Handling customer complaints (Article)

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This free article explores the implications of not listening correctly to a customer complaining about the level of service received. It also explores our lack of interest in making complaints.

Derek Stockley is a training and performance management consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. He conducts in-house and public training courses.(Google+).

Are your staff taking notice of what customers say?

Story One - How not to handle a complaint

We stayed in an interstate hotel last year. From the moment we walked into the room, things started to go wrong. In themselves, each little problem did not amount to much. However, by the time it came to check out the next morning, I had decided to spend some time providing some feedback.

Although we had filled out a feedback form, I asked the receptionist to write down the list.

My first comment was about the queen sized bed, a factor in choosing this particular accommodation. The bed was fine, it just did not fit the room (obviously designed for a double bed).

My second comment was about an electronic room key. One of the two we had been given did not work.

Although I had five or six more comments to go, at this stage I noticed that the receptionist was not writing my comments down. When I quizzed him, he said he did not need to - the hotel already knew about the beds and the key was "one of those things".

At this stage, I abandoned my feedback and made the comment "that I was wasting my time".

We completed the check out process. I did not receive any form of apology from the receptionist. I left with another article topic and story for this newsletter.

The receptionist felt my comments were trivial and unimportant. To me, they were valuable feedback.

I did receive a nice letter from management about the comments on the feedback form. Although the annoyance subsided, the negative experience was still felt.

Story Two - A customer complaint was justified

We stayed in another interstate hotel recently. This time the room was fine. However, things were still not right, specifically:

  • there was insufficient milk

  • breakfast items were not delivered

  • the fax machine in the room did not have any paper and the ink cartridge needed changing

  • the hot water was cold by 8.00 am

Did I complain? No, I did not. Why? It took me long enough to have the breakfast bill reduced. I could not be bothered about the other things.

Customer complaints are an important asset

How many of us have bought small items that have malfunctioned or broken. It has not been worth the time and expense to take them back. I bought a small house brand stapler at a supermarket. It broke on the first day. Thinking it was a "once off", a week later I bought the same model again. It lasted a couple of days before it broke as well. I haven't taken them back. I wonder how many of these staplers are giving the supermarket house brand a bad name. The brand name itself is about reliability, the exact opposite of what I experienced!

If customers take the time to provide feedback, we should listen carefully. I know from my own personal experience, I do not provide feedback every time.

I do not know the exact figure, but I expect that for every complaint made, there are many instances of poor service that are not reported.

Organisations should develop mechanisms for recording informal feedback as well.


Customer service staff should pay attention to complaints made by customers. If the customer is prepared to take the time, then he or she is entitled to receive full and proper attention. Organisations should have systems that gather formal and informal feedback, both good and bad.

Personal reflection

In your business, do you listen to the good and bad feedback you receive? Are you willing to fix the problems reported? Do you thank customers for their feedback, good and bad?

Action items

Should we review our feedback systems?

Should this issue be discussed at our next team meeting?

Related information

What do you do when the customer is right and you are wrong? - highlights customer service. How would you handle a situation when the customer was right and you were wrong?

Your comment

If you have a comment you would like to make, or you would like to share your experience, please send the comment to one of the email addresses listed below. Here is a comment received from: Jackie, a System Specialist/Trainer based in Melbourne, Australia.

A very timely article. May I forward a copy to a business that I think needs to read it?

I too am amazed by businesses that ignore feedback. A hotel in Sydney, provided appalling service. Successive attempts to get problems fixed were ignored or treated as trivial. My employer had used their hotel on a number of occasions but they failed to recognise the need to earn repeat business. I provided written feedback to the hotel ( which was rather grumpily received by the receptionist). To add insult to injury when I checked the bill I had been overcharged.

On my return to work I also provided feedback to our administrative assistant. The result was that we stopped using that hotel.

I have just provided feedback to the local free newspaper about an ongoing delivery problem. I don't ring up if one week has been missed but I do if they disappear for a couple of weeks - this year we have received around 1 in 5 copies and not one for a couple of months.

I received an email telling me that they successfully deliver hundreds of thousands of newspapers every week. I wonder how they know? When I asked I was told that they have no program of carrying out spot checks to confirm successful delivery.

The sad thing is that a couple of years ago we had the same problem. It took the company more than 6 months to recognise that there WAS a problem because, as far as we could tell, they didn't keep any records or ever check back to find out that the problem was resolved.

The whole attitude of their staff is that "I'm" the problem for pointing out that they have a problem. They don't seem to realise that if one person complains there will be many more who don't complain.

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To review the newsletter, see: Listing of recent newsletter articles. All articles relate to a performance theme, but individual newsletters cover a specific topic. Themes include customer service, leadership, management, website marketing and time management. You can see all articles in chronological order at: Listing of newsletter articles in chronological order.

You can publish this article, see: Publication.

Derek Stockley conducts in-house customer service training and consulting, see customer service training and consulting.

Derek Stockley conducts public training courses in both Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.

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