order for my peace of mind. 

When to use this email response: 

With a few tweaks, it can be adapted to almost any "shipping error" situation. For instance, if a customer called "John" contacted you to say that an item was missing from an order, you could simply say the following: 

Hi John,

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Please accept our sincere apologies for this error.

We have escalated this to our [insert important person, e.g., senior warehouse manager] to address this with the team, so it doesn't happen again.

Your item will be dispatched today and will arrive by COB tomorrow. I will personally check that the correct product is dispatched to you. 

Thank you kindly.

[your name]

Example 2: Apologizing for an outage

The below apology email template is based on a response issued by Olark to its customers for an outage.

Hello [name],

I'm emailing to update you on our service outages on [time and day]. Service was fully restored at about [time].

I know this has been a very frustrating and trying time for you as a [company name] customer, and for that, I apologize. Please know that our team has been working through the night to resolve these incidents. (The post-mortems on these incidents are here.)

This has been a tough [time period] knowing that we've let you down, and we want to make amends. We failed to provide you with the service you deserve. I wish I could tell you this outage was unpredictable, or it was all an external party's fault, but it wasn't.

We have been aware of the possibility of this kind of outage. We have, in fact, been working on hardening our system to this kind of risk for months. That's why we know it was preventable. In the end, we did not execute quickly enough to prevent these issues from affecting you.

We feel no great irony in the fact the specific component that led to this outage was scheduled to be replaced this week. The positive news is that we spent the last months rewriting how the particular servers affected today are set up. Had the servers been using this new setup, it would have helped avoid this issue. These updates are still due to be released imminently as they were scheduled to do so regardless of this particular outage.

You can rest assured, we are taking this seriously. I realize that doesn't make up for lost business [time and day], though. As a mea culpa, we are issuing you 2 days' worth of credit on your account. You should see that reflected in the next few days.

If you feel this isn't sufficient, please let me know, and we can discuss it further.

Sincerely

[your name]

PS: You can subscribe to service status updates at [status page]

What makes this email response so great:

This response not only tells—but shows— you just how serious Olark is about fixing the outage. They provide a detailed breakdown of what happened, own the problem by admitting it was their fault, and link to a post-mortem which is a sign of an honest and transparent company. 

They also apologize and empathize with Olark operators, which adds a human touch to the entire customer service experience. Finally, they show how they were—and are— taking steps to prevent it from happening again.

When to use this email response: 

When dealing with a more complex complaint/issue that takes multiple days to resolve and requires regular, detailed, and timely updates.

Example 3: We are working on it

Hi [customer name],

I'm sorry about [insert problem here]. I'm talking with my team about exploring this issue more now. I just want to let you know that your issue is important to us, and we'll get back to you ASAP with proper insight and solutions.

Thanks for your patience.

[your name]

What makes this email response so great:

This response is versatile enough to be applied to many situations. You can action it almost immediately when you receive a complaint from a customer.

The response is also professional and concise. It informs the customer their complaint has been received and that the support team is actively working on it. 

When to use this email response: 

When you're still digging into a problem and trying to find a solution, or your team is swamped by complaints and needs to buy time to get organized.

Example 4: Still can't find a fix…help us understand the problem a little more

Hi [client name],

Thanks for reaching out to us about [insert issue here]. We've spent the last few days assessing what's been going on, and we really appreciate your patience during this time. Although we've been working on resolutions, we still haven't found a fix. Here's what we've tried so far:

[list what you've tried]

I am very committed to fixing this for you. I'd really like to hear more about your experience so that we can make sure we're on the same page and figure out the next steps. To start, I have some questions:[insert questions]

Thanks again for your patience while we work through this. I'm confident we'll find a resolution soon.

Sincerely, [your name]

What makes this email response so great:

This response shows the customer the company has been actively working on the problem and reinforces that fixing it is a top priority. It's also honest, something customers value—and maintains a positive, upbeat attitude. 

Sure, the company has not resolved the issue swiftly, but they remain committed to fixing it by asking more questions for clarity.

When to use this apology email:

When you've been working on a problem for some time but are still unable to fix it. 

Become better at handling customer complaints

Knowing that customer complaints are part of working in customer service doesn't make the job any easier.  

But arming your team with the right tools, resources, and knowledge will make your job just a little easier and help you turn those unhappy customers into loyal ones who can't do anything but recommend you to others.

Written by Nick Darlington

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