A-Z of Customer Complaints

The more you sell, the more complaints. Nothing personal. Oscar Wilde said, ‘the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.’ It’s the same on the web. If you plan to run a business, you better get ready to deal with the complaints.

We’ve sold more than $600,000 of goods in three years. On good days, we do $4,000. Most days it’s about $2,000. That’s each day, every week, every month. We’ve learnt a few things. The #1 lesson I learnt is… take real good care of your customers and they’ll come back, and come back again, and come back again. Believe me, this is much better than chasing down new customers.

Take Good Care of Repeat Customers

Remember, they made the effort to get out their credit card and buy your product; now it’s your turn to help them over the finishing line. Sometimes the smallest thing can trip up the best of us.

It’s like this. The more you sell, the more complaints you’ll get. Instead of worrying, think of it as a backhand compliment. What’s important is not that you get customer complaints, but how you respond to the complaints and ensure that you can bring angry customers back into the fold.

26 Ways to Respond to Customer Complaints

Here’s the list. Remember to add yours below.

A – Action

Is there’s anything worse than getting an email—reading it once, twice and a third time looking for the answer— and thinking, ‘so what do I do next, tell me?’ Give the reader a specific Call to Action.

In other words, let them know what they should do next. Don’t leave them hanging there.

B – Blame

Accept it, you’re going to get blamed. Selling digital products online is simple (in theory) but can get problematic when you factor in the issues with deliveries, returns, chargebacks, refunds, lost order and technical glitches.

We’ve had customers confuse a zip file with a virus. Their computer said ‘unknown file format’ as they had no WinZip (or equivalent extraction software) on their PC. So, they thought it was a bug… and posted the complaint on Facebook. That helped!

C- Context

Give Your Side. Help the reader understand YOUR position. For example, why your product may have malfunctioned or how they can help you understand their situation more clearly. Was it an upgrade or a new license?

D – Direct Line

Include your contact details. Make yourself available if they want to talk to you. Don’t try to screen them out by giving them the reception’s phone number. You want to do interact with your customers, right?

Include your email address, direct line number, and cell number. Don’t hide behind voice-mail or the secretary. Sends out all the wrong signals.

E – Enthusiasm

Use positive language. Be careful with your tone. This is why reading aloud makes such a difference. Use positive words and phrases to stress the key points. But tone-down over-zealous or excessively optimistic phrases. And remove all those clichés marketing phrases. Don’t talk about best practices when responding to a complaint.

F – Focus

Keep it simple. Address one topic in each paragraph. Don’t confuse the reader, or yourself, by mixing multiple topics together. Prioritize the most important points.

G – Grateful

Show some appreciation for effort the person took to write you, especially if they have already written to you more than once. These may be long-standing customers and it makes sense to keep their business.

H – Headings

Separate your letter into logical sections. This also makes it easier to scan the key points. Most of us read only the sections that interest us, the rest we filter out. Using headings to help people find the relevant information fast.

I – Information

Don’t be a fault-finder (you know, that type of attitude) but see if the person made any mistakes that need to be addressed. For example, if they saw they couldn’t download the product, ask why?

  • Was it a technical issue?
  • Are they behind a firewall?
  • Did the zip file give an error message?

Sometimes, people won’t get you the information up front, so you have to gently coax it out of them. I knew someone, (Business Consultant was their job title) who couldn’t open a zip file. He didn’t know about right-click. So, we showed him and then it worked…

J – Jargon.

Remove all jargon, clichés and phrases that have crept into your email. Instead, improve your writing by using direct, clear communications. Clichés smack of laziness and reflect poorly on your abilities to respond. It also implies that you’re unable to communicate with any confidence. Why? Because you have to resort to clichés to describe the product.

K – Keyboard

Learn to use your keyboard so you can type your emails (and letters) faster. I took a touch typing course in my teens and it’s stood to me ever since. I knew a woman in San Diego who could touch type 100 words in a minute; pretty impressive to see her running over the keyboard. I’m not nearly there but can type at a good rate, especially before lunch. After that, my energy goes down.

L – Lists

Use bullet lists. Identify the key points. Use short sentences. Number the steps if you want the reader to perform actions in a sequence, for example, when opening a bank account or doing something online.

M – Mix

Vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. Alternate long and short sentences. Then read it aloud and see how it sounds.

N – Needs

Address their needs. Discuss their problem (i.e. the root of the problem) rather than your products. Don’t ramble on about your ‘commitment to quality’ and customer service. This winds them up even more. Get to the point. Explain how you can – and will – fix their problem.

