How to turn customer complaints into a loyal client base

Note: This article originally appeared on my previous website in 2014. I’m reposting it here because it’s still relevant.

How can you turn customer complaints into a loyal client base?

Several years ago, I was hired by a company that had a long history of poorly handling of customer complaints.  This company was plagued by operational problems that created an atmosphere ripe for the creation of unhappy customers and their policies in handling complaints were non-existent.  Their front-line customer service staff was uninformed, their managers were apathetic, and everyone was looking to pass the blame on to someone else. My biggest responsibility in this new position would be to create, enact and enforce a uniform customer complaint policy that would be handled by every staff member throughout the company. This proved to be much more challenging than I had originally anticipated and in the first six months at my new post, I spent the majority of my day getting yelled at by customers that were unhappy with the company’s policies.  I also spent a large portion of my day locked in my office crying; it’s difficult not to take it personally when 4 out of 5 calls you’re fielding are telling you what a crappy job your company is doing. It’s a wonder I didn’t quit. (Actually, I did, but I was wooed back.)

After this disastrous first six months, I decided to take a different approach. This difference resulted in greater customer satisfaction and less stress for me. So what changed? I realized that oftentimes, the first interaction a customer has with a company beyond purchasing their product or service is when there’s a problem.  How your company handles that problem will dictate how your customer views your business.  It is a natural instinct of business owners to want to improve their bottom line, but far too many of them neglect the customer relations aspect of business in their quest for bigger payoffs.  Your business could have the best product or service in the world, but if you are perpetually pissing off your customers by mismanaging their complaints, odds are your business won’t be around for very long. So I started thinking about our customers. And really LISTENING to what their complaints were telling me.  Here is what I learned:

9 tips for turning your customer complaints into loyal clients


ADDRESS THE COMPLAINT IMMEDIATELY.  The less time your clients or customers have to wait for a response or resolution, the more satisfied they’re going to be with the response or resolution that you provide.  If you are not listening to your customers’ complaints, they’re going to find people who will – their friends, family, and colleagues, potentially damaging your business’s reputation.

ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY AND APOLOGIZE.  How many times have you lodged a complaint with someone, only to have them turn around and blame the mistake on someone else? Even if there is someone else to blame, making a genuine apology without deferring blame goes a long way in showing your customers that YOU care about their business.

DON’T INDICATE THAT YOU “DON’T KNOW” WHAT THE CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM IS. Even if you don’t honestly know what the cause is, admitting to your customer or client that you don’t know subconsciously tells them that you don’t know how to fix.

THE CUSTOMER IS NOT ALWAYS RIGHT. Sometimes they are wrong.  And sometimes they are jerks about it too. But if you want to keep your customers, (even the jerks) coming back to your business, you need to make sure their complaints are heard and validated – even if their complaints are without validity. Everyone makes mistakes. So instead of assuming that your wrong customer is just a jerk, assume that he has made a genuine mistake and treat him or her with respect while correcting him.

GIVE YOUR FRONT-LINE CUSTOMER SERVICE STAFF THE INFORMATION AND TOOLS THEY’LL NEED TO ADDRESS CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS.  Inform your frontline staff of your business policies and policies on customer service. Teach them to be apologetic and accommodating to customers. Inform them of any potential problems and the answers necessary to address the problems so that they don’t ever have to utter the words “I don’t know.” Allow them a certain level of power in addressing and resolving the majority of the issues that come up.

MAKE SURE YOUR MANAGERS AND SUPERVISORS STAND BEHIND THE DECISIONS MADE BY YOUR FRONT LINE STAFF. If you have given your front-line staff the power to make decisions on resolutions, then you need to let them KEEP that power.  If your managers are going behind them undermining their decisions, it implies a level of fragility, disorganization, and mistrust within your organization. “United we stand, divided we fall.”

BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS POLICIES AND MAKE SURE YOUR CLIENTS AND CUSTOMERS ARE AWARE OF THEM. If your customers and clients aren’t aware of your business policies, you can’t expect them to be followed. Do yourself and your clients a favour by making sure your policies are visible and available to them at many different times via several different avenues.  Your policies should be posted on your website and, depending on your type of business, each email you send should link to them.  The clearer you are about your policies, the easier your clients and customers will find it to follow them.

STICK TO YOUR BUSINESS POLICIES. I cannot begin to express the importance of this point.  You have put policies in place for a reason.  If you or your staff can’t stick to them and are always making “exceptions”, then perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate if those policies accurately convey the message you were trying to send with them. Being weak in your own policy follow-through implies, well, weakness. And your customers will eat you alive because of it.  Being able to stick to your own policies shows that you respect your own business enough to value having customers with which to argue over your policies.

And most importantly, GENUINELY CARE ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMER’S COMPLAINTS. Your customer is showing you that they care about your business enough to complain, the least you could do in response is to care about their business.  Their complaints are allowing you an opportunity to improve.  Don’t waste it.

Want more information?  HERE is a compelling article on how properly handled customer-complaints can turn into a whopping 94% customer loyalty and retention!