Category Archives: Complaint Handling

How to Handle Complaints ~ Will you have to ask a manager?

Handle Complaints

Are your team confident to handle complaints?

Last week I met up with a friend in my favourite local coffee shop. Being the school holidays they were busier than normal, and we both expected that, and it was fine.

What wasn’t fine was that the usual smiling, happy and efficient service was gone, and the normally delicious coffee was lukewarm when it finally arrived.

I know I talk a lot about consistency. And at a time of year when you’re busier than normal it’s just as important as it is at any other time of year.

Just because you’re busy or you have temporary staff, don’t let this be an excuse for a poor customer experience or inferior customer service. Your regulars don’t care! Busy or not, whether it’s the school holidays and you’re rushed off your feet, or half your team are taking time off, your customers expect consistency.

And if you’re welcoming new customers through the door (which was the case for my friend), naturally you want them to get a great first impression.

But, it’s inevitable from time to time you’re going to get unhappy customers, and when you do your team need to be prepared.

In this instance when I commented on the poor coffees they were replaced instantly. But I’m sure you – like me – can think of instances when you’ve made a complaint and been told,

I’m not able to do that; you’ll have to ask a manager…

Not only is it frustrating for you as the customer, it’s demeaning for the employee and time consuming for the manager.

What’s the process in your business when a customer has a complaint? Do customers have to ask a manager, or do your team have the skills and confidence to handle complaints, and do their line managers have the skills and confidence to train, coach, and support them, so they can trust their team to handle complaints effectively?

Here are 5 prime consideration for line managers to get to a point where they (and you) can feel confident that anyone in your team can handle complaints positively and professionally, leaving the customer feeling cared for and remain loyal to your business.

1. Mindset

It’s easy for team members to feel nervous about receiving complaints and get defensive when they’re on the receiving end. Encourage team members to think of complaints as a positive thing, as it gives an opportunity to put things right and turn the situation around before the customer leaves.

It’s not uncommon for people to think about the outcome as being a win-lose situation. Instead, encourage team members to look for a win-win, where the customer leaves happy, and we are confident we have retained that customer for the future.

2. Core Skills

Having core interpersonal skills has to be a prerequisite for anyone who is going to deal with customers at any time, but when it comes to how they handle complaints these skills are even more important. Being a good listener, having the skill to ask good questions to understand the customer, the ability to build rapport and have empathy with the customer.

(See 38 Training Exercise & Activities to Engage, Energise and Excite your Team in Customer Service for ways to hone these skills)

3. Knowledge

Team members need to be clear on their levels of authority; give them examples of when they need to refer to a manager or get sign off, and when it’s OK for them to make the decision.

On the occasions when you or another manager has to get involved use this as an opportunity for others to learn from the situation, by explaining your approach and why you approached it in the way you did.

Knowledge also extends to the knowledge of your products and services, so it’s easier for them to offer alternatives to the customer. Thinking back to the win-win, looking for solutions and/or alternatives which are of high value for the customer and relatively low investment for us.

4. Systems

The great thing about getting a complaint is that you have an opportunity to put things right. But, it’s also important to learn from that complaint, so you prevent a recurrence (even if the complaint was purely a misunderstanding on the customer’s part – what led to their understanding or perception, and how do you avoid that perspective in future).

Ensure you have systems and processes in place to feedback on complaints and follow-up to prevent re-occurrence, and every team member understands the system.

5. Support

With the best will in the world, your complaint handling training can’t cover every conceivable possibility. Allow your team members to practice, get feedback and coaching on how they handle complaints, and learn from everybody else’s experiences. Listen out for hesitation; when you hear a team member saying  “I can’t…” that might be an indication they are fearful of making a mistake. Talk this through with them to identify any obstacles.

Build confidence; often people know what they should be doing, but just lack that certainty and confidence to do this really well, so give time and an opportunity for them to practise in a safe environment.

Take action

If you only do one thing – Encourage team members to be receptive to any customer feedback and think of the opportunity to handle complaints as a positive thing, and an opportunity to put things right.

