From complaint to praise in 4 steps


Let’s face it, no matter how many times you say you welcome feedback and constructive criticism, that you learn from your mistakes to improve your services and products, no one likes to receive a complaint.

Receiving a complaint often triggers a defensive response in us, like a scaled down version of the Fight-Flight-Freeze response triggered when facing real danger. It’s easy to give in to the impulse to either fight back or run from the situation (if not literally then metaphorically, caving in to the client’s complaint or ignoring it all together). A poorly managed complaint not only causes you distress it can have a significant impact on your business too. An unhappy customer will tell up to 20 people about their unhappy experience. Happy customers who get their issue resolved only tell a handful of people about their experience.

Responding well to a complaint is crucial in business – and arguably in life. Here are my top tips on managing client complaints, resolving the issue and turning the complaining client into your raving fan. Following these 4 steps will help you to keep control and defuse conflict not only in business but in your home life too.

The 4 Steps

Step 1: Acknowledge and explore the complaint and the feelings behind it

Step 2: Reframe and rephrase the complaint, to show you are listening, and to make sure you’ve understood correctly

Step 3: Sort the Junk Mail form the important stuff

Step 4: Propose a solution; Ask, don’t tell

A spoonful of sugar

Even though you are probably feeling frustrated, angry, defensive and ready to fight fire with fire, you will get much better results if you treat your complaining client with kindness and concern.

As humans, we have 3 core psychological needs:

  • To be heard
  • To be acknowledged and validated
  • To feel in control

Typically, the client who complains in the way you have described feels that one or more of their core needs have not been met. By tending to these 3 core needs you increase the likelihood of resolving the issues more quickly and painlessly, and better yet, converting your complaining client into a raving fan.

Step 1: Acknowledge and Explore their complaint (and how they feel about it)

Acknowledge and reflect the client’s complaint. Like Katrina said, repeat their complaint, using their exact words. This sends the message that you have heard what they have to say.

Explore their complaint, ask them “Tell me more about that”; ask them what impact it has had, what it means/has meant to them. It is important to remember that you are not agreeing with the other person’s view point nor are you accepting their claims and demands. You are acknowledging their subjective experience and validating their feelings.

Once again repeat and reflect back their concerns, using their own words, which will give you clues about what is really going on.

Step 2: Reframe and rephrase

The next step is to re-phrase or re-frame their concerns in your words. I use this one a lot in my everyday life. It’s particularly useful for preventing conflict starting, and for spotting and stopping it when it first sparks. .

I will say something like “So, what I think you’re saying is…” then repeat their complaint using my own words.

Another variation of this is “If I can just check I have understood you correctly …” Then using your own words, describe what they’ve said to you, what their concern or complaint is, or what they want. Finish with “is that right” or “have I understood correctly?” This requires them to listen to what you’ve said and shift their focus away from their internal state and back to the outside world. It also gives them the chance to clarify and correct what has been said if necessary.

Step 3: sort the junk mail from the important and useful messages

By now you have a lot of information from the other person.

I like to think of this as having a full mailbox. Some of what they’ve said is junk mail, and you can just throw it away without giving it any further thought. Some of it will pique your interest and you will want to evaluate it and decide whether to act on it or not. Other stuff you know straight away you need to respond to – bills, wedding invitations, and cheques to bank.

How can you tell the good stuff from the junk mail?

Sometimes you can ask the other person by saying “I understand you are upset about … Do you want me to do something about that in particular, or did you just want to let me know?”

If they say yes, they want you to do something then you can explore some more by asking them what they had in mind – remember you are not going to agree with them or commit to anything, you are exploring and checking that you understand their wants and needs.

Asking the other person is not always an option.  They might be too upset, they might have gone away, you might have stepped away for some time to think, or they may have send you the complaint in writing.

Here are some ways you can tell if what the other person has said or written is junk mail:

  • There is no real issue being discussed
  • The only issue is the other person’s personality
  • What they’ve said is only their opinion about you, your behaviour or your personality
  • It is clear that you won’t change their view about the issue
  • You have already given them an answer and there is nothing more to add.

The more you practice this, the quicker and easier it will be for you to spot the junk from the important stuff.

Step 4: Propose a solution; ask, don’t tell

So, now you have tossed out the junk mail and focused in on the important message, it’s (finally) time to share your ideas for resolving the conflict, your solutions for the problem.

Pose your ideas and suggestions as a question, rather than as a statement. Ask for the client’s input rather than telling them what to do.

One way of tending to these psychological needs is to ask for their input into the solution.  There are a number of ways to do this and no doubt you will develop your own preferred style the more you practice.

I like to start with questions that are feelings focussed rather than outcome or procedure focussed. For example:

How would you feel if…

Would it be ok with you if…

Would you be comfortable with…

If they say “yes” then you can start to – slowly and gently – talk about the practicalities: how, when, who, etc

If they say no, you can either make more suggestions or as them for their ideas or suggestions, then negotiate to an acceptable outcome.

By following this 4 step process you are not only responding to your client’s complaint, you are nurturing them and satisfying their core psychological needs. What started out at a complaint can often be turned around so that your client is thinking you for being so helping, caring and compassionate, and if they are going to talk about your business, wouldn’t you rather they talk about what a great person you are?