How to Handle a Complaint Over Email -7 Simple Steps

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Every email that goes out from your customer service team has your company’s brand in the signature line, it puts your corporate reputation on the line, and at the fingertips of a disgruntled customer, your emails can be plastered all over the Internet by way of a powerful blog.

Nearly half of all routine customer service questions emailed are not answered adequately. Companies are addressing only a portion of customers’ questions or the answers they give leave customers thinking a robot must have read the email.

Another big problem with consumer email response is many emails are just plain sloppy. They are filled with mistakes that make companies look unprofessional. Most people don’t review or edit their emails – they just hit “send”- and when they do, they are putting an entire brand’s credibility on the line.

Email customer service is supposed to give customers quicker answers and solutions while allowing companies to slash operations costs. When email threads go back and forth unnecessarily because questions aren’t answered, operations costs exceed the cost of telephone interactions. And sloppy emails rob companies of credibility.

So you need to carefully craft and proof your emails. How do you do it? Here are 7 basic steps for you.

Step One- Read the customer’s email in its entirety

Forty-six percent of consumers opening emails from companies are frustrated to discover that their question(s) was not answered. This often happens because employees stop at the first problem described in the email and they, at best, skim the rest of the email. Read the entire email before typing anything.

An excellent way to ensure you respond to every question in the customer’s email is to copy the customer’s email and paste it into your reply back. After pasting the customer’s content into your reply, go paragraph by paragraph through the customer’s email and type your response after each of the customer’s paragraphs. You are, in essence, taking the customer’s email and breaking it into little workable chunks and easily addressing every single issue. (After addressing the customer’s questions completely, you, of course, delete the pasted paragraphs.)

Tip – I often copy exact words and phrases that the customer uses in her initial email and paste it into my reply. This allows me to “mirror” the customer’s language and it shows that I truly did read the customer’s email.

Step Two- Open your email with “Thank you.”

A lot of companies begin complaint response emails with: “We have received your email dated…” Don’t do this. The fact that you’re responding to the email is irrefutable proof that you have received the customer’s email. Instead of wasting words, immediately go into a response designed to restore the customer’s confidence and regain their goodwill.

My favorite approach to beginning a complaint letter is to begin by expressing appreciation for the feedback. Here are some ways to express appreciation for customer feedback:

  • “Thank you for taking the time to write to us.” (This is ideal for a response email to a customer who is actually responsible for the error or when you cannot honor the customer’s request for a refund or exchange.)
  • “Thank you for your email. We appreciate customers who let us know when things aren’t right.”
  • “Thank you so much for taking the time to write to us. We appreciate the opportunity to clarify what we think has happened.”

Step Three – Apologize

Most company replies to emails that describe problems do not include an apology. To not apologize to a customer who has experienced a problem is to miss an opportunity.  Making an apology to customers after things go wrong is positively related to satisfaction with the company’s “recovery.”  When your employees apologize to customers, they convey politeness, courtesy, concern, effort, and empathy.

Let me let you in on a little secret: an apology doesn’t have to be an admission of fault. And it’s not even about placing blame. The whole point is to convey that you genuinely care about how the customer was treated and to regain goodwill.

I believe in apologizing to the customer whether the problem they experienced was a result of an act of nature, a third party, or even the customer. It goes without saying that I believe that we must apologize when the problem is the fault of the company.

Here’s how you can apologize when the problem is not the company’s fault:

  •  “I’m sorry for any frustration you may have experienced.”
  • “I’m sorry for any inconvenience this misunderstanding may have caused you.”
  • “I’m sorry. I feel awful about your problem.”

Step Four –Explain why or how the problem happened

A vital, but often overlooked element of customer recovery 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 case, a clear, believable explanation as to why the policy or performance is reasonable will at least mollify the customer and, in some case, satisfy him or her.”


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.”

A customer posted a response letter from  Southwest Airlines on the Consumerist website that provides an outstanding example of how to give customers a frank, yet safe explanation of why a problem occurred. The transparent justification of the problem in this letter subliminally offers an apology, makes the letter feel personal, and it certainly rebuilt trust with the recipient.

Customers will always appreciate you taking the time to explain why the problem occurred and again, this gesture on your part helps to reestablish trust.

Step Five- Offer compensation if applicable

When the problem is clearly the fault of the company, recompense (in the form of discounts, free merchandise, refunds, gift cards, coupons, and product samples) will help you restore customer confidence and regain goodwill. Our research has found that 58% of complaining consumers who received something in the mail following their contact with the company were delighted, versus only 40% of those who did not receive anything.

Don’t hold back when it comes to compensating customers after a service failure. Your reward will be increased customer satisfaction, loyalty, and powerfully persuasive positive word-of-mouth advertising.