Related posts

I don’t have the authority

give authority

We’ve all heard it haven’t we “I’m sorry, I don’t have the authority to do that; I’ll need to get my manager.”  It’s certainly frustrating for a customer, but also demotivating for a team member knowing that they can’t resolve the problem even if they wanted to. And of course, this wastes your time too, when you’re called over to deal with the situation.

Here are 5 things to save you time, make team members feel empowered and trusted, and keep your customers happy when complaint handling…

1. Anticipate

Of course, prevention is better than cure, so involve your team in looking for solutions to common issues. Often what’s not obvious to us can be obvious to them.

But in any business there are times when things don’t go according to plan or mishaps happen. Equip your team to deal with the unexpected.

2. Train

The more you can anticipate issues the more you can prepare your team to handle such situations, the more confident they’ll be, and the more likely they’ll deal smoothly with anything that crops up.

Even if you can’t avoid the issue, your goal is to minimise the negative impact on the customer experience, so teach them how to do this!

For example: how to minimise the impact of queues, what to do when a customer makes a scene, how to apologise without losing face when they make a mistake on a customer’s order or when something the customer really wants is no longer available.

It’s easy for the team members to get flustered when it goes wrong, so make this part of your training.

3. Agree levels of authority

Establish up front what levels of authority your team members have in any given situation, be that complaint handling or any other situation. Define these levels of authority when training, and give examples of when they need to refer to a manager or get sign off, and when it’s OK for them to make the decision.

4. Feedback and learn

Create a culture where it’s accepted that they won’t know all the answers or always know what to do, so it’s still OK to escalate if need be. There will never be one size fits all when complaint handling. But use this as an opportunity to learn for next time.

5. Recognise

Give your team a sense of ownership and pride by encouraging them to come forward with their own ideas of how the customer experience can be improved and make every effort to take their ideas on board. And when they’ve come up with their own solution to a customer’s problem give recognition where it’s due, then they’re far more likely to do so again!

If you only do one thing

Look back over the past couple of weeks, and review the most common situations when you or another manager has been called to assist with a customer issue. Then agree with your team what’s within their power to resolve these in future.

Then trust them to deliver!

related post:

Are complaints a good thing?

Fluff Busting

Do you ever find yourself having conversations with a customer or team members and then they say to you at a later date, ” No, that’s not really what I meant!”and you realise that you have completely misunderstood them?

Or they misunderstand you; you’ve made a comment that’s been mis-interpreted?

How does this happen?

Because we all filter or delete information it can mean the information we share or receive, or questions we ask can be very general or vague, making it difficult for others to fully understand the question, issue or action required.

We are all inclined to generalise, exaggerate or distort situations by the language we use, and this can easily take us off track when we are communicating with others.

In order to overcome this, we often need to drill down to get specifics; to recognise the ‘fluff’ in our communications and learn the art of clarification or ‘ fluff busting’.

Fluff busting can help in three ways:

  1. To help us to say what we mean as precisely as possible
  2. To help us to understand as clearly as possible what other people mean
  3. To help other people to understand exactly what they really do mean

This is particularly important at times when wires can get crossed – such as dealing with customer complaints.

Here are the four main areas of ‘fluff’ and ambiguity, and how to overcome them.

Generalisations, exaggerations and distortions

These include words like always, never, everyone, nobody. For example: “This happens every time!” Or, ’’Everyone is always so unhelpful’.

You want to challenge with respect and probe/explore their sweeping statements.

The ideal response to this type of statement on paper might be ‘Really? Everyone? Always?’ but when handling complaints it can seem sarcastic or patronising if we’re not careful, so better to ask for some examples and gather the facts.

Abstract nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs

These are the words which are often used to describe the type of service or response the customer is looking for, for example quick, quality, good fun, luxury, value for money. The problem with these types of words is that they mean different things to different people. What might be luxury to you may be very different for the customer; one person’s idea of value for money may be very different from somebody else’s.

So, check for clarity – what do you mean by that?

Respond to these types of words by asking for examples of what constitutes good fun, value for money, etc, or ask what criteria they would use to define these things.

Another example might include throwaway comments such as ‘Your receptionist was really unhelpful.’  So again, check what they mean by this or ask, ‘How specifically was he/she unhelpful?’

