The Art of Handling Complaints with Grace

handsome manThe one thing everyone in the service industry can be 100% sure of is that at some point, a customer will be unhappy, disappointed and perhaps even angry.

Sometimes a customer’s complaint is justified.  Mistakes happen.  Other times, the customer is wrong and the reason for their disappointment or anger is not because of anything we failed to do or not do.

Regardless of the validity of the customer’s complaint or criticism, it is our choice to respond defensively or with grace.

Here are four defensive responses many of us instinctively turn to.

  1. Making excuses: This is acknowledging that something may be wrong and then putting the blame on someone else. For example:  Front desk shouldn’t have told you we had microwaves in the room.
  2. Cross complaining: Cross complaining is deflecting responsibility on the person complaining. For example:  If you had told us there was a problem with the heating, we could have given you another room.
  3. Yes-Butting: This is where we pretend to agree, and then with one simple “but” we demonstrate we really don’t agree.  For example: Free parking is nice, but our hotel charges a $10 fee per day.
  4. Closed body language: A poker face, crossed arms, clenched jaw, shifting from side to side or avoiding eye contact says “I don’t hear you” even if you’re using all the right words.

The problem is that when we respond defensively, we invalidate the thoughts, frustration or anger the other person is feeling, and when we do that, we are saying “I don’t hear you.” This very often leads to the unhappy customer saying it again, but this time more loudly. So we get more defensive, they get louder, we get more defensive, and so on and so on and so on.  It’s an ugly cycle that nobody wins.

Customers very seldom care about the “why”. They don’t care who made the mistake or who is to blame. They want their feelings to be validated, they want someone to listen to them and they want a solution to their problem.

So what’s the solution? What can we do to handle complaints with grace?  Below are eight steps to help manage an unhappy or irate customer.

  1. The first and most important step is to take a step back from ego. Don’t take the complaint or criticism personally, even if the person complaining makes it sound personal, with the use of the word “you”.  Taking a step back from ego also gets you out of judgment mode.
  2. Acknowledge / empathize with their emotion. By simply acknowledging the frustration or disappointment behind the customer’s words and behaviours, you are saying “I hear you and I understand you.” That is powerful.
  3. Find the truth in their statement. Very few complaints are based on complete fiction. Sometimes, the truth may simply be acknowledging their emotion. 
  4. Apologize. Complaining customers want an apology but don’t necessarily expect one.  A sincere “I’m sorry” is unexpected and appreciated.
  5. Listen mindfully. Focus on the here and now.  Ignore your need to react away. Focus on listening. Remind yourself that listening to what someone else says is not the same as accepting it or agreeing with it. You can respond later, remembering that the better you listen now, the more you understand, and the better equipped you will be to respond productively.
  6. Offer possible solutions or compromises. If you can offer more than one option, do it.  Customers like choice.  Sometimes there is only one potential solution or compromise.  One is better than none.  Don’t be upset if they aren’t loving option B or C (that’s back to letting go of ego.)  Remember, B or C is not their first option. You already failed on delivering that.
  7. Show appreciation. Thank the customer for sharing their complaint. Thanking the complaining customer is really saying “thank you for giving me the opportunity to fix this for you and for us to become even better than we already are.”
  8. Respond, don’t react: Responding demonstrates careful thought and control over your emotions and your words.  Reacting demonstrates an instinctive, impulsive behaviour.

Feelings of defensiveness are instinctive when faced with an unhappy or angry customer.  We want to defend ourselves and our company.  However, if the end goal is to build long-term relationships with our customers, the ability to respond with grace is an essential skill.

What are some things you do to stay calm and professional?

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