Do You Recognize These 7 Mental Blocks to Successful Complaint Handling?

Stressful day at work

If you work in customer service, efficient complaint handling is crucial. One poorly handled problem or complaint can send a customer running for the competition. Consider the following:

  • A customer who goes to the effort to complain, but remains dissatisfied is usually 50% less loyal than someone who did not bother to complain.
  • Research by TARP has found that if a complaint handling system is inadequate, it will further alienate the customer, resulting in lower repurchase rates.
  • The problem is rarely the problem. The company’s response usually ends up being the real “problem.” The complaint handling process has a significant impact on customer satisfaction because customers are more emotionally involved in and observant of recovery service than in routine or first-time service and are often more dissatisfied by an organization’s failure to recover than by the service failure itself.

My research has revealed that there are 7 standard mental blocks to successful complaint handling. Failing to recognize and blast these blocks on an individual employee level can result in detrimental consequences for businesses.

I often share this list of 7 common ways we mess up with complaint handling when I’m working with a company that is losing customers as fast as they win them. The awareness almost always helps managers and frontline employees alike to immediately shift attitudes toward complaints and complaining customers.


1. Thinking Most Customers are Liars or Cheats

One of the worst mistakes you can make in complaint handling is to take a defensive position. A defensive approach often puts customers on the defensive as we doubt the customer’s motives. Questions and statements like, “Did you follow the instructions?” or  “The only way damage like that could have occurred would be if you’d spilled liquid on the laptop.”  put customers through the third degree and significantly reduces the chances the customer will remain a customer.

Indeed, there are scam artists out there, and you will talk to them from time to time. But the reality is less than 1% of consumers are attempting to scam organizations. Just as with our legal system, you need to follow the premise that every customer is innocent until (unless) proven guilty

2. Following the Rules

Last month I bought movie tickets online for the teen phenomenon High School Musical 3. On the premiere night, I arrived at the over-crowded theatre with 3 giddy little girls. I immediately went to the kiosk to print out the movie tickets.  My attempt to print the actual tickets failed and the message “Out of Paper” appeared on the screen. I simply scooted over to the next kiosk and tried to print, and I got the message “Tickets under this confirmation number have already been printed.”

So I went to the ticket window and explained my problem to a nonchalant teenage boy. He actually said to me, “All of our kiosks work, and they print tickets if you paid online. I don’t know what to tell you. We can only let you in with tickets.” And he looked above my head and said, “Next.”

As upset as I was at that moment, and I was genuinely pissed off, I know this young employee was merely “following the rules.” I’m sure he was told to only admit guests with paid admission. But following the rules resulted in a big problem for me.

Successful problem resolution is entirely dependent on employee willingness and freedom to be able to break away from a task or “normal” job duty to handle a problem for a customer. You need to think out of the box to solve customer problems, or better yet, you need to understand that there is no box to step out of. Whatever it takes to fix a problem is what you need to do. That is if you’re serious about keeping customers (and your job).

3. Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill

Making a big deal out of minor issues with clients robs your company of credibility, frustrates customers, and sends customers running to the competition.  Consider the following true story.

One day a customer, who had been dining at one of Bob Farrell’s restaurants twice weekly for more than three years, wrote Bob a letter describing the poor service he had received. The customer ordered his “usual” in which he always asked for, and received, an extra pickle. For some reason, one day when the customer asked for the extra pickle, he was told there would be a charge for the pickle. The customer explained that for the past 3 years he always got the extra pickle at no cost. The waitress then spoke to a manager, who also insisted that there be a charge for the extra pickle. The customer ended his letter by saying that he wouldn’t be coming back to the restaurant.

Mr. Farrell immediately wrote the customer a letter explaining that that was not how he ran his business. He apologized, enclosed a card for a free hot fudge sundae, and asked the customer to come back. But Bob didn’t just regain that customer’s goodwill, he learned something precious: “When something happens with a customer, and you’re not sure what to do, give ‘em a pickle. Do what it takes to make things right!”

4. Believing Complaining Customers are a Nuisance

Handling complaints can, at times, be frustrating or confusing and it can be easy to view complaining customers as a nuisance. The danger in this viewpoint is that we may treat customers brusquely.

As simple as it may sound, politeness is a tangible asset that can positively impact customer satisfaction with complaint handling. If you solve the customer’s issue but are rude or indifferent in the process, you can still negatively affect the relationship. Simply put, when you are polite and courteous, customers will experience more satisfaction and reward you with stronger loyalty

5. No Sense of Urgency

A quick search on Google reveals hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs from disgruntled customers who say that no one ever got back to them after they voiced a complaint or, if the company did get back in touch, the delay in response was unacceptable.

There can be no time delay or ball dropping in complaint response if your goal is to regain customer goodwill. Employees must be willing and empowered to break the routine and respond with the urgency and speed of a highly trained SWAT team.

Having a sense of urgency and making an immediate response to a problem lets the customer know that resolving the issue is as important to you (the organization) as it is to them. Employees need to speak and act in such a way that conveys to the customer that the problem or need is seriously significant to them and deserves personal and grave attention. When we accurately respond with a sense of urgency, we convey earnestness, sincerity, and we begin to establish trust with customers.

My favorite way to express a sense of urgency is to say, “Mr. Bryant, we want to get to the bottom of this just as much as you do. Let’s take a look…” If you make a statement similar to this and ensure your tone and body language send the same message, customers will feel your urgency and earnest and handle the problem from this point on will be easy as pie.

6. An Unwillingness to Apologize

In my customer service training sessions, I often hear statements similar to: “I’ll fix the problem, but I am not apologizing for a problem that is not my fault.”

Good point. Almost never is the problem the customer service professional is responding to their fault. So why would you need to apologize personally for the issue? Because it’s not about YOU personally.

Of course, it’s not your fault. But you are representing your company, and you have a responsibility to actively work to regain customer goodwill. A sincere and unreserved apology conveys that you genuinely care about how the customer was treated. This is what it’s about…It is not you personally.

7. Feeling No Need to Explain the Root Cause

A vital, but an often overlooked element of complaint handling is to provide an explanation for how or why the problem happened. Taking the time to explain to a customer what might have caused the problem helps organizations re-establish trust.

In an article titled, Manage Complaints to Enhance Loyalty, John Goodman says, “In many cases, a clear, believable explanation as to why the policy or performance is reasonable will at least mollify the customer and, in some cases, satisfy him or her.” (Goodman, 2006). Hui Liao had this to say about the importance of providing an explanation, “Explaining to customers what might have caused the service failure may (also) enhance customer satisfaction.  Similarly, in the service recovery context, open communication may alleviate customers’ bad feelings about the service failure.”

Providing an explanation can be as simple as saying, “Thanks for taking the time to let us know about _____. We appreciate customers who let us know when things aren’t right.  Here’s what we think may have happened…”

If you recognize one, some or several of these blocks, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. There’s power in this knowledge. Go forth now and determine to not be held back by any of these mental blocks. With this new determination, you’ll seriously up your value to your organization and customers will love you!

Now you can give your representatives even more great skills for handling complaints and demanding customers. Sign up for my email list and learn specific tips, approaches, and phrases to help your employees help your customers.