The 5 Rules to Dramatically Improve the Way You Deal with Customer Complaints
Home 5 Blogs 5 The 5 Rules to Dramatically Improve the Way You Deal with Customer Complaints
The 5 Rules to Dramatically Improve the Way You Deal with Customer Complaints
Home 5 Blogs 5 The 5 Rules to Dramatically Improve the Way You Deal with Customer Complaints

Lately, my Customer Experiences have been lousy. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was more understanding when Customer Experiences weren’t great. However, 18 months later, my patience has run out, and organizations should have sorted things out by now. So, since the state of things is such a mess at the moment, we did a podcast on the 5 Rules to Dramatically Improve the Way You Deal with Customer Complaints, and I thought I would share them here as well. 

 The 5 Rules for improving the customer complaint process are:

  1. Read between the lines.
  2. Empower your people.
  3. Be fast, stupid.
  4. Embrace customer complaints.
  5. Empathize with the customer.

In particular, call centers are bugging me. For example, when I hear, “We’re experiencing an unexpectedly high volume of calls at the moment, but your call is very important to us,” I feel frustrated. They are constantly experiencing “unexpectedly high call volumes.” How many times does it have to happen before they start expecting them? Moreover, it doesn’t feel like my call is important to them as I hang on the line forever and a day. A more honest message would be, “We have not employed enough people to answer your call in a timely manner because your call is not that important to us.”

What you are reading thus far is an example of a complaint. (Complaining is something I have been doing a bit more these days.) In my experience, competent dealing with customers’ dissatisfaction is an area where many organizations fail. Hence the five rules I present today. Let’s take a closer look at each of them. 

Rule #1: Read between the lines.

It would be best to understand the real issue the customer has. It’s likely not what they were saying is wrong with the product or how the employee screwed up the service. Instead, it’s often the time that the customer has spent dealing with the complaint process. 

I have a recent example that shows you what I mean. Somebody hit my car, and I had to make a claim on my Direct Line auto policy, one of the UK’s largest insurance companies. Unfortunately, during the processing of my claim when Direct Line had my car, a new warning light appeared. Direct Line said that it wasn’t their responsibility to fix whatever was happening with the vehicle; I disagreed. After all, there was no warning light before they had it, so something must have happened. Without going on about all the details about who said what, I will summarize to say, we were in dispute

Now, while the company responded to me quickly, it was somewhat transactional. It didn’t seem that they had any empathy for my view of the situation. Instead, their responses were very matter-of-fact and, not surprisingly, not very satisfying. They were not reading between the lines. The fact that I had been a customer for the last six years didn’t matter to them, nor did the lifetime value of our business if we had continued with them. The insurance company had a narrow focus on this one disagreement that was driving their decision-making. So, by denying my claim for the repair generated by the warning light, they saved a couple of hundred pounds. Still, they poisoned my relationship with them, which was potentially worth thousands over the lifetime value. 

The culture of an organization shows how customer-centric they are. If you choose not to “read between the lines,” your customers surely will. They will look beyond your words to your actions and read plenty into it, especially if it isn’t satisfying to them or if they feel disrespected.  Microsoft suggested last year in their Global State of Customer Service report that 58 percent of American consumers would switch companies because of poor service

Am I going to switch from Direct Line? Guess. 

Rule #2: Empower your people. 

Most organizations don’t let their people make financial decisions, or they have limits on financial decisions. However, giving your people the power to resolve issues without asking for permission is essential to handling a customer complaint. 

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Ritz Carlton is an example of a company that does this well. They allow any of their employees to give up $2,500 to resolve a customer complaint. Ritz Carlton knows that if you deal with a customer complaint quickly, customers will settle for less than if you force them through the wringer.

Years ago, my global Customer Experience consultancy did work with a ferry company in the UK. The ferry company liked my Ritz Carlton story and decided to implement something similar in their experience. A couple of months later, I followed up to see how it was going. They told me they hadn’t spent any money resolving customer complaints at all. So, we dug a little deeper and found out that the employees weren’t taking management seriously about this new policy, so they hadn’t used their empowerment. Finally, after reassuring employees that management’s new customer service resolution policy wasn’t a trap, the employees began using it, which worked well for the ferry company’s experience. 

