Responding to a complaint well takes into consideration three elements:

  • The trigger for the complaint:
    • Information/advice
    • Price
    • Quality
    • Personal approach
    • Follow-up.
  • The reason for the complaint:
    • Acknowledgement
    • Apology
    • Fix the problem
    • Improve the service
    • Blame
    • Compensation.
  • The underlying need or “hot button” that caused the customer to complain.
    • Underlying “hot buttons” correlate with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsFigure 1 – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

They include:

  • Sense of belonging and being wanted
  • Control over the situation
  • Being acknowledged and valued
  • Sense of achievement
  • Understanding what is happening and what is likely to happen.

To respond to a complaint follow most, if not all, of these steps each time:

  1. Suspend your assumptions about the circumstance, the person and the nature of the complaint
  2. Listen intently (actively) to understand the complaint
  3. Empathise with the customer about the impact on them, even if it is to empathise that the error or perceived error has caused them to be angry or otherwise emotionally distressed
  4. Find out what they want from you. You may not be able to comply with their wishes but at least you have a starting point for discussion/negotiation
  5. Reflect back what they say to build rapport and demonstrate you understand what they are saying
  6. Avoid contradicting what they say. Let the complainant have their point of view from their frame of reference
  7. Suggest a path towards what they want. You may not be able to give them all that they want, however suggesting a path forward will give the complainant a sense that you are taking them seriously and that they should not oppose you
  8. Stick to the positives. Do not dwell on the negatives
  9. Find something they agree with. If you are struggling to find a path to what they want, find common ground
  10. Make sure the customer knows what will happen next. Whether you are able to give the complainant what they want or not. Always tell them what you will do and will not do and in what timeframe.


This is part two of a three-part series on customer feedback and complaints. For the full article, please click here: Customer Feedback: Complaint or Opportunity?