Optional, Bonus Step – Surprise & Delight

This step is optional, but I highly recommend it. Surprise and Delight is all about inspiring a feeling of astonishment through unexpectedness.

One of my clients in the beauty industry is maximizing surprise & delight by creatively using gift cards in a way that is generating profits. They used to compensate customers dollar-for-dollar; a $3 overcharge was resolved with a $3 check. Makes sense doesn’t it? Well, now they give a $10 gift card for a $3 overcharge. The customer is WOW’d. But not only is the customer WOW’d and telling her girlfriends about the unexpected gift card, but the company is enjoying a redemption rate of 67% with customers spending 2x the gift card amount in the store.

Try a little surprise & delight and you’ll get your customers talking and, if you design it right, you’ll also enjoy growth as a direct result of the WOW factor.

Step Six – Proof your email!

Grammar gaffes make your company look bad. You and I both know spell check (and even grammar check) won’t catch everything. You are going to have to invest a little time to read and re-read every line of your emails to make sure they look and read professional. Here are some hard and fast email proofing tips:

  • Point with your finger and read one word at a time. Yes, this will take some time, but you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you capture this way.
  • Read your email aloud and silently.
  • Proof for only one type of mistake at a time. Do one read through just for punctuation, another for word usage, and another for accuracy of your message.
  • Print your email out and read it.
  • Start at the final paragraph of your email and read it backwards.

Step Seven- Respond as quickly as reasonably possible

The average company takes 2 days (46 hours) to respond to a customer’s email. This is not okay with customers. You need to shoot for responding to emails within 2-4 hours. Is this easy? No, but you need to align your processes and manpower to make it happen.

And here’s why: A speedy response will improve your corporate credibility with consumers and it boosts customer satisfaction. Research shows the longer it takes for companies to respond to email complaints, the greater the customer’s perception that they have been treated unfairly.

Every email that goes out from your customer service team has your company’s brand in the signature line, it puts your reputation on the line, and it forms a binding document between you and the customer. Make sure your message is professional, actively works to regain customer goodwill, and is free of embarrassing gaffes. Follow these simple seven steps and your emails will bless you, rather than curse you.

Now you can give your representatives even more great skills for delivering the best customer experience and for handling difficult customer situations. Sign up for my email list and learn specific tips, approaches and phrases to help your employees help your customers.

Excellent Problem Response Letter From American Airlines

Watch my full customer recovery video to get 5 steps for restoring customer confidence after service failures.

Tweeting for Customer Service


More and more companies are discovering that Twitter can be a powerful tool for capturing the voice of the customer –and responding to that voice with immediacy. Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates known as tweets.  

One of the biggest appeals of Twitter is that it’s a great way to keep in touch with friends and colleagues quickly with short “tweets”. For example, this morning I tweeted: Watching a bunny nibble grass and listening to birds sing as I work on my laptop from my patio this morning.” And just like that, I let 2000 of my friends know what I was doing.

 But, Twitter isn’t just a cool site for personal use. Businesses can use Twitter to have conversations with customers, solve problems, and to update on promotions and products. Here, I’m featuring 3 ways companies are using Twitter for customer service and I then I’ll show you how YOU can get started using Twitter TODAY for customer service in 4 easy steps.

Zappos uses to Twitter to surprise & delight customers.

 Last month I posted this tweet: “Researching Zappos service culture for ideas to help my clients. I got so excited during my research that I placed my first order.” And 7 minutes later I received a tweet from Zappos:

“Thanks for trying us out! I have upgraded you to one day shipping so you will get your order tomorrow.”

Zappos followed through…the next day at 9:04am, my Zappos order I arrived. I was so thrilled that I went back to Twitter a posted a praise tweet.

Cox Communications Tweets to find and fix problems. 

Recently I experienced problems with my high-speed Internet. I made several calls to Cox Communications and after four days the problem persisted. Frustrated, I logged on to Twitter and posted this gripe:

“Cox Communications in Tulsa just basically told me there’s nothing they can do about my modem constantly dropping Internet!!!!” 7:23 PM Apr 7th from web.

First thing the next morning, I received the following Tweet from Cox Communications:

If you need help getting your Internet problems resolved I’m here to help.

8:33 AM Apr 8th from web


And the Cox tweeter did help. He sent out a tech the next business day. After the problem was fixed, I posted a praise tweet.

Southwest Airlines gets involved in conversations with customers.

Last spring BusinessWeek magazine reported that  a Southwest customer experienced a two-hour delay and while waiting around the customer tweeted his displeasure. The customer was surprised to receive a Tweet from Southwest the next morning with the following message: “Sorry to hear about your flight –- weather was terrible in the NE. Hope you give us a 2nd chance to prove that Southwest = Awesomeness.” How awesome is that?

