How To Handle Complaints And Keep Your Customers


You can’t please all of the people all of the time, so when you have customers, complaints are almost inevitable.

As much as it hurts when someone complains about their business, founders have to take it on the chin, acknowledge that they have an issue, and find a way to put things right, or risk damage to their brand when disgruntled customers take their gripes to social media.

Welcome complaints

In his latest venture, Nigel Ridpath is managing director at software services business Cowry Solutions. Like many new startups, their motto was that they needed to fail fast. Ideas have to prove themselves quickly or they don’t survive.

“Our customers and prospects are the first people to realize we’re failing, so every new client interaction starts with an openness that pushes the complaints door wide open,” he says. “We might not get everything right, but as managing director, they have my email address and phone number, and I make it clear that I want to hear the moment they don’t feel comfortable with something.”

Ridpath’s advice is to make it as easy as possible for people to complain, encourage customers to provide negative feedback, and then build in those feedback loops so that your business adapts to take account of your customers’ perception of your weaknesses.

“They’re unlikely to be wrong, and it will rapidly steer you in the right direction,” he says. “So far we haven’t lost a single customer.”

Showcase your business values

Highlighting your company values is another way of resolving customer complaints. is an age-inclusive independent online fashion boutique, and because of its anti-ageism message, the brand attracts a lot of attention, including the occasional strongly worded complaint from visitors about the company’s prices and size range.

“When this happens we direct them to the values page of our website that explains what we stand for, addresses key complaints quickly and effectively shows that we aren’t ignoring of them,” says founder Jacynth Bassett. “This helps to articulate the issues, and avoid a back and forth argument that could turn nasty.”

It has proven to be effective, with ‘complainers’ ultimately responding positively, having gained a better understanding of what the business is about.

“It’s about taking every opportunity to engage, and show that we care and are aware of issues, and this has resulted in a high customer satisfaction rate and return,” says Bassett.

Make it personal and humorous

Jim Cregan, cofounder of Jimmy’s Iced Coffee, believes that humor can go along way in disarming unhappy customers.

“The only risk of getting wrong with complaints is if your responses are not fun or personal. My view is that you’re going to get it wrong unless you do something hilarious to get it right,” he says. “We once had a guy who complained that our iced coffee was more like a laxative, so we sent him a box of iced coffee and toilet roll as an apology. He then posted his experience on Twitter saying we were incredible. Our personal, humorous approach turned a negative customer experience into a positive and memorable one, and we gained a fan for life.”

Turn critics into advocates

Entrepreneur Tom Griffiths recently cofounded his fourth startup, leadership development platform Hone. If there’s one thing he says he has learned about dealing with customer complaints, it’s that even if your product is exceptional, complaints are inevitable once it reaches scale.

“You can’t please everyone; you will make mistakes, and sometimes, but not always, people are only complaining because they want a deal,” he says.

His approach is to view every genuine complaint as an opportunity to change that person from a critic into a true advocate.

“The first step to changing someone’s opinion is to ‘make it right’, whether that’s an apology, refund, replacement, or all of the above,” he says. “You also need integrity and consistency so that all customers are treated fairly, and not making special cases for favorites or the person who shouts the loudest.”

Exceeding customer expectations, especially when they’ve made a complaint, is the quickest way to delight them.

“If a refund corrects a customer’s problem, offer something extra,” says Griffiths. “It sounds expensive, especially for early-stage startup, but you can justify it by the value of the customer’s repeat business, plus business from their referrals, versus the potential losses of the customer taking their business elsewhere and giving your company a bad reputation.”

Entrepreneur, author and speaker Jackie Fast offers her top tips on managing customer complaints.

Don’t get any – “It sounds crazy, but as a founder, you have to go through every step of your customer journey with a fine-tooth comb, and then have people mystery shop that journey with feedback,” she says. “You can’t afford mistakes; for a start-up, every client, every customer, and every penny counts.”

Listen – Most of the time people just want to know their gripe has been heard and that the appropriate action has been taken. Ensure action is taken as long as it is fair.

Speed – If there is something wrong get it fixed as soon as possible. Almost every complaint can be dealt with reasonably, but the sooner you address it, usually, the better it will be.

Open communication – The worst thing is not hearing about it until the complaint has landed in your LinkedIn inbox because the person couldn’t get it sorted out with the staff who were handling it. “Mistakes happen and the teams should catch them and fix them by themselves rather than hope no one says anything, which rarely happens now with social media,” she says.



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