Customer Relations

by Roisin Murray & Wallace Murray

Turn complaints into gifts

Complaints happen. You can seek to minimise them, but it should always be remembered that they present a golden opportunity to improve customer relations.

Having the right attitude is the key to dealing with complaints from disgruntled customers. Build rapport by showing you care; contain the issue, and work towards a resolution. Establish the underlying causes and deal with them – or the problem will simply keep coming back.

This job would be great if it weren’t for the customers!

How often have you heard that? It may be a tempting attitude for those who are on the front line, sorting out disgruntled customers – but if you hold that belief, after a while it will leak into how you conduct yourself with customers. Just look at the language in that sentence! So how do you help staff to address service issues as and when they arise?

Avoid problems, address the issues

You already develop and encourage staff. You manage people effectively. You use training and development to help people build rapport with customers. You have already encouraged a culture in which delighting the customer is natural. Simply adopting that mindset will often help prevent customer complaints escalating into conflict.

But what can you do if things still get prickly?

Contain the issue

Staff may need help in stopping a situation escalating. It usually makes things worse if they try logic. They frequently believe that it is helpful if they explain why things have gone wrong. Unfortunately, this often merely creates more tension and loss of rapport. Why?

Because customers don’t want to know what you know; they want to know that you care.

It tends to be more effective to pace or match the energy levels of those involved and then lead them towards better rapport (see NLP – Pacing and leading). Pacing works whether you are the one engaged with the customer or mediating as a third party.

Staff often see complaining customers as aggressive or manipulative. They may then react in a similar way themselves. This simply adds fuel to the fire. What they have done is to concentrate on the problem or argument. It is usually better to concentrate on the solution. This helps you deal with the issues assertively rather than passively or aggressively.

People who are good at this manage to adopt a separated or dissociated viewpoint so they don’t get plugged into the emotions of the situation. It takes a bit of practice though, so you might like to rehearse the following exercise with members of your team by leading them through the steps.

Read through the following exercise a few times until you feel confident you have it fixed in your mind.


Take a few minutes to remember a time when there was an interaction with a problem customer. You may have seen it taking place or you may have been one of the participants. You may even have been the customer.

  1. Imagine a spot on the floor where the customer was standing. Mentally, or literally, stand in that spot and imagine you are now that customer. Stand in their shoes. How does that feel?
  2. As the customer, what concerns do you have? What do you really want? What is your perception of the way you are being spoken to and dealt with?
  3. Now imagine another spot on the floor, where the company representative is standing. Go to that spot and be aware of how that feels: what is your response when you hear the complaint? How do you feel when the customer seems to be getting angry with you? What do you really want as an outcome?
  4. Pick a third spot, somewhere off to the side of the other two. Go there as yourself and imagine that you are watching the exchange between the other two. What are you hearing and seeing? How is each of the others making the situation better, or worse? What advice would you give to either of them?

Notice how this third position changes your perception of what was going on.

Decide what you might do differently in future.

Now imagine yourself at some similar time in the future, and notice how differently the incident turns out, knowing what you know now.

Once you are comfortable with this procedure, you may like to use it to coach your colleagues in reacting differently to (perceived) problem situations.

Resolve the issue

Oddly enough, making amends with style tends to impress customers more than if they had never encountered the problem in the first place. Not only that, but they remember how it was put right, and tend to feel a sense of loyalty to the organisation that has shown respect for them. What’s more, they tell other people how wonderful you are!

Mistakes will be made, and problems will always occur. People often look for suppliers who fix problems well rather than those who say they don’t have any. You can’t fix a problem for a customer unless you know about it, so the first and highly important step is to actively encourage complaints. If people don’t complain, you will never get the chance to put right your mistakes. The customer will leave and you will have to entice him back or find a new one at great cost.

But good customer relations are not just about damage limitation. Imagine how impressed a customer would be if you stylishly put right something they hadn’t noticed going wrong in the first place!

Staff need to know how far they can go in putting a complaint right. They also need to know their manager won’t immediately blame them for the problem.

So complaints or foul-ups provide an opportunity for two things:

  • To enhance customer loyalty by putting it right with style
  • To learn from it for the future.

You might like to try this Quiz to see how good you already are at dealing with service issues.

Also see the topics on Conflict Resolution and Difficult People.