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How to Respond to Customer Complaints: 4 Steps to a Better Customer Experience

Alice Wong
June 23, 2022
Learn how to respond to a customer complaint with grace.

If you sell online, you'll have good and bad customer service days. Some days the 5-star reviews are flooding in, but then occasionally, you'll get a customer complaint.

It's inevitable.

What's important though is how you handle the customer complaint. Unresolved, hurt customers can do damage to your business - even if their problem wasn't your fault to begin with.

Before we get into the steps for responding to customer complaints, keep these principles in mind:

- Be an active listener. Active listening is a step up from day-to-day listening skills. In active listening, you summarize back to the customer what you've heard from them. This helps them feel heard and acknowledged.

- Connect with the other person on a human level. Use an empathy-first approach.

- Don't rush to resolution. It's tempting to provide a solution to your customer in the first interaction, but make sure you have the right resolution first before committing.

- Know that any of your responses can go public. Even if the interaction feels like it's on a private channel like e-mail, anyone can screenshot responses and post on social media. When you write your response, don't hit Send just yet. Take a moment to ask "How does this response make my brand look if it got posted on social media?"

- Treat each customer uniquely. Because that's how customers want and expect to be treated. One thing to avoid is using chatbots to address customer complaints - robotic, unpersonalized responses can anger them more.

If you'd like a head start on crafting your response, download our playbook with 24 free templates for responding to customers and then go to the templates on pages 13 - 15.

Steps to Responding to Customer Complaints

When you get a customer complaint, take a deep breath and then follow these steps:

1. Understand which channel you received the customer complaint.

This may seem like an obvious first step, but it's important to understand how the customer complaint was received. Was the complaint verbal or written? Was it submitted through an online form or email? Did the customer post it on social media? By understanding how the complaint was received, you can better tailor your response.

2. Try to figure out how angry or frustrated your customer is.

On a scale of 1 - 10, how frustrated or angry does your customer sound? If it's an 8 or more, meaning your customer sounds very angry, you may want to prioritize and escalate the issue as soon as possible. Sometimes it's helpful to get your customer on the phone too. If your customer sounds upset but calm, you can try to troubleshoot the issue before escalating. The key is to make sure things don't get worse.


3. Set a SLA for responding.

Once you understand how the complaint was received, aim to respond quickly. According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, companies that respond to customer complaints within one hour are more likely to keep that customer than those that take more than 24 hours. You may want to consider staffing up if it takes more than 12 hours for you to respond. Chatdesk offers a flexible customer support solution with month-to-month plans starting at $99/month. Getting started takes as little as a few days. You can also install the app on the Shopify app store.

4. Acknowledge the complaint.

Think of this step as acknowledging your customer's feelings versus acknowledging the actual complaint. Thank the customer for bringing it to your attention and let them know you're taking it seriously. This shows the customer you're listening and am willing to work to resolve the issue. And even if what they're complaining about isn't your fault, apologize for their poor experience. Let them know you're sorry their purchase didn't meet their expectations.

Here's a good example of a customer complaint and a response:

Customer Complaint: "I ordered a shirt online and it didn't fit."

Your Response: "Hi. Thank you for letting us know about the issue with your shirt. We're sorry to hear that it didn't fit the way you expected. We would be happy to help you return or exchange the shirt. Please let us know what you would like to do and we'll be happy to assist you. Thank you for your feedback and we hope you have a great day!"

And in general, here are phrases you could use to show empathy:

- "Thank you for bringing this to our attention"

- "We're sorry for this unpleasant experience"

- "We'll do our best to correct the situation"

- "Thank you for your feedback, we appreciate it"

- "We understand this was a frustrating experience and we apologize for the inconvenience it caused you."

- "Thank you for explaining to us what happened here, I can see why you feel frustrated."

Tip: If the complaint is on social media, try moving the conversation to a more private channel as soon as possible. Ask if the customer is willing to speak with you over the phone so you can really understand what happened.

5. Investigate the customer complaint.

Next, you need to investigate the complaint. Find out what happened and why. This may require you to reach back out to the customer or your business partners to clarify some details (for example, your manufacturing partner if you are a dropshipping company). Make sure to collect all the facts.

6. Come up with solutions.

After you've listened to the customer and acknowledged their feelings, it's time to offer a solution. This solution doesn't have to be perfect, but it should be a step in the right direction. Try to think of something that will make the customer happy and resolve the issue.

Types of solutions you can offer unhappy customers

-A refund

-A discount on their next purchase

-A free product or service

-Customer service assistance

For example, if a customer is unhappy with their order, you might offer them a discount on their next purchase. Or, if a customer is unhappy with the service they received, you might offer them a free coupon for their next visit. Whatever the solution is, make sure you communicate it clearly to the customer.

7. Craft your response.

Strike the right tone - it should be a balance of empathy, expertise, and education. Re-acknowledge the inconvenience this has caused your customer, appreciate their patience as you dug into the issue further, and let them know you've taken appropriate action to find the best resolution for them. If your customer misunderstood something, like the return policy, it's okay to educate them.

8. Check your response.

We're all human so it may be difficult to work through the situation without feeling frustrated yourself. Check your response once again for these things before hitting 'Send':

- Is your response defensive?

- Are you making excuses?

- Are you blaming the customer?

- Is your response sarcastic?

If you answer 'Yes' or 'Maybe' to any of these, then you want to re-evaluate your message. It helps for someone else to read your response.

If you answered "No", then it's safe to send.  

9. Follow up.

After you've offered a solution, be sure to have a follow-up with the customer. Make sure they're happy with the solution and that the issue has been resolved. You can find an issue resolution follow-up e-mail template in our customer response playbook.

10 Things Not To Do When Responding to a Frustrated Customer


...take their complaint personally.

...argue with the customer.

...make excuses.

...ignore the customer.

...tell the customer to calm down.

...tell the customer to contact customer service.

...tell the customer that you're not the right person to help them.

...tell the customer that they're wrong.

...tell the customer that you don't have the authority to help them.

...tell the customer that their problem is not important.

Words to avoid when responding to a frustrated customer

- "I understand how you feel"

- "It's not my fault"

- "There's nothing I can do"

Instead, use these helpful phrases when responding to a frustrated customer:

- "Let me see what I can do"

- "I'm sorry for the inconvenience"

- "I'll do what I can to help"

- "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Responding to Customer Complaints is a Science and an Art - Let Chatdesk Do It For You Starting at $99/month

Sometimes it's helpful for someone to take this off your plate. Chatdesk has helped hundreds of fast-growing brands address customer complaints successfully and improve their CSAT scores. Schedule a free demo with us to learn more.

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