Or a comment from a team member such as saying, ‘I don’t feel confident to do that’. So again, check what they mean by this or ask ‘what areas are you unsure of?


These are the words that we would use to compare one thing and another for example quicker, faster, cheaper, better, best, bigger, smaller.

In order to be useful, we need to know what things are being compared to and any measurement involved.

To put this into context an example might be ‘I’d hoped for something cheaper than that’ your response might be ‘What is your budget?’ Or your customer asks “Do you have anything bigger?” You need to identify how much bigger? Are they looking for something 10% bigger, twice the size or 10 times the size?!

Rules & Blocks

Rules are often self-imposed and may be determined by past experience, or our own sense of values.  These include statements like “I couldn’t possibly agree to that.’ Or “I must get this sorted today.”  What you want to do is to identify where the pressure or barrier is coming from, so use questions such as ‘What is preventing you?’ or ‘What would happen if you did/didn’t?’ these replies open up possibilities in the other person’s mind and can create a new awareness.

For example, you ask a team member to carry out a task and they reply ‘I can’t do that”. This could be for any number of reasons: Is this because they don’t know how to? In which case is it because they haven’t been shown, or they simply believe they won’t do it well due to their lack of confidence. They may believe they can’t do it due to lack of authority or access to the tools or resources to do it. Or they may simply say they can’t as they don’t have time. Each situation needs a different approach in the way you handle it.

A word of caution

This degree of precision would not be appropriate in every situation, so only use it when it is important to really understand other’s meaning. Remember the importance of maintaining rapport when you are using this technique; it is not to make people feel they are under interrogation.

This is one reason why you should try to avoid using the question ‘ why?‘ When people hear that question they often react on the defensive and looking for excuses or justifications. Each of the above examples work better by using what we call ‘ softeners’ where you start the question with expressions such as ‘ I’m wondering what…….’

So remember to cut through the fluff when you are:

  1. Asking for help or giving instructions
  2. Identifying customer needs and expectations
  3. Handling objections or responding to customer complaints
  4. Faced with objections or barriers from team members

to ensure you are really clear on what you mean and you fully understand what other people mean.

Big Rocks

Complaint handling

Complaint handling  – It’s all too easy to wait until something has gone wrong to discover your team are not that confident or competent in dealing with complaints, only to end up with a niggling customer complaint escalating into a major problem. That’s because it’s all too easy to let these proactive (big rocks) shift down the priority list.

But, before you get onto “Big Rocks” I have a big rock of my own, and could do with your help, please.

I’m currently working on a new programme to help businesses deliver their own customer service training in-house. I need to make sure I have considered everything, and this is where you come in. If you could have a private conversation with me about developing customer service skills, with your team, what 2 questions would you like to ask me? Just click here and send me your questions. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to answer individually… But I will try to answer them in a future newsletter. Thank you.

As you plan for the year ahead here’s something to bear in mind…

You may have heard of Stephen Covey’s idea of the rocks and the jar. In case you haven’t it goes like this…

Covey takes a jar, into which he places a few big rocks. Then he adds a bunch of small pebbles, and finally some sand, which fits in around the rocks and pebbles.

The jar symbolises our time, the rocks represent our important priorities, the small pebbles represent things that matter, but that you could live without, and finally the sand which represents busy tasks that aren’t important, and are likely only done to waste time or get small tasks accomplished.

When you place the big rocks in the jar first, then put in the pebbles, and finally the sand, everything either fits in, or the only thing that won’t fit is excess sand.

The metaphor here is that if you try and do this in the reverse order putting sand in first, then the pebbles you can’t fit in the big rocks.

This holds true with the things you let into your life. If you spend all your time on the small and insignificant things, you will run out of room for the things that are actually important.

While you can always find time to work or do chores, it is important to manage the things that really matter first. The big rocks are your priorities, while the other things in your life are represented by pebbles and sand.

One such big rock is scheduling time for staff development, such as setting aside time for developing customer service skills, or any activity which helps develop your service culture.

