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How to Better Respond to a Customer Complaint

Word-of-mouth travels faster than ever, knowing how to effectively respond to a customer complaint can make or break a small business. According to Customer Service Barometer, a study by American Express, on average, Americans tell 15 people about a poor service experience, underscoring the potential impact of negative feedback. However, with the right approach, businesses can turn complaints into opportunities to demonstrate commitment to customer satisfaction, enhance their reputation, and even improve their services or products.

This article provides small businesses with research-backed strategies and insights into consumer psychology to better manage and respond to customer complaint.


Understand the Emotions Involved in Customer Complaints

When a customer voices a complaint, they are often driven by an emotional response to an unmet expectation or a negative experience with a product or service. These emotions can range from mild annoyance to deep frustration and disappointment. In some cases, the customer may even feel betrayed, especially if they have placed a significant amount of trust in your brand. The psychological aspect behind these emotions stems from a perceived lack of respect or value from the business towards its customers.

Recognizing and understanding these emotions is the first critical step in effectively responding to a customer complaint. When businesses dismiss the emotional context and focus solely on the transactional nature of the complaint (such as issuing a refund or replacement without addressing the emotional impact), they miss an opportunity to rebuild trust and deepen the customer relationship.

A study about consumer psychology highlights the importance of empathy in customer service interactions. When businesses acknowledge a customer's emotional state and respond with genuine empathy, it signals to the customer that their feelings are valid and important. This approach can transform a negative experience into a positive one, reinforcing customer loyalty and satisfaction. Empathetic responses require active listening, acknowledging the customer's feelings, and expressing understanding and concern for their situation.

An empathetic email response might include phrases like:

  • "I understand how this situation has made you feel disappointed, and I truly apologize for any frustration it has caused."
  • "It’s clear this experience has been upsetting for you, and for that, we are genuinely sorry."
  • "We acknowledge the inconvenience this has caused and appreciate your patience and understanding as we work to make things right."


Use Prompt and Appropriate Responses

The speed at which a business responds to a complaint is often as important as the content of the response itself. In an age where consumers expect instant gratification, a delayed response can exacerbate the customer's negative feelings. The HubSpot survey indicating that 90% of customers consider an "immediate" response as crucial underscores the urgency with which businesses must address complaints. An immediate response is perceived as a sign of respect and concern for the customer's time and experience.

However, speed without the right tone can be counterproductive. The tone of the response must convey empathy, respect, and a personal touch. Using the customer's name, apologizing sincerely for the inconvenience caused, and expressing a clear commitment to resolving the issue are key elements of an appropriate response. This personal and empathetic approach demonstrates that the business values the customer beyond the transactional aspect of their complaint.

Moreover, the tone should be consistent across all communication channels, whether it's a public response on social media or a private email conversation. Maintaining a respectful and understanding tone throughout the resolution process is crucial for turning a potentially negative experience into a positive outcome.


Take the Conversation Offline When Necessary

The strategy of taking a conversation offline is a nuanced approach in customer service that balances public transparency with private resolution. When a customer voices a complaint on a public forum, such as social media or a review site, it's crucial for the business to acknowledge the complaint in that same public space. This shows other customers and observers that the business is attentive and responsive to feedback. However, the intricacies of resolving the complaint—such as discussing personal information, negotiating resolutions, or delving into specific grievances—are best handled in a private setting.

Providing a direct contact number or email address for the customer serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it signals to the customer that the business is serious about resolving their issue and values their privacy. It also moves potentially sensitive conversations away from the public eye, where back-and-forth exchanges can sometimes escalate or attract negative attention. This approach not only protects the privacy of the customer but also prevents the potential escalation of the issue, fostering a more controlled and focused resolution process.


Offer a Solution

Understanding the customer's complaint fully equips a business to offer a practical and satisfactory solution. Solutions can vary widely depending on the nature of the complaint and the business's policies but may include a refund, replacement, discount on future purchases, or another form of compensatory measure. The goal is to rectify the issue in a way that satisfies the customer and demonstrates the business's commitment to customer satisfaction.

The Harvard Business Review highlights an important aspect of customer service: customers whose complaints are resolved swiftly—ideally in less than five minutes—tend to remain loyal and may even increase their spending with the business. This underscores the importance of not only addressing complaints effectively but doing so in a timely manner. Quick and appropriate resolutions can transform a dissatisfied customer into a loyal advocate, positively impacting the business's reputation and bottom line.

