How to Handle Complaints Better

There are two common views of complaints: The more common view is that complaints are a disease to be avoided at all costs. People, firms, and companies who hold this view never do anything wrong. They never make mistakes. And if by some chance anything ever accidentally goes wrong, it is not their fault.

My view is that a complaint is a golden opportunity to really turn clients on, to make them lifelong friends. Additionally, if you view the complaint in this way, you may even learn something from handling the complaint to help you improve your service in the future. In fact, complaints will tell you much the same things that a paid consultant would tell you.

The reasons for liking or disliking a professional or a professional firm, rarely have to do with the service outcome or price. The good or bad experience is almost always related directly to an experience with people, either their attitude or their service. People do business where they are treated well. And they remember where they were not treated well much better than where they were.

Accounting firms that are great at problem resolution, who are accessible and responsive with speed, courtesy, and competence, are far more likely to repair the damage done to their quality reputations than those that take a casual “we’ll get to it when we can” attitude.

Every client (or former client) with a complaint has 10 friends (or 100) who will hear about it if you won’t listen. It seems as though the smallest dissatisfied client always lives next door to the owner of the company you have been trying for years to get as a client.

Even a big foul-up can turn into a positive experience for the client: Just call the client back and say you’re sorry! Amazingly, a lot of the time that’s all you need to do!


Most people are persuaded more by attitude than by logic. This is because most people are strongly influenced by their emotions, and emotions are contagious. Complainers tend to adopt the same emotional attitude that you have. If you get mad, they’ll get mad. If you get defensive, they’ll get defensive. Fortunately, if they’re mad when they call and you are friendly, they’ll tend to get friendly, too.


People who call with a complaint want someone to listen, sympathise, apologise, and, if indicated, correct the matter. And the higher up their complaint is handled, the quicker their fire goes out.


  • They didn’t get what they expected. You promised them something (or they thought you promised them, which is the same thing) and they didn’t get it. It might be as simple as a call-back you didn’t make, or a copy of a document you didn’t send.
  • Somebody was rude on the phone, by email, or in person. Obviously it wasn’t you (I hope), or the client wouldn’t have told you; the client would just have faded away, never to be heard from again. But it might have been one of your associates.
  • The client feels that no one made an effort to serve her or him. The client feels that your firm is indifferent to his or her needs. The client may have been ignored, unacknowledged, or unappreciated.
  • No one is listening to the client’s concern.
  • Client-contact people project a can’t-do or other negative attitude.


The first problem most complainers have is that nobody really listens to them. We all have something to say, and we keep searching for someone to listen. This is especially true when a person has a complaint.

KEY POINT: The number one thing complainers want is to tell someone about it. And they will.

Think of a complainer as a person who is carrying around a 100-pound sack of rocks, looking for someplace to unload it. If you won’t take the sack, they’ll take rocks out of the sack and hand some to everyone they meet. Or they’ll dump the whole thing with a complaint to your board of accountancy. People with complaints will always tell someone about it. They have to, or they’ll explode. Do you want them to tell you or to tell their next-door neighbour and anyone else who will listen? Obviously, you want them to tell you so that they will not feel that they need to tell their neighbour.


Listen to the whole complaint. Do not interrupt except maybe for clarification, and even getting clarification is not a good idea until the client finishes his or her narrative. Do not make excuses or try to answer the client until he or she finishes saying everything they want to say.

KEY CAUTION: It’s tempting to think that listening means waiting for your turn to talk. However, if you are just waiting for your turn, you lose.

Hear the complainer out completely without interrupting.

Coming up next time – four more golden rules to better handle complaints