4 Surefire Ways To Handle Customer Complaints Like A Pro

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Some time ago in my previous life as a marketing and sales director of an improv theater, a series of particular events unfolded that would go on to change the way I thought about customer complaints forever. Cue the dramatic music:

It was a dark and stormy night, lightning flashes in the sky...okay, maybe not quite so dramatic, but compelling just the same. We used to put on a popular show every Thursday which was pretty well-loved. So well-loved that one day a client decided to book the entire theater out for a private event. Great!

… the next day, we were confronted with one very angry email. Unbeknownst to any of us, a group of six had planned on attending the show and pulled out all the stops—paying for babysitters, planning things out in advance, the whole shebang—only to realize at the door that the show was entirely sold out.


Naturally, they were pissed, said they'd never return, and were pretty vocal about how they felt. Some of the office staff were keen to dismiss their complaints because they were just so angry and also could have avoided this by attempting to buy tickets in advance (“it wasn’t our fault”). It would have been easy to explain how we weren't in the wrong. But I knew in my gut there was an opportunity here.

Instead of trying to justify ourselves with a lengthy email response, I apologized for the inconvenience and experience. I gave everyone in the group two comp tickets each, promised them a round of beers on the house, and insisted that we would make a more concentrated effort in the future to notify people about changes on our website.

The end result?

They become some of our best customers.

They were so appreciative of the way we handled their experience that we turned them into die hard customers.  They came every Thursday night for two years straight and would bring in more new friends to see the show each time. Had we maintained that we were in the right and had done nothing wrong, we could have lost out on six customers for good—and potentially many more along the way.

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
— Bill Gates

If you go out of your way to do things above and beyond, you can turn a bad experience into a customer for life.

There’s no better opportunity to create a lifelong brand ambassador (or lose a customer for good) than when something goes wrong. It’s a chance for customers to either sing your praises online for the world to see, or hop on the closest review site and social media outlet of choice and launch the nukes.

It’s why providing a great customer experience is so critical to business success. Handling problems like a pro is a valuable skill, while doing it poorly—especially in the age of social media—is too costly to risk.

All companies claim great customer service, yet so many miss the mark when it comes to handling problems. You’ve got to strive for excellent outcomes that leave lasting impressions with your customers. You can’t afford not to. How your company handles problems and conflict will set you apart from your competition, greatly affect your reputation, customer retention, and—something that’s often overlooked—will also increase your employees’ job satisfaction. People take pride in working for companies who treat people well and walk the walk.

Make it part of your culture to create excellent outcomes when it comes to handling customer problems. Empower your people with the authority to make decisions and take care of problems immediately. Proactively discuss potential situations and solutions and learn from every experience.


Following these four steps will help guide you towards to creating excellent outcomes, every time. Every one of your employees should be able to describe these steps. Don’t make a policy and email it out to be ignored. Everyone should be operating with the mantra of, “Let’s look for for any way possible to say ‘yes’ and make it right.”


Step 1) Respond immediately

For a customer, the clock starts when they experience the problem. By the time you hear about it they may have already been stewing for several hours or even days. Respond immediately. If you can’t resolve the issue right then, be honest and clear about when you’ll get back to them and the steps that need to be taken for resolution. Every minute that passes without resolution could be one where they’re shredding you online social media to their friends and colleagues. One scathing review can cost you a lot of future business. Don’t waste one second. 

Step 2) Acknowledge, apologize, and promise to make it right

The first thing that your customer needs to hear is that you’re going to take care of them and make things right. Stating that right away puts people at ease and diffuses tension. Acknowledge what happened, apologize and then promise to resolve it. Apologizing about their experience doesn’t mean that they’re 100% right; it just means that your company values them and their business. It proves that their experience is important to you. Don’t defend or justify the situation. Attempting to prove that you’re ‘right’ is counterproductive and infuriating.

Everyone in your company needs to be committed to owning and taking responsibility for the service that any client or customer receives. Service and customer experience is everyone’s department, no exceptions.

Step 3) Resolve it above their expectations

Be decisive and clear about how you’ll resolve the issue and offer a resolution that is one or two steps beyond what they likely expect. Do it in a way that invites them to do business with you again. Don’t just reimburse them for their bad meal, offer another meal on the house so they can have a great experience the next time. The details of resolving the issue depend on what kind of complaint you’re dealing with, but the principle is the same. Giving them more than they expect goes a long way in creating a customer for life. It will almost certainly ensure that they’ll do business with you again and if you’re lucky, they’ll sing your praises instead of blasting you online. That alone is worth the cost and effort.

Step 4) Appreciate them

Let them know that you highly value their business and their experience with your company. Thank them for telling you about the issue and for the opportunity to make things right. Remember, they didn’t have to tell you about what happened. They could’ve just left you a terrible Yelp review instead and become your competitor’s new best customer.

Maintaining excellence means that you must truly value your customer’s experience, front to back. A problematic situation is a rare chance to prove that you do. Make your goal to resolve things in a way that creates a customer for life. Don’t be like just any other business; be exceptional. For additional inspiration, look into how the Ritz-Carlton wrote the book on exceptional service and handling customer complaints.

It’s true that some customers are more trouble than they’re worth and should be let go. Some people just cannot be made happy. Know your business, know the value of your service and of your customers. Every situation is unique. You’ll do your best if your intention is to create excellent outcomes, every time.

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Galen Emanuele