Let’s take complaint handling as an example. It’s all too easy to wait until something has gone wrong to discover your team are not that confident or competent in dealing with complaints, only to end up with a niggling customer complaint escalating into a major problem. If team members had been trained and coached in complaint handling in advance such a situation could probably be avoided. But it’s all too easy to let these proactive (big rocks) shift down the priority list.

One of the challenges is that we see these big rocks as scary overwhelming tasks. But if your managers and supervisors have the skills to deliver training in-house (be that identifying customer needs, complaint handling, managing customer expectations). It means you can break down this training into bite-size sessions which you can schedule in over several days, several weeks, or simply make part of your weekly/monthly routine.

So, the moral of the story? As you plan for the year ahead, put in the big rocks first – the things that are important, such as staff development and training, even though they are not necessarily urgent yet, or else they won’t fit into the jar. i.e. schedule these into your calendar first.

p.s. please send me your questions- what 2 questions would you like to ask me about developing customer service skills? Just click reply to this email and send me your questions. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to answer individually… But I will try to answer them in a future newsletter. Thank you.

Yes, but …

Earlier this week I was conducting some complaint handling training for one of my clients.

It’s not an unusual reaction when faced with a complaint – particularly when you believe it’s unjustified, or it’s not your fault – to listen politely, but then respond with “yes, but…

Of course, as soon as the customer hears those words, they know they are likely to be contradicted.

So, here are 2 alternatives:

1. The But Flip

This is when you still use the word but, but you flip the structure of the sentence. So, instead of saying “I’d really like to help you with this, but it’s out of my control”, this becomes “It’s out of my control, but I’d really like to help you with this”.

What’s the difference? The first version ends the conversation, whilst the second version makes a natural transition into looking for a solution.

In essence, what you’re doing is telling the customer what you can’t do first, but then what you can do.

2. Yes, and…

In this instance you are replacing the word but with the word and. (Many people are tempted to use the word however, however… if you’re anything like me when I hear the word however I still know is going to be bad news!)

Yes, but is confrontational and doesn’t get you any further forward, whereas yes, and keeps the conversation positive, and shows you are listening.

Proving the point

Here’s a fun exercise you can use with your team which demonstrates the impact of yes, but and yes, and, whilst giving them an opportunity to practise the technique.

It’s based on improvisation, which means there are no scripts and participants don’t know what they’ll say until they’ve heard the other person. To be successful they have to be present, listen carefully, and contribute freely.

These skills are obviously valuable in a customer service environment, in which adaptability is crucial.

The “Yes, and…” story telling exercise can be carried out by two people or more.

One person starts with one sentence of a story, and the next person builds on that, either bouncing back and forth between two people or circling around in a larger group.

You can take the story in any direction, as long as it builds on top of the previous sentence with a “yes, and…”

It works best with a few simple rules:

  • Don’t deny or contradict
  • Don’t ask open ended questions
  • You don’t have to be funny
  • You can look good by making your partner look good
  • Tell a story

Besides the fun of seeing the story go in the strangest directions, this exercise reinforces a few crucial customer service skills.

One is listening skills. You have to build upon what was said last. Many people – particularly when under pressure – are so focused on what they want to say whilst the other person is talking, they miss half of what’s being said.

It also teaches flexibility. Instead of going against what’s been said, the aim is to build on top of it.

So, set your team a challenge to switch to the but flip or but, and

I’ll have to get my manager

When you’re a customer and want to make a complaint the last thing you want to hear is “I’ll have to go and get my manager…”

Not only is it frustrating for you as the customer, it’s demeaning for the employee and time consuming of the manager.

This week I’ve been training line managers, giving them the skills and confidence to coach their own teams in how to handle customer complaints, so they can trust their team to handle them effectively.

This means customers get any complaints handled swiftly, team members feel empowered, and managers are freed up to get on with other things.

You can watch here to discover the 4 key areas we covered.

So what’s the process in your business when a customer has a complaint? Do your team have the skills and confidence to deal with complaints, and do their line managers have the skills and confidence to train, coach, and support them?


Who handles your customer complaints?

Coaching in Complaint Handling

When you’re a customer and want to make a complaint the last thing you want to hear is “I’ll have to go and get my manager…”

Not only is it frustrating for you as the customer, it’s demeaning for the employee and time consuming of the manager.

