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The Four Step Process for Handling Customer Complaints

You can use this strategy in sales leadership as well

Handling upset customers is part of being a sales professional. I’ve been doing this long enough that I can assure you, it won’t go away at any point in your career. There’s no avoiding having difficult conversations with customers who are upset with you, your company, your service, your product. It won’t necessarily be your fault, but as the person who sells the product, you are the face of the company and the brand. How you handle an upset customer complaint can be the difference between retaining a customer and generating referrals and losing a customer and getting bad reviews. There’s a four-step process that I follow to handle customer complaints. The good news is, this process can work for any difficult conversation you encounter. If you’re in sales leadership for example, at some point you’ll have to have a difficult conversation with someone on your team. If you don’t know how to do that, you’re going to have a retention problem and it’s going to affect your sales culture. Here’s my four-step process to having a difficult conversation.


This seems obvious, but trust me it is not as easy as it sounds. When you’ve spent a lot of time in sales, customer complaints can be predictable. You’ll get to a point where you feel you’ve “heard it all before.” But even if you know within minutes what the complaint is and you know solution, you need to let your customer get it all out. Listen to that customer as though it’s the first time you’ve heard this complaint— even if it’s the 100th time you’ve heard it. When you interrupt somebody who is upset or who’s expressing a concern, you just told your customer whatever they’re feeling is no longer important and you must speak now. That’s not the message you want to deliver.


The second part is to clarify. In order to do this, I recommend taking notes as the customer speaks. You may even want to ask the customer if it’s okay to do so. This allows you to capture every aspect of the complain and has the added bonus of showing them that you’re listening closely. After you’ve listened completely, you’re going to repeat the concerns right back to your customer. “Just so I understand what you’re saying, let me repeat back to you what you just said.” And you make sure to clarify every objection one by one.


We empathize. We don’t sympathize, but we empathize. By empathizing with your customer and empathizing with those that have complaints that come to you, you tell that person your concern is important to you. You aren’t going telling them I can solve your problem, or that you have all the answers, and that you’re the guy that will make this go away.  When you empathize you simply tell this person that you care about what’s bothering them. Don’t feel sorry for somebody. Do not say “Oh, I’m sorry you feel this way.: That’s a really crappy statement to tell somebody instead say, “I understand why you would feel this way.” This will make the conversation go much more smoothly.


Now that you’re all on the same page and the customer feels validated, you address their concerns. “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, just so we’re on the same page, I just want to clarify that you were upset with the on boarding process. I understand how difficult that can be. I imagine when you make a change in vendors, the last thing you want to do it is a messy onboarding process; however…” This is where you address the concern. Maybe they started the onboarding process at 4:30 on a Friday and it got messy because you close at 5:00. You might have been able to say that one minute into the conversation, but that wouldn’t have ended well. But because you went through an entire process of listening, clarifying, empathizing and now addressing, the customer will feel respected, the customer will feel valued. The customer will want to do business with you again. If you cannot address the concern right away, admit that to the customer. Tell them that you don’t have an answer right now, but that you’ll have one for them soon. Let them know the next step in the process.

If you fail at these difficult conversations, allowing your customer to leave this conversation feeling disrespected or undervalued, they will not be a customer for long. And as I said above, this also applies to people you work with. If you fail at a difficult conversation with an employee, they too, will not be working with you for that long because nobody wants to be in a position where they’re undervalued or disrespected. In following this four-step process—listening to a person’s concern, clarifying the concern, showing a level of empathy and then addressing it—  you’ve just boosted your interpersonal skills, and you’ve boosted your customer or employee’s confidence in you.

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