When offering a solution, it's vital to communicate clearly and empathetically, ensuring that the customer feels heard and valued. This might involve explaining the steps the business will take to prevent similar issues in the future, thus reinforcing the business's commitment to continuous improvement and customer satisfaction.


Solution Offering: Clearly state the solution you are offering, making it specific to their complaint.

"As a gesture of our commitment to your satisfaction, we would like to offer you a refund," or "We are providing a replacement for the item you purchased."

Additional Compensation: If applicable, mention any extra compensation to further demonstrate your commitment to resolving the situation.

"In addition, we are happy to provide a 10% discount on your next purchase with us."

Immediate Action: Use words that convey urgency and immediacy in your solution.

"We will immediately process your refund," or "Your replacement will be dispatched within the next 24 hours."


Use Positive Outcomes to Your Advantage

Leveraging positive outcomes following the resolution of customer complaints is a strategic approach that can significantly enhance a business's reputation and customer satisfaction levels. This strategy goes beyond merely addressing and resolving the complaint; it transforms a potentially negative experience into a powerful testimonial of your commitment to customer service. Here’s how you can expand on this strategy:


Encourage Sharing of Positive Experiences

Once a complaint is resolved to the customer's satisfaction, actively encourage them to share their positive experience. This could involve updating an existing negative review or sharing their story on social media platforms. Such actions serve multiple purposes:

  • Reputation Management: Positive reviews and social media posts can counterbalance negative feedback and improve your business's online reputation.
  • Showcase Commitment: They publicly display your business’s dedication to resolving issues and ensuring customer satisfaction, which can be a strong selling point for prospective customers.


How to Encourage Positive Sharing

  • Personal Request: After resolving the issue, make a personal request either through a follow-up email or phone call, expressing how much you would appreciate them sharing their positive experience.
  • Guidance: Offer simple instructions or direct links to make it as easy as possible for customers to leave a review or share their story, reducing any potential friction in the sharing process.
  • Incentivization: Consider offering a small token of appreciation for customers who take the time to share their positive experience, such as a discount on their next purchase. This should be done carefully to ensure it doesn’t come across as buying reviews but rather as a thank you for their time and feedback.


Utilize Positive Feedback Internally

In addition to encouraging customers to share their positive outcomes publicly, businesses should leverage this feedback internally:

  • Employee Motivation: Share these success stories with your team to boost morale and underscore the importance of excellent customer service.
  • Continuous Improvement: Analyze resolved complaints and the strategies that led to positive outcomes to identify best practices and areas for improvement in your products, services, or customer service processes.


Incorporate into Marketing

Testimonials and positive stories can be powerful tools in your marketing strategy. With permission from the customer, consider featuring their stories on your website, in newsletters, email marketing campaigns, or in social media marketing. This not only provides social proof but also humanizes your brand by showing real-life examples of your commitment to customer satisfaction.


Examples of Better Response to a Customer Complaint

​​Here are examples and highlighted words to use in your responses:

Personalization: Use the customer's name to make the response feel more tailored and direct.

Example: "Dear [Customer's Name],"

Apology: Expressing regret for the inconvenience or issue experienced is crucial.

Example: "We are truly sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you."

Empathy: Show that you understand and care about the customer's feelings and experience.

Example: "We completely understand how frustrating this must be for you."

Commitment: Demonstrate your dedication to resolving the issue.

Example: "We are fully committed to resolving this issue to your satisfaction."

Respect: Convey respect for the customer's situation and feelings.

Example: "We greatly appreciate your patience and understanding as we work through this together."

Urgency: Indicate that addressing their concern is a priority for you.

Example: "We are immediately taking steps to ensure that your issue is resolved promptly."

Solution Offering: Briefly mention that you are eager to find a solution.

Example: "We would like to offer a solution that we hope will make up for the inconvenience."

Follow-Up: Show willingness to continue the conversation to ensure satisfaction.

Example: "Please do not hesitate to contact me directly if you have any further questions or concerns."



Effectively responding to customer complaints is crucial for maintaining and enhancing a business’s reputation, particularly for small businesses that might rely heavily on local support and word-of-mouth. By understanding the emotional context of complaints, responding promptly and empathetically, offering practical solutions, learning from feedback, and encouraging positive word-of-mouth, small businesses can turn challenges into opportunities for growth and improvement. Remember, the goal is not just to resolve the current issue but to build a long-term relationship with your customers.