Ready to start using Twitter for customer service? Here are four simple steps to get you started, right now, on Twitter.

1. Setup a Twitter account TODAY. Go to to setup your free Twitter account.

2. Start making posts.  Get the conversation started by making 10-12 posts that will be relevant to your customers. Here are some examples of posts from companies:

  • @Starbucks -Get ready … We’re giving away 5 $100 Starbucks Cards. We’re taking the answers on the MyStarbucksIdea blog. Question coming in 10 minutes.2:13 PM May 22nd
  • @myragolden – Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer. -Macy’s Motto
  • @DellOutlet- 20% off any Dell Outlet Latitude™ Laptop or Tablet PC. Enter code PHTK5R655CZZWX
  • @JetBlue – We’ve started our “Live from Terminal 5” concert series at JFK. Traveling through today? That’s Dan Dyer performing.

3. Conduct a search on your brand. Find out what people are saying about your brand by going to Twitter search will give you real-time search results on every single conversation on Twitter about your brand. You’ll want to conduct this search every day, several times a day.

4. Get in on conversations about your brand. If your Twitter search pulls up anything about your brand, you’ll need to respond. Remember, when Cox did a Twitter search and found my gripe, they immediately engaged me with “If you need help getting your Internet problems resolved I’m here to help.” And engaging customers really is that simple. You spot a gripe (or compliment) and then you hit “reply” and start the conversation.

You need to be right there when and where consumers talk about your brand online so you can respond in an immediate and personal way. Adopt these 4 steps for using Twitter for customer service and you’ll be on the cutting edge of serving customers through the powerful social media.

Are you monitoring online conversations about your brand? If not, why aren’t you? My blockbuster webinar, “Social Media Is the New Customer Service” will put your company on the fast-track to protecting your brand credibility by listening to online conversations. The live event has passed, but you can download the digital recording right now and watch it with everyone on your customer service and marketing teams. Here are the details:

Preventing Burnout in Call Center Agents & 9 Ways to Motivate Agents

There are two things people want more than sex and money…recognition and praise.

Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay is right, as studies indicate that employees find personal recognition more motivational than money. A work climate filled with praise and recognition is a workplace where employees are positive, productive and motivated.

Recognizing and rewarding employees doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time. Perhaps the primary reason more call center supervisors and managers don’t take the time to intentionally motivate employees is that they lack the time and creativity to come up with ideas.

After reading this post you will have no excuse for not motivating your team, because I am giving you 9 low cost ways to recognize and reward your employees. And as a special bonus, you’ll also get tips on how to prevent burnout in call center agents. I hope you find this “slide” blog post  helpful.

If I post a complaint about your brand on Twitter, how long will it take for your company to respond?

On December 12, 2007, Lance Campeau posted a 4-minute video about his Panasonic video camera on YouTube. The video slams Panasonic’s customer service and commitment to quality and has been viewed by more than 3,000 people.

A couple dozen people have chimed in with their own (negative) thoughts about Panasonic’s service. As of September 2008 – nearly a year after the original post, Lance writes (on YouTube) that he’s heard nothing from Panasonic on his camera situation.

A lot of companies are hesitant to get involved with social media communities like YouTube, FaceBook, and Twitter and that is a huge mistake. Huge. 

With the new Web 2.0, customers can freely post complaints, gripes, videos, full-page blogs, and more about brands. And the thing about social media is it tends to stick around forever. Remember, the Panasonic YouTube video was posted in December 2007.

I’d bet the farm that Southwest Airlines wouldn’t let a YouTube video complaint go unanswered for more than a year. Paula Berg of Southwest Airlines says, “We monitor more than 100 travel and airline industry blogs a day. We also are very active on YouTube, Twitter, and FaceBook.”

After I experienced problems with my Internet for 4 days, I posted a Tweet on Twitter. Within 12 hours I received a Tweet from my Cable Company, Cox Communications. The next business day a Tech was at my house and  he quickly got my Internet back up.

Doing business in the social media era means brands must check out chat rooms and blogs and jump in whenever the company’s name is mentioned. It means constantly monitoring YouTube, Twitter, FaceBook, and more. 

Failing to get involved with social media can (will) lead to a viral blog, video, or Tweet that will not only linger for years, but will be far more persuasive than any monetary advertising your company ever sponsors.

Are you monitoring online conversations about your brand? If not, why aren’t you? My blockbuster webinar, “Social Media Is the New Customer Service” will put your company on the fast-track to protecting your brand credibility by listening to online conversations. The live event has passed, but you can download the digital recording right now and watch it with everyone on your customer service and marketing teams. Here are the details: