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How to Handle Customer Complaints

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Doing it the right way can boost customer loyalty

The word “sorry” is very under-used these days but it’s a very effective one to employ when you have a disgruntled customer.

And let’s face it, unhappy customers are part and parcel of operating a bar or a nightclub. If you can learn how to handle these people you’ll be doing both them, and your business’ bottom line, a favor.

In fact, you should view every complaint as a gift, says Randi Busse, a customer service speaker, trainer and author of Turning Rants Into Raves: Turn Your Customers On Before They Turn On You!

“If customers have a complaint and don’t tell you about it, there is a chance they are going to leave, stop doing business with you and you won’t even know about it,” she explains. “By complaining they are saying something is not right; fix it so we can have our regular relationship.”

The alternative to complaining is the customer leaving your business, and not only that, telling people they know and perhaps spreading the word through social media. Losing one customer can ricochet out towards losing many others.

“A complaint is a gift because customers are giving you a heads-up,” Busse says. “It’s your chance to know about these things that aren’t right. Wouldn’t you rather know the problems and have a chance to change your business?”

First, thank customers for complaining, says Marilyn Suttle, customer service expert and president of Suttle Enterprises in Novi, Mich., as well as author of Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer Into Your Biggest Fan and its followup book, Taming Gladys! The Busy Leader’s Guide to Creating Fierce Customer Loyalty, to be published May 17.

“Most people won’t tell you their complaints because they don’t want the discomfort of a confrontational conversation,” she says. “But a complaint gives you the chance to restore good feelings.”

Once you’ve listened to a customer’s complaint, here’s how to handle it:

  1. Apologize. This can be the beginning of paving the way to that customer feeling better about the problem. However, never follow it with “if,” says Suttle. Don’t say “I’m sorry if you weren’t enjoying your evening,” which means you are questioning whether the customer is telling the truth. Instead, just say sorry, “which goes a long way in starting to make the customer feel valued,” she explains. Don’t put on your problem-solving hat too quickly, warns Busse. Spending time on that apology and connecting with the customer is an important first step.

  2. Don’t take any complaint personally. Remember, the customer is angry with the situation, not with you. If you’re feeling offended, instead turn that into curiosity and learn about the problem.

  3. Listen fully to the customer, because you want to know all you can about the situation. “The more you know, the more it can help,” Suttle says. “Know all this information helps your business. Customers are human beings and respond to connections. Creating that emotional connection with them by listening is good business.”

  4. See a complaint as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with customers. “When a mistake is handled with care, customers have good things to say, and will say them to everyone,” Suttle says. In fact, she adds, if you handle it well, those customers will likely become even more loyal. “They trust that if something goes wrong, you’ll handle it well, and trust is important in business. If you give them confidence that they matter, then their loyalty will skyrocket and they’ll become a beacon of sales and spreading the word.”

  5. Tell customers how you plan to handle their problems, says Busse. Then, once you’ve looked into how to rectify the problem, let the complaining customer know about it. You can even ask if they’d like you to follow up, Suttle says.

Empower all of your employees to be able to handle customer complaints. “There’s nothing worse than complaining through the lines of several employees,” Suttle says. “If you empower everyone it’s more seamless for the customer.”

In addition to following these steps, you may sometimes want to offer something to the customer. Only do this if applicable, Suttle says, “because customers don’t want to feel they’re being bought off.” It’s best if you ask them how you can make the situation better for them.

And, says Busse, it’s always better, if possible, to be proactive rather than reactive about offering something to a customer. So, if a couple has been waiting for a table for too long, offer a free drink before they can complain about it. This is much more effective, she says, and pre-empts a complaint.

At the end of the day, make it easy for customers to complain, she adds. “Customers don’t just complain for the sake of it. Anyone can pick up their phone and find another business that does what you do. You want to make it comfortable for them to come to you. Remember: A complaint is a gift.”