O – Opinion

Ask a reliable friend to read your response to the complaint. You’re not looking for compliments! Ask them, ‘what are the three things they dislike most? The third thing is usually what they really don’t like. The first two were the sugar-coating, but watch out for the third one…, that’s usually the problem.

P – Positive

Be Positive. Open the letter with a short, positive introduction. Strike the right note from the start. Don’t over-do it. Work on getting the right balance.

Q – Quick

Give yourself a target for responding to customer queries. For example, I respond to every email within 24 hours. Auto-responders don’t count. Though I do have an auto-responder, it’s to acknowledge that I got their email and to give them other ways to contact me if it’s an emergency.

R – Refund

If you offer a 30 day refund on your site, and a person requests the refund, just give it. You’ve made the promise, now honor it. I know there’s nothing wrong with it and their taking advantage of your refund policy… that’s part of business. Move on. One suggestion though. If you notice that one specific product is always getting complaints, then look into it immediately. Maybe the problem is on your site.

S – Shoes

Put Yourself in Their Shoes. Don’t be aggressive, especially if they sent you a nasty letter. Stay calm. Be sympathetic to their situation, acknowledge their frustration and refer to any previous queries they may have made. Don’t start writing letter without mentioning any correspondence they’ve sent you or conversations you’ve had in relation to this business matter.

T – Tables

Use tables to represent data. Balance the ‘text to images’ ratio. Provide labels for each table. Using alternating stripes to add a dash of color to the document, but don’t over-do it.

U – Users

No one wants to be called a User. This term creeps into many IT letters and emails. Don’t refer to the reader as a ‘user’. It’s a horrible phrase. No-one wants to be called a user. In technical documentation, it may be acceptable but in business letters, avoid it. Refer to them by their name, where possible.

V – Verbal

Avoid using condescending language or adopting a patronizing manner. This will infuriate the reader even more. Avoid hackneyed phrases such as, “As I’m sure you’re aware…” or “As you must know…” Once again, put yourself in the reader’s shoes.

W – White space

Avoid large, dense paragraphs. No-one likes large blocks of text. Use white space to emphasize the key points in a document and help it to breathe.

X – Xenophobia

You don’t know who’s on the other side of the email. Before you start blaming the outsource dept, remember the person you’re dealing with may have ties to that part of the world. Keep it professional. Don’t include ‘jokes’ that you and your buddies thought funny. What’s funny to you may be very offensive to someone else.

Y – Yell

Don’t shout at the customer. Writing in UPPERCAPS to get your point across is a red flag to a bull. Don’t do it EVER! I know I broke the rule, but you get the idea. This is a sure-fire way to start a flame war.

Z – Zen

Your letter is meant to answer a question. Don’t fudge things and get all zen-like and mystical. I’ve sent complaint letters to companies and received very cryptic, obscure answers that sounded like a riddle from Harry Potter.

Do you know what error message D5152 means? Well, that’s two of us.

Four More Takeaways

  1. Read it aloud. You’ll ‘see’ the mistakes when you read it aloud. Improve the text until it sounds natural and easy on the ear.
  2. Use the Active voice. Avoid using the Passive voice. Use the Active voice as it makes your letters sounds more confidence and helps avoid ambiguity.
  3. Stay on track. When revising your letter, remove all extraneous information. Small words of warning, though — don’t be too curt. If you perform too much surgery on your letter, you may inadvertently cut out its heart! Carefully do it. Study the masters. Look at how Bob Bly, Brian Clark and Seth Godin do it. Try to get a balance.
  4. Remember who you’re writing to – Always write with the reader in mind. I have a photo next to my PC of customers I’ve dealt with over the years. Your customers are real people – flesh and blood just like you – and deserve to be treated as such.

You don’t need to follow all twenty-six of these points when responding to customer complaints. But, knowing when, where and how has helped me immensely.

Which is the most important point? … ok, here’s my secret.

Imagine the customer in your mind’s eye. They tried to buy something from your site and it didn’t work. Something went wrong, maybe on the last page. Now, they’re upset, tired and angry with themselves. They did their best and it didn’t work.

Ok, can you see them sitting there, waiting for your answer?

They are decent people like you and me. Al they want is a little help. Hit Reply and start helping them out!

One last thing: give them the benefit of the doubt. If they say it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Work with them to find out why.

What are your thoughts?

What’s the first thing you do when you get an angry letter from a customer? Do you have a system you follow? Do you use a checklist? I know I missed something. Please share it here.