So what’s the process in your business when a customer has a complaint? Do your team have the skills and confidence to deal with complaints, and do their line managers have the skills and confidence to train, coach, and support them?


Who handles your customer complaints?


Learn from Mistakes

Here’s part 10 in my 12 blog series on

how to engage and motivate your team on their return from their Christmas break

10. Learn from Mistakes

In any business there are times when things don’t go according to plan or mishaps happen. Review some of the things that have not gone to plan over the past year.

Rather than dwelling on the negatives, reflect on what you and the team have learnt from these events. And ask how equipped are the team to deal with these situations if they happen again.

The more you can anticipate these and train your team in how to handle such situations the more confident they’ll be, and the more likely they’ll deal smoothly with anything else that gets thrown at them.

Even if you think it was a one off and unlikely to happen again your team might be aware of other ‘near misses’ or situations that are almost an accident waiting to happen!

So listen to your team and flush out any other potential risky situations. Then agree what steps you can take to avoid them or minimise their impact, so they are confident they will be better prepared next time!

Your goal is always to minimise the negative impact on the customer experience.



7 reasons 3d image clear

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Maybe the next time?

thumbs-upI love this little story I found in the paper the other day.

It demonstrates perfectly what can happen when you don’t set your expectations. Even with the most enthusiastic team, unless you give them customer service training explaining your own standards for handling customer complaints sadly even the best intentions might not quite meet your customer’s expectations.

This is what happened:

A couple complained about their meal at a cafe they visited for the first time. When they informed the smiling waitress that the beans were cold, the eggs were hard and the toast was burnt she replied cheerfully: “perhaps it will be better next time you come”.

Hmm, I somehow doubt there will be a next time!

Handling Complaints

question mark with speech bublesI’ve had a month of complaints! No, not in the way you might think… But helping a number of clients establish the best way of Handling complaints, whether that be through staff training, gathering feedback to establish the cause or establishing systems to prevent them in the first place.

It seems counter intuitive, but as a business we should welcome complaints! WHY?

Because the alternative is we’re left not knowing when the customer isn’t happy.

Obviously prevention is better than cure (and you can read tips on prevention in a previous post right here).

But of course you’re not always able to pre-empt problems and won’t be able to avoid all complaints. Accidents happen, things get missed or events occur that are totally out of our control. So what can you do to lessen the impact on your customers’ experience and limit the potential damage to your customer relationships and your reputation?

Aim to spot problems as early as possible. Listen and observe. You can often sense there’s an issue long before you get told directly. And of course it’s far better to resolve a problem there and then than have a negative review posted on line.

Empower your team

Give your team the skills and authority to deal with complaints as they happen. Encourage them and train them in handling complaints: how to ask for feedback and just as importantly how to respond when they get negative feedback.

This is far better for the customer because it gets a quicker solution, far better for the team member because they’re able to deal with it which gives them pride, and far better for you because it means you don’t have to always been involved. This doesn’t mean to say that don’t want to hear about complaints particularly if there are common recurring problems that need to be resolved.

Don’t assume because you’ve told people how to do something they will be able to just go out and deliver it consistently.  It’s all very well knowing what to say, but you know how sometimes when you come to say something the words just don’t trip off the tongue as you might hope!  Let your team practise in a safe environment, based on different scenarios.

Agree with them their levels of authority so they know just how much leeway they have in offering the customer/guest compensation, and at what point they may need to involve a manager.

Observe how your staff handle complaints and give them feedback after the event on what they did well, what they could do more of, and give the appropriate support and guidance on areas where they need more help.

It’s all too easy when we hear of a complaint to blame someone in the team for the problem. Put the team first and they’ll reward you with avoiding problems.


Here’s a little 5 stage checklist you may find useful in customer service training on handling a complaint effectively irrespective of the cause.

I use this structure when training and together these form the acronym LEARN which is easy for team member to remember.

The way you handle the situation is what your customers will remember and if you can go above and beyond to resolve the problem, even when it’s down to a third party, customer error or even an act of God, it’s your resolve of the situation they’ll remember, not the cause.

Related post: Are complaints a good thing?