How to handle customer complaints effectively

How to handle customer complaints effectively

An essential part of onboarding new customer support operators is teaching them the right way to talk to customers who aren't happy. Today Alex Ivanovs, of CodeCondo and business/startup columnist for Huffington Post, shares some of his tips for handling customer complaints.

Difficult customers are part of the business process. Nobody likes dealing with them, but often we have to. It's best to be prepared for these situations - like when a customer is typing in ALL CAPS - as some customers might take it a little bit too far.

There is an art to handling customer complaints effectively. Hear them out and treat customers in a firm but fair manner.

In this time of social media and global interconnectedness, customer complaints can sometimes gather momentum before we even realize there's a problem. Customers, like us, have the gift of voice and sometimes this gift can get really loud, even uncomfortable.

The best way to tackle unhappy customers is by establishing a customer complaints strategy that can be applied immediately after a complaint is received. To begin with, we first need to fully understand what the customer is complaining about.

Understanding the volume of complaint

"It’s impossible to build on the belief that our users are always right and that we should listen to them. Because if we do, we’re like a wheel in the sky that may keeps on turning but also changes direction based on the opinions of other people." - Stefan Rössler

Each customer complaint is unique, but typically the personality of the complainer is repetitive, so it's easy to categorize it. That is not to say that we should assume the position of power and dismiss complaints from customers who are "not getting it", even if you win an argument; that customer is never going to do any business with you ever again. You can't put out a fire by throwing more gasoline at it.

Even if your customer hurls insults at your company, try to remain calm and composed. It's key to handling customer complaints effectively. (A sample customer conversation where the customer is, um, not happy with something you did.)

Here are just a few customer personalities you may encounter:

  • Casual -- The casual customer doesn't care much. They want a problem solved or a feature shown, but he/she doesn't expect to get what they want. Even though they're casual, you should still invest in getting to the bottom of whatever this customer is looking for and/or needs help with.
  • Aggressive -- Confusion, frustration, even deep anger is what this customer possesses, and fighting back is not an option. Take a deep breath and respond with unique sincerity, you want the customer to know that you're listening, but also that you want to be respected.
  • Curious -- Never satisfied with the standard features, this customer is constantly looking for ways to customize and improve the product or platform you've provided. Their questions tend to be casual, but look for deeper meaning in them: often they are asking about features/enhancements they expect to be present.
  • Entitled -- The one with deep pockets. Entitled customers are usually the ones who are spending the most money on your product and/or service. You might not like treating others differently, but sometimes you have to put up with demanding customers, they are after all helping you to host the party.

If you have ever have had to deal with a customer complaint before, you will know that these are very frequent personality types, so getting accustomed to them doesn't take very long. 

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Keeping it strictly business

You have to have some kind of empathy skills if you wish to work in customer service, as customers can, at times, be relentless and spiteful in ways that will make the flowers in your office decay faster than you can blink.

Keep it positive on live chat. Your customers will thank you, even if they don't.Whether it is on the phone, or through email, whenever you encounter a customer spitting flames all over the place, take a deep breath and let it go. Don't allow all that anger and frustration to distract you. Let the customer say everything they have to say, allow the complaint to unfold until this person no longer has anything else to say (read: complain about) and understand that they're only trying to get help.

Also - don't take customer complaints personally. Just because they're unhappy with a particular feature or aspect of your product, doesn't mean you've done something wrong. As you are digesting what the customer is trying to complain about, simply recollect yourself and try to decipher what you can do to help the customer.

Questions and answers 

If a customer comes in 'hot', it's always a good idea to start with a friendly salutation. Sometimes a simple, "Hello!" can help drop a customer out of the red zone. It gives the customer a sense of being listened to, and in many cases that's all you need to get things back on the right track.

But the questions and answers process can be a bumpy ride, so take into consideration the following tips:

  • Questions -- dig deep to understand the customer's problem. When did it start? What was the motive? What does the customer want to achieve? The more you understand about the problem, the easier it will be to solve it.
  • Empathize -- don't be afraid to put yourself in the shoes of the customer and empathize with their experience. Don't make them listen to corporate support answers; give them the real deal and you might find common ground on which you can communicate.
  • Sincerity -- a sincere apology will often completely clear any negativity or anger infused emotions, and it will be much easier to talk them through a solution. 'I am sorry that you had to experience that.' The more real you can be, the more you come off as an actual human, which helps the customer empathize with your position.
  • Solution -- one of the best ways to help your customers in tough situations is to ask them what they think the solution should be. Work with your customer together, not against them.

You should at this point have full control over the situation (complaint) and the experience gained from just a few of these types of situations is going to be extremely rewarding. And once the complaint has been solved, there's only one thing left to do.

Following up

Despite the channel of communication the customer used to reach you, make sure to do a follow up a few days -- one or two -- after the initial complaint.

It will help to clear the air and the memory of that particular incident, and it's generally considered good practice to take good care of your customers. Besides, there are countless benefits to maintaining a good customer experience.

You could send out an email such as:

Hi Mark,

Hope all is well.

Please let me know if you're still experiencing problems with [the problem]. I'm more than happy to help you out if you're still having troubles.

Let me know if you have any other questions, I'm here to help. Have a great day!

Kind regards,


You can adjust the email to reflect your own feelings and style of writing, but make sure that your customers feel valued and understood at all levels possible. Express your gratitude to the customer for being understanding and receptive of your helping hands.

Being grateful will not make your budget shrink, but it will help it grow -- happy customers means more sales to take care of.

Reviewing the situation

Once the dust has settled on a particularly difficult customer conversation, it's good to take some time to yourself - step away from the computer and hit the reset button. It's good to find your baseline of mental peace - your set point of happiness - so any lingering emotion from a challenging interaction doesn't spill into the next.

It's also good, albeit maybe painful, to review your live chat transcripts to see where the conversation got heated. Or perhaps it's easier to have a colleague review your chat transcripts to get an objective take on the situation. You might ask questions such as:

  • Was the issue actually resolved -- Did the customer actually have a question and did the support operator answer it? Maybe there was some heat in the conversation - separate that from the substance. Did the operator complete their job of answering the customer's question/request?
  • Was either party provoked -- This can be tricky, but does it appear that either the customer or the operator said something that provoked the other? If you can pinpoint something, that will make it easier to defuse future situations. And if the agent was responsible for provoking the customer, understand why. Were they just having a frustrating day in general and this was the straw that broke the camel's back? Or does this agent have a history of difficult customer conversations?
  • Agreement on next steps -- We mention above sending the customer an email, but are there other actions that need to happen? Should your social media team be on the lookout for this customer venting publicly? If so, be sure the entire team has the full details on the situation so they can respond in a fast, human way if needed.
  • Reassurance -- One of your final steps might simply be reassuring your operator that they did a good job (if they did). Like I said, customers can be harsh at times. It's good for your team to know you have their back and that one negative customer interaction is just that - one in a sea of many. Think of all the other positive interactions that have preceded this interaction, and all the positive interactions that will come after it.

If you want to try Olark live chat software for your website to handle customer complaints, sign up for a free trial:

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About Alex Ivanovs

Alex Ivanovs is an online entrepreneur with a decades worth of experience in web development and small business. You can find his work at CodeCondo ( -- community of developers and designers. You may also find that he's a frequent columnist at Huffington Post (; where he displays his passion for business and startup topics.