How to handle customer complaints like a pro

how to handle customer complaints professionally

Sadly, not every interaction small businesses have with their customers will be a happy one.

There will be hiccups and, inevitably, complaints will be raised to you and your team. And while these bumps in the road are unavoidable, business strategist and marketing expert Tim Reid says they are also a way to improve your customers’ experiences.

“It is impossible to avoid negative customer feedback,” he says. “No matter how hard a business owner tries, at some point they’re going to feel the wrath of an irate customer. We put our heart and soul into creating something special for our customers, so when someone says you’ve got an ugly baby, it’s hard not to be a little taken aback.

“But negative feedback is an opportunity for the savvy business owner to see where they are going wrong, and what areas of their business need improvement.”

Here, Reid provides some solid tips for businesses dealing with irate customers, along with some insights from Melbourne restaurateur Barry Iddles.

First things first

Customer complaints are received a number of ways – in person, email, on the phone and via social media – and Reid has a simple rule for dealing with them.

“The first thing a business owner should do when a complaint is received is to acknowledge its receipt, and maybe even thank the complainee,” he says. “If it’s bleedingly obvious that you are in the wrong then go about addressing it there and then. Otherwise, let them know you’ll look into the issue, get all the facts, and come back to them within a specified timeframe.”

Iddles, who deals with hundreds of customers through his restaurants 360Q in Queenscliff, Boon Wurrung Cafe in Cranbourne as well as Elk at Falls Creek through the winter months, says complaints made on the spot are best dealt with straight away.

“If a customer complains about the service or if they haven’t been seated in an area they like, we action that immediately,” he says. “You have to think quite fast and apologise and we always recognise that if there are no customers then there is no business.”

However, if he receives a complaint online or via email, Iddles waits 24 hours before responding.

“I need to be objective about each complaint and think about it before I write back,” he says.

Lend me your ears

Dealing with negative experiences simply comes down to communication, Reid says.

“Customers want to know that they’ve been heard,” he says. “So, at the very least, acknowledge that their complaint has been registered, and that it’s being looked into.”

Iddles says he and his team take each complaint on its own merit, and will often offer that customer something in order to soothe the anger, such as a complimentary meal or better table. Even if a customer is being unreasonable, he always takes the time to defuse the situation.

“You need to speak to people calmly and professionally to get your point across,” he says. “Sometimes we go above and beyond because it’s good word of mouth. We had a lady who ordered pork belly and she cut the top off it and complained to our staff that it was ‘fatty’. “Everyone knows pork belly is fatty – but we offered her another meal anyway.”

Iddles says dealing with complaints is a good learning experience for his team of chefs and wait staff.

“If a complaint is totally warranted I will suck it up and address the situation,” he says. “I will go through the whole team and tell all of them that our service wasn’t good enough or the food needs to be hot, fast and furious.”

What not to do when a customer complains

Reid’s list of things not to do when faced with an irate customer includes:

  • Don’t ignore them.
  • Don’t argue.
  • Don’t ask questions that the customer has already answered.
  • Don’t be impatient.
  • Don’t tell them to get stuffed.

Iddles says he has been guilty of the last one in the past – which is why he introduced his 24-hour rule.

“One time I handled a complaint badly, although I didn’t think it was bad at the time because I felt quite angry,” he says. “It was an online response to a customer who was abusive to my staff, was wrong about the menu and extraordinarily scathing during her visit and then in two reviews online.

“I responded in anger, which my team said was not the way to go, and so now I take time to think. I also have a document of pre-written responses that I refer to when replying to reviews which keeps everything very professional.”

A customer’s perspective

This personal anecdote from a shopper at Aesop demonstrates how quick-thinking can turn a sour experience into something sweeter.

“I have a love of all things Aesop – the company, the story of it being a Melbourne startup, and the products are divine. I love going to their stores and being pampered, and given samples.

“Each Aesop outlet has a consistent experience. So, when I had an appalling experience I wanted them to be aware of it. Not for any other reason than it was so against everything that made that company great.

“The feedback was immediately responded to with a really lovely email. Then they followed up by sending me a new product on the market, which was wonderful. The experience left me feeling more positive of the brand and, while I won’t visit that particular outlet again, it gave me a reason to keep coming back.

This kind of thing is important when there are so many alternatives out there.”

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