Article | 16 min read

10 ways to handle customer complaints (+ the top customer complaints)

Customer complaints are one of the first steps towards making your business better. Here are some steps for knowing how to handle them.

By Hannah Wren, Staff writer

Last updated January 25, 2022

The very term customer complaints conjures negative feelings. How can a complaint be seen as anything other than a bad thing?

Yet no matter how hard you work to deliver high-quality products and amazing customer service, unhappy customers are inevitable. No business can skirt the reality of customer complaints completely. But for companies that know how to handle customer complaints particularly well, they can become more of an opportunity than a liability.

Your guide to customer complaint resolution

Customer complaints

Customer complaints are customer feedback about your business that result when customers feel their expectations weren’t met. When handled with care and empathy, they can be an opportunity to save a customer relationship and improve.

What are the most common types of customer complaints?

Here are the most common types of customer complaints and what you can do to address them.

  1. Long wait times
  2. Not being able to contact support
  3. Having to repeat information
  4. Lack of empathy
  5. Inefficient knowledge
  6. Inconvenient hours
  7. Information is hard to find
  8. Inconvenient channels

common customer complaints

1. Long wait times on hold

By the time a customer calls you with a complaint, they are already feeling frustrated. So being put on hold for a long time makes the problem worse. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, nearly 60 percent of customers said being put on hold is the most frustrating aspect of a service experience.

Long wait times could mean the demand is too high for your customer service staff to meet. Take a look at the peaks and valleys in call center demand, and try to staff those times to match. You may also be able to deflect some customer service calls by boosting your self-service technology. Customers often prefer to resolve issues themselves, so it’s a win-win.

2. Not being able to contact support

Automated phone systems can help triage tickets for your staff and answer common questions without an agent. But, when a customer gets stuck in a loop without any way to contact a live rep, they get frustrated.

Make sure you offer support on various channels – phone, messaging, live chat, and email. With the right customer service software, agents can easily switch between channels when your customer wants to. For example, when a customer starts with a phone call, then wants to move to messaging, you’ll want to ensure that your agents can keep the conversation going seamlessly.

3. Having to repeat themselves

Customers don’t like having to tell their problems to reps over and over. This happens when they’re transferred between agents. Or, when your customer service reps can’t easily access all the information they need to help a caller. But the result is the same: when customers have to repeat their issue multiple times, it’s frustrating. And that translates to a poor customer experience.

Investing in CRM software, like Zendesk’s own, can take the pain out of this process. The right tech stack can connect your agents with the information they need to help a customer without transferring calls, and without the need for lots of repetition. Having complete customer profiles, like the one below, can help your team resolve service tickets faster.

4. The support agent was unfriendly

Our survey also revealed over 30 percent of customers find friendly support agents key to a good customer experience. When your customer service team is empathetic and professional, they build a better reputation for your brand. But when they don’t have the soft skills for the job, it leaves a bad impression on customers. And when a customer is already upset, an unfriendly agent only escalates the situation.

You’ll want to solve this customer complaint proactively. Hire agents with soft skills, in addition to technical ones, and provide empathy training.

A good service recovery program can also help remedy angry customers after the fact. Birchbox agents are empowered to follow up with customers who rated their initial interaction with a Discovery Specialist poorly.

5. The agent doesn’t have sufficient information on file

When the business doesn’t arm agents with tools to resolve customer issues efficiently, the result is unhappy customers. Insufficient customer information is usually a back-end problem. Customer service teams need quality technology to effectively access, track, and update the information they need, as soon as they need it. Without the right ticketing system, customers are often left waiting on hold or bounced between departments.

Investing in a quality ticketing system is the best way to handle this customer complaint. Customer service software that connects customer information across channels and enables agents to work seamlessly together helps ensure customer service professionals can effectively solve each problem.

6. Customer support is only available at inconvenient hours

Customer expectations are higher than ever before. They expect to reach support as soon as their issue comes up. They don’t want to wait a day or even a few hours. This complaint is common for companies that don’t provide support on the weekends and global businesses that only offer customer service reflective of a single time zone.

A chatbot is a great solution to expanding your support hours. Chatbots work best when used in conjunction with human agents. When agents are off the clock, a bot can handle the more simple questions that come in.

For global companies, a follow-the-sun support model can also help. By its basic definition, “follow-the-sun” means that support follows the sun—it’s a type of global workflow in which issues can be handled by and passed between offices in different time zones to increase responsiveness and reduce delays.

