Managing Customer Criticisms and Complaints

When customers complain about the product or service they are getting from you, what do you do?

Of course, you know what you should do. You should:

• Say something that shows you sympathize with them.

• Rephrase their complaint, so they know you fully understand the problem.

• Tell them you want to resolve the problem to their satisfaction.

• Make every effort to make them happy, even if it means giving them more than they deserve.

If you find that you are failing to follow that protocol, you must ask yourself why. Why are you pitting yourself against them?

Based on my own experience, it’s probably because you’re taking their comments personally. You’re upset. You want to defend yourself.

But over many years of dealing with customer complaints and criticisms (not too many, but enough) I’ve come to understand that personalizing them is a mistake. Some complaints are legitimate. Some are not. But when a customer is angry enough to pick up the phone or write a letter or e-mail about a product or service I’m providing, I have to disconnect myself. I think, “Here is a person with a problem. If I can solve that problem, it may convert him into a better buyer. And even if I can’t completely satisfy him (some people can never be satisfied), trying to make him happy will improve my business.”

If you have ever owned or worked in a restaurant, you’ve run into customers who complained about the food and/or service… even if there was nothing wrong with it.

Customer: “Waiter, I told you I want no oil on my spaghetti. Why is there oil on it?”

Waiter: “There is no oil on it, sir.”

Customer: “Look! Can’t you see it? The pasta is glistening with oil!”

Waiter: “That’s not oil, sir. That is water vapor. It has just come out of the boiler.”

Customer: “Don’t argue with me, boy. Bring me another plate of spaghetti!”

Successful restaurants are those that train their staff to treat the customer as if he is always right, even when he is clearly not.

You might think it’s a bad idea for a restaurant to give in to irrational complaints. That it will encourage more irrational complaints. But from what I’ve seen, it has the opposite effect. By happily agreeing to replace a dish the customer complains about (and sometimes not charging for it), they turn snarls into smiles. And the restaurant develops a reputation as a high-class joint.

Since most of my clients are publishers, the irrational complaints they receive tend to be extremely odd and subjective.

  • “I don’t like that editor’s last name. It sounds foreign.”
  • “I hate your criticism of that stock. My father works for that company.”
  • “You are wrong about eating more protein. Protein is the devil’s food.”

How do you handle complaints like these? Something like this: “Yes, sir. I can see that you are upset about the statement Dr. Smith made about protein. Is it fair to say that you wish we would never recommend protein again? Well, I can certainly understand how you feel. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to change Dr. Smith’s view on this. After all, he has an MD, a PhD, and has won the Nobel Prize. Still, I will pass your comment on to him. We do have a special report on vegetarian cooking. It’s a $10 value, but I’ll be happy to send it to you for free. Will that be okay?”

Getting the customer service protocol right is essential if you want to build an increasingly profitable business. And the person at the top has to set the standards. You must teach your employees how to depersonalize criticism and satisfy your customers… even when they don’t deserve it.

Many businesspeople don’t agree with me. They want to be good to their reasonable customers and stern with their unreasonable ones. But this adds a costly burden to the organization. Customer service reps must then play two roles: They must judge the worthiness of the complaint, and then respond in a way that is appropriate – in their view – to their judgment. Asking your customer service people to do that is unrealistic.

The simpler and better answer: The customer should be treated as if he is right, even when he is wrong.

I’m not saying you should cave in to absurd requests – e.g., a demand for a refund long after your money-back guarantee deadline has passed. But you can still appease the customer by treating him well. By calmly and patiently explaining why you can’t do what he asks… and then offering something else – perhaps a discount on a future purchase. If you are clever, you can even turn a complaint into a sale.

Not only can you turn complaints into sales, you can use them to enhance your credibility and strengthen your relationship with your customers. How? By answering them publicly on your website or in your newsletter.

Porter Stansberry, publisher of Stansberry & Associates investment advisories, handles the harshest criticisms he receives in the e-letter he sends to his customers. And he does it in a way that completely defangs them.

Publishing his most acrimonious critics is a shrewd strategy, one that most businesspeople would shy away from. But by doing so, he includes each and every customer who might have similar complaints – even those who might be more upset than the people who write in.

Porter answers the criticism patiently, sympathetically, and rationally. If he made a mistake, he admits it. He presents his point of view, but without being antagonistic. And then he includes comments from other customers that back up what he just said. This has the effect of making the complainer look like exactly what he is – unreasonable. And not because Porter said so, but because other customers did.

While I was writing this article, I received an e-mail from an editor who had just gotten off the phone with an angry subscriber who strongly disagreed with something he had written. He handled it well. The subscriber was mollified. But it bothered him that the criticism was made in the first place. He wondered whether he should change his editorial policy so that such a criticism wouldn’t be launched again.

“Don’t kowtow to the malcontents,” I told him. “You have to give your subscribers the best editorial product you can. If they don’t like it, they can cancel their subscription. Remember, you’re in the business of publishing contrarian advice. And any time you take a contrarian position, some people are going to get upset with you. Don’t back away from your principles.”

You can’t avoid criticisms and complaints – especially if you are running a cutting-edge business. But you can – and should – pay attention to them… and have a procedure in place for managing them.

That means:

  • Being polite, patient, and sympathetic.
  • Making it clear that you fully understand the problem and intend to resolve it to the customer’s satisfaction.
  • Making every effort to make them happy, even if it means giving them more than they deserve.
[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]