I have spent most of my career listening to customers complain.  As the Director of Customer Satisfaction for 2 very successful corporations, I heard each time we had failed our customers.

Customers would tell me when we could not fill an order, when a process did not work as designed, when we had become difficult to do business with.

And for most of my career, I treated these complaints as items of discontent, areas of dissatisfaction.

I treated Complaints as Gripes.

It wasn’t until about 5 years ago when I began treating Complaints as Gifts.

And I didn’t change my thought process overnight.  There were a few steps involved.

First, I started to track complaints better; the number of them, the content or root cause of the complaint and I was able to see themes.  There were recurring areas where we were falling short, and sometimes, based on the data, I was able to ‘predict’ the type of complaint that would come next

From there, I used this data to prioritize improvements in the process, the product, the agent interaction.  As I listened to customers tell me where we were falling short, I used their complaints as my guide for continuous improvement.

The last thing that I began to do was monitor the reaction and satisfaction that the customers demonstrated once I had resolved their complaint.  There was an appreciation and a thankfulness that I had been overlooking.

It was not until I put these three things together that I had my paradigm shift – Complaints aren’t Gripes…Complaints are Gifts.

Fact:  89% of customers leave for a competitor when they have a poor experience without ever issuing a complaint.  These customers don’t care.

Fact:  A recovered customer is more loyal than one who has never had a problem with your company.  A recovered customer cares.

Customers who care send you a complaint, advise you about a breakdown that they had with your company and they ask you to fix it.  They want to continue to do business with you, they want you to get better, and they let you know where you had fallen short.

They gave you a Gift.

Equally important to treating Complaints as Gifts, is how you respond to them.  There are many ways to handle a complaint, but here are the 4 best steps for responding to a complaint.

The 4 steps to responding to complaints:

1. Admit the breakdown

2. Offer a real solution

3. Give them something extra

4. Do it quickly


Let’s look at each of these a little closer.

Admit the breakdown

Things don’t always go as planned.  Businesses run out of inventory, don’t always hire the right person, or the process in place does not work as designed.    Whatever has caused your customer to complain should be analyzed.  What was the root cause of the breakdown?  How did what you set out to do fail this customer?  What can you learn from this to prevent the same thing from happening in the future?


Start the conversation with:  I regret that….

Offer a real solution

Typically when you get a complaint, you feel responsible for the customer’s poor experience and your first response is to over compensate.  The key here is to offer a real solution, one that is achievable, legal (yes, legal) and can be completed quickly.  Be smart about what you offer, do what you said you were going to do, and you will have a loyal customer for life.


Start the conversation with:  Here is what I can do for you…

Give them something extra

At this point in the complaint handling process, you are still in recovery mode, and that offer of a little extra, something more just for them, will excite the customer and give them a sense of pride.  Some examples of what you can offer as an extra include waiving a fee or charge they have incurred, extending a membership/privileges or sending an additional item that they didn’t order, but would enjoy.  This step is intentionally after the Offer a Real Solution step…to be sure that what you give away is accessible.


Start the conversation with:  What I would also like to do is…

Do it quickly

A prompt response to the complaint is the best defense.  Remember, that these customers care about your business, they want to come back, and they can’t wait to tell their friends and family how you have made this issue right.  So don’t hide from it.  Let the customer know you are working to make this better for them.

Having that peace of mind puts them at ease and – in most instances – keeps them off of social media, away from using Twitter and Face book as their megaphone.

Start the conversation with:  Thank you for contacting us, your feedback is important..

Complaints are Gifts, pay attention to how you unwrap them.

About the Author: Donna is a customer experience leader across multiple industries including Telecommunications and Insurance.  Throughout her career, Donna has achieved proven success in increasing customer satisfaction scores, developing initiatives that drive reduction in customer complaints and utilizing analytics proactively to determine what is best for the customer experience.  She is the owner of Listen, Learn, Live LLC, a customer experience consulting company where she works with businesses and non-profits to implement feedback mechanisms and use the data for improvement and best practice replication.  She also delivers presentations and workshops on how to use all data, including complaints, to retain your customers.  You will often hear her explain how “retention is the new acquisition”.

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