7. Not being able to find relevant information online

Customers want to take care of problems themselves, using self-service. Yet only a third of companies offer some form of self-service, according to our research, whether through a help centre, knowledge base, or FAQ. Perhaps this is why limited access to online information is one of the most common customer complaints.

A stellar knowledge management system is the best way to handle this complaint. But building a knowledge base or online community is only the first step. Customers also complain when self-service articles are out of date, so you’ll want to have a plan for updating your online resources. An AI-powered knowledge base can flag outdated articles and recommend new articles to write.

8. Support isn’t available through my desired contact method

Customers want to reach companies on the channels of their choice. And channel choice often changes depending on the issue and where the customer currently is, such as your website, social media, or your mobile app. If you only offer support on a single channel, customers are likely to complain, especially if it’s a channel that’s inconvenient for your customer base.

customer complaints

Ask yourself: what channels do your customers spend most of their time on? It’s not about offering a channel for its own sake, it’s about researching what channels your customers prefer.

Messaging has the highest customer satisfaction score of any support channel, with a CSAT of 98 percent. Incorporating messaging channels like SMS, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp can help resolve customer complaints around channels. That’s because messaging is fast, convenient, and comes with interactive features.

10 strategies for handling customer complaints

There are two levels to handling a customer’s complaint effectively. Your agents have to respond to the situation directly, and the company has to provide the right tools to equip the customer support team to do their job well. Success requires taking a few key steps at both levels.

A good strategy for resolving customer complaints has to be top-down. Every company that wants to become more customer-focused should prioritise these first three tips.

1. Make answers to common complaints easy to find

Speed is an important factor in whether customers are satisfied with a customer support interaction. That’s where a well-organised, searchable knowledge base can help.

When answers are easily accessible, it increases agent productivity, enabling faster resolutions for your customers.

2. Make sure relevant details move with the customer across channels

The era of omnichannel support has made providing an integrated customer experience across channels more complicated.

But customers don’t care what challenges you have on your end. If they have to repeat their complaint three different times in three different channels, they aren’t likely to come away from the experience feeling better about your brand.

As such, agents need a way to find the relevant context about a customer and their grievance, such as their email, how long they’ve been a customer, and why they last reached out, the moment they start communicating with them.

Arm your team with an integrated customer relationship management tool that provides one centralised location for all customer information.

3. Track common customer complaints

Individual customer complaints don’t exist in a vacuum. When one customer struggles with an issue, others have likely been in the same situation.

To improve the customer experience as a whole, create a system for tracking all the tickets that come in so you can see trends in customer feedback.

Then use that data to amplify the voice of the customer by grounding innovation in customer-centric metrics.

Once your agents have the proper complaint management software, tools, and processes in place, it’s up to them to deliver the best response to solve the customer’s problem.

The next seven tips can help your agents manage angry customers better.

4. Understand the different types of customers

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for handling customer complaints—even irate customers don’t all want the same thing from a customer service interaction. The right response will depend on the customer and their specific situation.

Some want a refund and others are looking more for an apology. Agents will benefit from learning to recognise the different types of difficult customers, and the best ways of handling each.

types of customer complaints

5. Cultivate the right tone of voice

It’s challenging to stay calm and keep a moderate tone when dealing with a confrontational or disgruntled customer, but paramount. And we’re not just talking about conversations that take place over the phone—we’ve all been on the other end of a passive-aggressive email or text message.

Agents must strive to defuse the situation with measured responses while remaining human, which involves empathy and curiosity—sounding like an emotionless robot won’t help things either. It’s a tricky balance to find, but one that makes a difference.

“With every interaction, try to see it from the customer’s perspective. Rather than being transactional or judgemental, emphasise with them,” explains Jonathan Brummel, who leads our Premier Support at Zendesk.

“With every interaction, try to see it from the customer’s perspective.”

A simple, “I understand,” can go a long way.

Reading your response out loud before sending it can make all the difference. Gut check for loaded language to make sure you’re not accidentally blaming the customer for anything or putting them in defence mode—even if the issue was their fault to begin with.

6. Listen before you respond

When someone’s upset, one of the main things they want is to feel heard.

Don’t try to resolve customer complaints before you’ve taken the time to understand them.

Start by being present and use reflective listening. Repeat their complaint back to them to confirm you understand.

For the complainer, having someone take the time to hear what they’re saying, acknowledge that the grievance is legitimate, and apologise is often as meaningful as getting a refund or special offer.

