Six Powerful Lessons When Dealing with Complaints


My wife and I recently went out for dinner with friend. She lost her husband a year back and we had invited her to stay as the anniversary of losing her husband loomed. We chose a high-quality hotel with a good reputation for serving quality meals (yes, we have good restaurants here in the UK!). The food was excellent, as was the service. At the end of the evening, I sauntered over to the cashier’s desk in order to pay. Our waitress was there waiting. While chatting to her I noticed that the computer touch pad was dirty – really dirty. I mentioned this to her, but she was fairly nonplussed. I suggested to her that she should refer the matter to the hotel manager but as I departed, I sensed that she was unlikely to follow that through.

I left a review on Trip Advisor commending the restaurant as aforementioned but then referred to the dirty keypad. Shortly after the manager posted a response – basically calling me a liar. His reply reported, “we clean our keypads every day – please contact me to discuss.” Needless to say, that I did not, and I will be transferring my patronage to one of the many fine restaurants in Bath, UK

How to handle complaints – or maybe I could refer to them as feedback – the breakfast of champions. We will continue with our 6 rules as to how to best handle complaints.


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.

To read the entire first blog – see here: 


Repeat back your understanding of what happened from the client’s viewpoint. Make sure you can repeat the essential facts to the client’s satisfaction before proceeding further. Until you are on the client’s wavelength, it is very difficult for you to help them. Don’t take the chance; make sure you can repeat back the facts as the client sees them. This will also help demonstrate that you understand how important this event was to the client and that you are concerned for the client’s well-being.

KEY TIP: Don’t use the word problem to describe the event. Saying problem sometimes creates one where it didn’t exist previously. The client may not have thought he or she had a problem until we named it as such. Instead, say, “as I understand the situation, here is what happened–[describe]. Is that correct?” If it is not correct from the client’s viewpoint, clear up the point of ambiguity, and try again. Keep repeating back your understanding until the client fully understands and confirms that you have duplicated his or her concern.

If this is a serious matter, you may want to demonstrate your concern further by stating your intention to help. “I’m glad you called this to my attention; I think I can help you.” This tells clients that you are on their side and will work with them rather than against them.

Don’t blame someone else in the firm. How many times have you heard someone say, “oh, it’s the people in accounts receivable? They don’t know what they’re doing up there.” Remember that you represent the firm – the entire firm. If something goes wrong, don’t make it worse by making part of your firm look incompetent.

Don’t become defensive; usually, clients aren’t blaming you personally. And even if they are, they think they have good reason. The client may not always be right, but the client is always the client.

Before proceeding to the solution, ask, “Is there anything else I need to know?” This question is designed to allow clients to vent any remaining frustration and to give them one more chance to communicate fully with you.


Your attitude here is to put yourself and your clients on the same side: You and they are solving the problem together; it is not you against them. Sometimes, the solution is obvious once you understand the client’s viewpoint. But sometimes clients have difficulty communicating exactly what the problem is or what they expect you to do about it. If the solution is not obvious, discuss the situation with the client and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of several solutions.

Occasionally, you might even simply ask, “what can I do to make this right with you?” Do they want the service redone, a fee reduction, an apology, or something else?

KEY CAUTION: Be very cautious about granting fee reductions because you might inadvertently train clients that you will reduce your fees if they complain. This is a destructive game that you cannot win and that will eventually destroy most client relationships. My general advice is to never cut a price! Some clients will try to dicker over your price no matter how much or how little it is. Once you establish the precedent of surrendering your income, you have ruined them forever as good clients. They will come back again and again indefinitely for fee concessions. You won’t look very professional.

KEY TIP: Don’t explain how the mistake happened. Usually, the client doesn’t want to hear it, and it can sound like a justification. The exception to this is when the error is clearly the client’s fault, in which case you must show extreme tact.

  • Say what you can do, not what you can’t
  • Don’t say, “you have to –.” People react by thinking, “no, I don’t”
  • Don’t say, “I’ll try.” Either commit to doing something or don’t. “I’ll try” as a social lie is a killer in a business setting because when you don’t do what you say, you will look like a failure.
  • Don’t say you’ll do something “as soon as possible.” That’s too vague. Say when you will call back, or whatever else you intend to do, and then do it. To the client, “as soon as possible” may mean “in the next 10 minutes”; to you, it may mean “within 24 hours.” There is too much room for misunderstanding.
  • Keep your own attention and the client’s in the present and future, not the past. You can’t do anything about the past, but you can do something now about the future. So don’t say, “why didn’t you –?” It’s too late for that.
  • If the client suggests something minor and easily accomplished, don’t be too quick to say “is that all? Of course, we can do that.” The client may undervalue your response if you grant it too quickly. I’m not saying to negotiate with the client, and I’m not saying to argue with the client. I’m saying that you should pause and let the client know you are thinking about what he or she said. This complaint is important to the client, and you want her or him to know that it is important to you, too. You might say, “if I understand you correctly, you want us to – Is that correct?… And if we – you will be happy?” Then say, “I certainly appreciate that you are being reasonable about this. If I were you, I would feel the same way. I will be happy to– Again, I appreciate your calling this to my attention.”


Do what you say you will do. Make it go right. Either do it personally or have it done under your direct personal supervision. We’re talking about the client relationship here, and it is your responsibility to make it go right. Reliability is even more critical here than in the normal situation. The client is already dissatisfied when he or she calls, so you are starting in the hole and have to work your way uphill. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, but deliver everything that you promise.


Call clients back and ask them how they feel about your firm now. Are they satisfied? Is there anything else you need to do to make them happy with your service? Don’t be afraid to ask for more business. Your relationship should now be stronger than ever.


After handling any complaint, always ask yourself two questions: (1) What would have prevented this problem? (2) What change should I make in our operations to ensure that this doesn’t happen to someone else?

By the way, nobody wins them all. Some people just like to be mad. I discuss these unreasonable people in another article. Learn to accept defeat philosophically when you lose one.

KEY TIP: Have all your client-contact people read this article and discuss it at a team meeting. Soon, your firm will be turning complaints into increased client loyalty.