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5 questions to ask when a customer has a complaint

June 1, 2017

Customer complaints are high-alert moments. Beyond just losing this one person, small business owners risk escalating the situation and causing the customer to vent online.

The most pressing need is to quickly resolve the problem, whether by replacing an overcooked entree, apologizing for an employee’s behavior, or offering a refund to an upset reviewer. Promptness, professionalism, and graciousness are essential.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the complaint is completely legitimate. Everyone has stories of customers who are impossible to please. Generally, though, it’s best to right a perceived wrong, regardless of who is at fault.

On the other hand, complaints can point to problems with a process or employee. Next time a customer complains, use this strategic 5-question approach to de-escalate the situation, get at underlying issues, and head off future complaints.

1. What happened to make the customer upset?

It’s critical to stop and actively listen. Gather details, take notes if necessary, and show real concern for customers by empathizing with their frustration. When business owners put themselves in another person’s shoes, they’re less likely to feel dismissive or annoyed with the customer—and more ready to leap into action.

A word of caution—some customers come with a level of hostility and anger that can trigger a response in kind. “When you’re dealing with a crazy person, your body sends you danger signals. This is your reptile brain telling you to either fight or flee,” explains psychiatrist and communications expert Mark Goulston. “But if the crazy person is part of your professional life, neither of these responses is going to solve your problem.”

Instead, he suggests “leaning into” the crazy: recognizing what’s happening, showing that you’re not a threat, and moving the other person to a place of sanity with conciliatory words and actions.

2. How can I fix the problem for them?

Sincere apologies are the first step to calming a customer. Next, redirect the conversation away from negative emotions and toward solutions.

Find the quickest, most logical way to rectify the immediate problem. Returning, replacing, discounting—use the method that works best. If further research is required, stay on top of the matter and get back to the person ASAP. Finally, confirm that the customer is satisfied with the outcome.

Small business owners can also proactively prepare for complaints by learning about common triggers: unknowledgeable employees, rudeness, inaccessibility, and unresolved problems. Employee training and a commitment to running a top-notch business can prevent many customer service stumbles.

3. What does the staff say happened?

While customers frequently complain about attitudes, inattentiveness, poor service, and bad information, that’s not always the full picture. Dig deeper by talking to staff members involved in an incident.

Are there inconsistencies in how employees tell the story and what the customer said? Perhaps the customer is a “barnacle” who is never happy and always looking for a handout. Or, more alarming, perhaps employees are less than honest in their recounting.

The mostly likely explanation, however, is that someone made an honest mistake or lacks information and insight. In many instances, a staff member may be communicating a policy in an unclear way, sticking to the rules too literally, or floundering to find a solution for the customer. All of these can be fixed with training and guidance.

4. How can you minimize lasting damage on Yelp?

It’s every small business owner’s nightmare: one small misstep blows up and the customer posts a scathing review online. When mistakes come to light through in-person complaints, they need to be quickly resolved. The goal is to make the customer happy and, as a result, keep the complaint out of the public eye.

Often, though, small business owners find out about problems once they appear on Yelp and similar sites. Reputation management specialist Darius Fisher suggests responding promptly online to show concern for the customer and commitment to running a great business. Some customers will remove the review voluntarily when they feel recognized and compensated. Under no circumstances, however, should a business owner try to game the system.

“It is actually impossible [for business owners] to remove reviews, unless they violate Yelp’s terms of service,” Fisher advises. In addition, trying to bury the negative review with fake positive reviews can backfire. “Getting caught purchasing reviews will result in a public shaming courtesy of Yelp,” he cautions.

Actively soliciting feedback from customers can also help limit damage. Feedback and Owner Listens in the Clover App Marketplace help small business owners reach out to customers and open honest dialogue—in private.

5. How can I keep this from happening again?

No one is perfect. Mistakes will happen. Minimizing complaints and expertly solving problems are the real goals.

To get there, business owners should focus on steady improvements and knowledge building. Training staff, fine-tuning processes, and empowering employees to find great solutions will go a long way to reducing the volume and intensity of customer complaints.

Remember, many customers are neutral on a business until it’s been tested by a real complaint. Either the business steps up and wows them, or it disappoints. Handling problems well is a chance to shine.

[image: Storm by Dick Sijtsma on flickr]