What to say when handling customer complaints

What to say when handling customer complaints

The journey that our customers make can be troublesome and have lots of touch points that potentially could go wrong. No matter how slick our processes are, no matter how good our products and services may be, there is always a risk that something somewhere will go wrong. In summary, an intended wow! moment can quickly become an ouch!

So how do we handle complaints for when things don’t go according to plan? What can we say that will help the situation?

The most natural thing to say is ‘sorry’? Why wouldn’t we? We don’t set out to deliver a product or service that is poor.

But how effective is saying ‘sorry’. Is there something else we could say that would help convey our sincerity?

On our customer excellence training we recommend replacing ‘I am sorry’ with ‘I apologise’.

Why? Saying ‘sorry’ simply expresses your personal feelings about something. However, apologising suggests that you are accepting the responsibility of the fault or mistake as well as expressing your regret about it. When it comes to handling customer complaints, taking ownership is something that your customer will be looking for. By saying ‘I apologise’ you are giving out those all-important signals that you acknowledge the issue and that you are dealing with it. When it comes to handling customer complaints it’s always helpful to be deliberate and make the obvious ‘obvious’.

However, the options to help turn an ‘ouch’ into a ‘wow’ do not stop by saying ‘I apologise’. Here are some more ways of providing re-assurance that you are dealing with the customer complaint in a serious and positive way:

‘Thank you for telling me’ – this enables the customer to know that you value what has been said and that you welcome the feedback. It’s worth remembering that most customers don’t bother complaining. Instead, they just simply walk away and tell their friends and family about their poor customer experience.

‘I understand that….’ – this is your way of showing you are listening to what the customer is saying. Avoiding passing judgement is important so saying that you understand offers neutrality and empathy. Getting the facts is key so the complaint is recognised as important. However, we need to connect with the customer’s feelings too.

‘I’m sure we can help’ – this acknowledges to the customer that you identify that they are in difficulty and that you want to help. Inspiring confidence in the customer that you have a genuine interest in solving the complaint will help take the heat out of the situation. Emotions often run high and can quickly escalate if the customer feels ignored.

‘I am sure there’s a way’ – this gives a strong signal to the customer that a positive outcome is going to happen. Customers rarely complain because they have the right to. Instead, customers complain because they are unhappy. Offering a positive solution will be sending the right signals to the customer.

Making sure your team members are properly equipped to deal with customer complaints is vital. This applies to internal customer service too. Consider these three areas:

Attitude – how team members feel about dealing with a situation.

Knowledge – how well-informed employees are about products, services and processes.

Skills – the ability to relate to people and apply their knowledge in an appropriate way.

Let’s explore these areas in a little detail:

Attitude. How we think and feel about situations determines our behaviours. On our training we ask our course participants ‘Is this a difficult person?’ or ‘Is this a person in a difficult situation?’. Our response needs to be empathetic rather than a race to judge.

Knowledge. How up to date are we in knowing our products and services? Customers expect to be dealing with subject matter experts. Not knowing erodes confidence. Make sure knowledge is shared and best practice is discussed.

Skills. Saying the right thing at the right time will help the complaint be dealt with quickly and appropriately. However, team members require the right attitude and the best knowledge to make sure the skills to handle complaints are put to their best use.


Customers who complain are your best friends. Why? Because they are taking their time to tell you what has gone wrong.

Use our words and phrases to deal with your customer complaints in a positive way. Turn your ouch moments into wows and you may well win a customer for life. Treat your customer complaints poorly and you lose a customer forever.

For more information on our Handling Customer Complaints please click here.

Paul Beesley
Director & senior consultant
Beyond Theory

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