Turning complainers into advocates – a step-by-step guide to managing complaints

How many times have you thought about writing a complaint to a business? How many times have you actually done it? If you receive a complaint, think about how angry or frustrated that person must have been to follow through and send it. Understanding that is key to managing complaints in a productive way for your business.

Complaints can be time-consuming and a major annoyance to your business. If you get a complaint on a busy day when you are already doubting yourself, it can feel like the world is ending.

Be brave enough to learn from complaints. You may have to swallow your pride and it may be tough. But take the right attitude and turn those complaint lemons into lemonade.

Here are 33 quick tips on managing complaints in your small business.

“Complaints don’t have to end badly. Seize the opportunity to learn something about your business and your customers.”

Acknowledge and respond

Get the basics right. There is nothing more frustrating than receiving no sign of your complaint being received or considered.

  1. Always acknowledge the complaint and respond, even if it doesn’t seem legitimate.
  2. Remember everyone is entitled to respect, understanding and courtesy. It doesn’t matter what the complaint is, or whether it is substantiated.
  3. It is OK to tell the customer you need to get more information. Give them a specific timeframe for when and how you will get back to them.
  4. Offer to call the complainer – sometimes talking on the phone can fix a miscommunication and help find a resolution. If the customer does not want to talk on the phone, respect that and communicate via their preferred channel.
  5. It is OK to apologise when replying to a complaint. If you need to apologise, do it straight away. It is not a sign of weakness or letting the customer ‘win’.
  6. Recognise someone making a complaint is usually under stress and pressure. If they take the time to complain, you should take the time to listen and understand their concerns.

How to turn lemons into lemonade when managing complaints

Complaints don’t have to end badly. Seize the opportunity to learn something about your business and your customers.

  1. See every complaint as an opportunity to learn more about your target audience and how your business is perceived. You may be inadvertently misrepresenting a product or service and disappointing customers.
  2. Resolving a complaint in a positive way can create a loyal customer. They will become your advocate and tell other people how you got it right!
  3. Keep an open mind. The complaint might be addressing a genuine flaw in your product or service that can be improved.
  4. Focus on solutions for the customer and your business, not just being right.

The complaint conversation

It is never pleasant for someone to criticise your business. But using empathy and creating a genuine human connection goes a long way towards rebuilding a relationship and solving a problem.

  1. You can acknowledge how the customer feels without agreeing with them or admitting fault.
  2. Present a united front. Don’t throw a staff member under the bus and allocate all blame to them. Take ownership on behalf of the business. How you deal with issues arising from complaints is another issue.
  3. It is OK to be human. Don’t depersonalise your response too much. You can provide accurate and professional information without being too formal.
  4. Don’t take a defensive or negative tone. This may be the hardest part of responding when you don’t agree with their complaint and feel like it is a personal attack. It isn’t. Put your business hat on and remember you catch more flies with honey.
  5. Don’t assume an in-depth knowledge of your product or service. You have this because it is your business and livelihood. Your customer just wants their specific issue resolved, not a history of why you have been proven to be in the right.
  6. Don’t try to impress or intimidate by using big words, jargon or complicated sentences. Your will isolate the customer even further and may take them from disgruntled to active
  7. Try not to make your response too long and involved. Customers will tune out if you get too wordy. Find a happy medium based on your type of business, the complaint, the tone of the communication to date, and your brand values.
  8. Before you respond, check the details and then check again. A simple mistake like getting someone’s name wrong looks like a rushed response you have copied and pasted.
  9. Read your response through (preferably after letting it sit for a few hours, if not overnight) before you send it. How would you feel if you received it? If you wouldn’t like it, start again.

Types of complainers

There are some types of customers who complain, and specific ways you can manage them.

  1. Most complaints are about venting, rattling off a complaint and never expecting to hear back. Just the process of writing it down or telling you about their problem makes them feel better. Surprise them and get back to them with a genuine human response, not just a canned reply. You might gain a customer for life.
  2. Learn to recognise a professional complainer. They are quick to ask for something for nothing and suggest ways you can compensate for a perceived error. Be wary of the repeat complaint customer, but not too suspicious.
  3. The threatener. This type of complaint includes lots of references to the consequences for you if they don’t get what they want. They will usually mention legal action, imply they will tarnish your reputation, and refer to legislation or Australian Consumer Law. Remain calm and treat their complaint in the same way as any other. If you find you are dealing with this a lot, take a look at why they are complaining. You might need to rethink a process or service.
  4. If you think a complaint is petty or trivial, take another look. Don’t dismiss complaints without considering them as genuine feedback.
  5. If a complaint is aggressive and critical of you or your team, it can difficult not to react and reply in the same tone. Don’t give in to the temptation. Be firm, courteous, and stand your ground when you need to.

Pushing back when you need to

Don’t be afraid to stand your ground if you need to. Pick your battles, but the customer is not always going to be right.

  1. If a complaint is abusive, threatening, racist or in any other way offensive, think carefully about how you will respond. Acknowledge the complaint, but do not address any issues until you have warned the customer that any repeat behaviour will not be tolerated and they will be blocked from communicating with you.
  2. Know when to let it go. If the complaint cycle is going on and on and there seems to be no resolution to satisfy the customer, draw a line and politely tell them you cannot offer any further advice.

Complaint policies for your business

If you deal with complaints regularly, your business may need a policy to manage them consistently and efficiently. If you are a solo operator, make some notes every time you deal with a complaint so you can develop a standard approach and identify recurring issues.

  1. Your complaints policy should have the customer at its centre. Try to keep the same contact person for the customer throughout the complaint process.
  2. Make the policy public and that your customers know where to access it.
  3. Create internal processes for complaint management and make sure staff know what to do.
  4. Spell out clearly your policy on abusive, threatening or offensive behaviour. Make sure any staff taking calls know when they should end a phone call with a customer who is abusive or threatening.
  5. Include guidelines for how long it will take you to respond and why.
  6. Set up your complaint process so that it gives you useable data. Understanding how many complaints you are getting and about what can help you assess if you have a recurring issue.
  7. Even with a policy, stay flexible. Don’t be pedantic and ignore a complaint because it wasn’t provided in the format you prefer. Not every issue will come with ‘complaint’ written neatly across the top.


Customers have increasingly high expectations of businesses. If they have an issue with your product or service, they want to communicate with you about it on their own terms and expect a resolution.

When you get a complaint, you have a chance to defy expectations. Most people don’t expect to get a straight answer about a complaint in a language they understand. Surprise them. Write clearly, in simple language, apologise if you need to. Make their day!

You may have to swallow your pride and it may be tough. Take the right attitude and turn those complaint lemons into lemonade!

This article originally appeared on Flying Solo, a website brimming with small business advice. Read my articles here.