If this idea of giving your employees the power to make financial decisions on behalf of customers makes you uncomfortable, consider how much you spend resolving an escalating customer complaint process. Depending on your system and the people involved, this amount could grow into the thousands pretty quickly, particularly when you consider the salaries of the employees involved. However, giving the front-line employee the power and the budget to resolve the issues before it escalates will save money. 

So, rule number two is about empowering your employees to resolve issues without permission. It lets employees know how important this is to manage and enables them to act within their scope to deliver on it for you. 

Rule #3: Be fast, stupid. 

Response time is critical when dealing with complaints. If you put a customer through a 27-step process (an actual number I counted in one client’s complaint process, by the way), you are not responding fast enough. 

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With customer complaints, it would be fantastic if we could write a policy that is 100 percent accurate all the time. By 100 percent accurate, I mean that all the people who deserve compensation with a legitimate complaint would get it, and those who were trying to game the system wouldn’t. Unfortunately, that policy doesn’t exist. The realistic approach will usually err in either direction, either too liberal, so the company gives up more than they should, or too conservative, and doesn’t give up enough. Strategically, we encourage organizations to be too liberal and err on the side of generosity. Sure, you will pay out money to some people who don’t deserve it, but the good thing is that everyone who deserves compensation will get it. In the long term, that policy will benefit the company more than one that is more conservative. 

Again, the policy reflects the culture of the organization. It shows who is more important: the organization or the customer. Do we want to protect ourselves, or do we want to grow our business through our customers? The majority of organizations think of themselves first, transactionally. We would encourage you to be in the minority in this case. 

Rule #4: Embrace customer complaints. 

Too many organizations think customer complaints are bad. However, customer complaints are good because they tell you where you’re going wrong, like free market research.

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If you think it’s terrible to have a customer complaint, you miss out on this feedback. In some cases, organizations try to hide the complaints, which they should embrace and even encourage. Knowing what you are getting wrong is an opportunity to fix it. 

Perhaps we should also define a customer complaint. There are the kinds like mine about Direct Line, where it’s obvious it is a complaint. However, others might not look like a complaint at first, but you see that it is after you consider what the customer is saying. For example, if a customer states that they want a reply before the two-day policy you have in place, that’s a complaint also. That one says your policy isn’t reasonable to them; two days is too long. 

Customer complaints can also happen anywhere, not just directly to you or one of your front-line employees. They occur on Social Media. They can also occur in negative reviews left on a third-party website. 

But remember, wherever they occur, these complaints are not bad; they are excellent FREE feedback. Consider how much money you would have to pay a consultant to discover the various missteps your customers experience with you. If that total is more than free, then you know how much value these complaints can provide. 

Rule #5: Empathize with the customer. 

Empathy does not mean you give the customer everything they want. Empathy means that you understand how the customer feels. You are walking in their shoes. When customers think that there is some empathy there, they respond to it. 

A lot of complaints are from customers that want attention. They want to tell you about this bad experience that they had. If you put up the barriers straight away and don’t empathize with them, you miss out. Remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio. 

Moreover, it would be best to allow your people the time to listen. Eliminate metrics for your call center, like average call handling time. A metric like that encourages your people to get customers off the phone. Instead, give employees the freedom to spend the time necessary to empathize with the customer. 

Effective dealing with customer complaints requires due diligence and a sincere appreciation for the opportunity to fix problems. First, you should put yourself in the customers’ shoes and consider how you sound to them in your process. Also, it is critical to empower people to help customers with a problem and do it quickly without a complicated and time-consuming process. Finally, embrace the complaints for the gifts they are and listen to them clearly so you can demonstrate sincere empathy for the customer’s situation. After all, Direct Line handled all of my calls quickly but without a trace of empathy whatsoever—and you can see how that turned out for them.


“Global State of Customer Service: The transformation of customer service from 2015 to present day.” Web. 27 October 2021.

There you have it. No promotions, no gimmicks, just good information. 

Think reading is for chumps? Try my podcast, The Intuitive Customer instead. We explore the many reasons why customers do what they do—and what you should do about it. Subscribe today right here.