“Listening before you respond is classic relationship advice,” says Brummel. “Similar to when we are in a heated situation with a significant other, we tend to want to provide an immediate answer. But you have to give the customer space to feel acknowledged before they’ll be ready to move into finding a solution.”

“You have to give the customer space to feel acknowledged before they’ll be ready to move into finding a solution.”

Instead of going straight to the solution space, you’ll also need to ensure you have the full context, which requires asking the right questions, and of course, more listening.

For instance, if you’re a B2B company, you’ll want to ask questions that help you better understand what’s going on internally in that customer’s company.

For a particularly angry customer, redirecting the conversation by asking follow up questions after you hear them out can help defuse the tension, too.

7. Own up to mistakes

Customers will complain about situations that are beyond your control. But sometimes businesses mess up. When you find yourself in that situation, it’s important to own the mistake.

“Take whatever feedback is there: own it, and own how your team can get better,” says Brummel. “Even better—don’t be afraid to share that moment with that customer.”

For example, simply saying something like, “if I was in your spot, I would be disappointed too,” shows the customer that you’re on their side, and that they’ve been heard.

“Take whatever feedback is there: own it, and own how your team can get better.”

8. Communicate expectations

Explain to customers upfront how long they can expect a resolution to take or how much you’ll be able to do for them.

Don’t promise what you can’t follow through with.

People will often be understanding of any limitations on what an agent can offer, as long as a reasonable expectation is communicated from the start.

Even though you might feel like you’re letting a customer down, committing to honesty and transparency is imperative. Be real with that customer and remember that you’re not a human Google. That means it’s okay if you can’t get them the solution they’re looking for right away.

“Even though those conversations are tough and can feel awkward at first, it’s okay to say, ‘that’s not possible today, but here’s what we can do in the meantime.’ Or, ‘I don’t have that information right now, but I am going to find out,’” says Brummel. “And even if you find out that answer isn’t one they’ll like, that’s okay too.”

“It’s okay to say, ‘that’s not possible today, but here’s what we can do in the meantime.'”

What’s important is that you did your part in connecting with the right teams and committing to following up, which leads us to our next tip.

9. Provide the best possible solution

Once you understand the problem at hand, follow up, and determine the best path forward to resolve it.

“Lack of follow-up will 100 percent destroy the rapport and goodwill you’ve built with your customer,” says Brummel.

“Lack of follow-up will 100 percent destroy the rapport and goodwill you’ve built with your customer.”

Whether it’s a matter of talking them through troubleshooting steps, sending a replacement product, providing a refund, or a genuine apology where you can’t deliver what they were hoping for, give them something to ensure they walk away feeling better about the brand. That’s great service recovery.

10. Go the extra mile

After you’ve followed up, if you have the bandwidth, go the extra mile.

Exceeding your customer’s expectations pays off. 73 percent of customers fall in love with a brand and remain loyal because of friendly customer service reps.

This might mean surprising the customer with a handwritten thank you note or giving them a future discount. Or, Zappos, a prime example of a company that’s committed to creating experiences that ‘wow’ customers, sends their customers flowers when things don’t go their way.

Proactive customer complaint handling

It’s important to have a strategy in place for reacting to customer complaints, but there are also some things you can try to proactively reduce the chances of them happening to begin with. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you anticipate customer complaints:

  • Do: Send your customers surveys. Ask customers how you can do better before they reach out themselves. Use that information to provide a better experience.
  • Don’t: Ignore future issues. Sometimes when a customer reaches out about one issue, you’ll notice a completely separate problem arising on the side. Don’t be afraid to speak up, even if it doesn’t relate to their original request.

  • Do: Embrace Artificial intelligence (AI). AI can help support teams think proactively while doing the heavy lifting for them. For instance, AI can predict bad satisfaction ratings before they happen.
  • Don’t: Dwell on lost customers. When customers reach out to end their relationship with your business, you want to have a win-back plan in place. But making it exceptionally difficult for a customer to stop doing business with you is a good way to turn a calm customer into an angry complainer.

Why customer complaints are good for business

Research shows that people trust word-of-mouth more than brand advertising. 83 percent say they trust friends and family, which is unsurprising, but 66 percent say they also trust opinions strangers post online. And 55 percent of consumers complain on social media when they have a problem with a company. It’s clear: one angry customer’s complaint can be amplified and influence the opinions of many others.

What’s important is that most customers care less about whatever situation caused their initial complaint than how a company handles it. They’re not complaining to make you look bad—they want you to respond with a solution. And if you do it well, you can turn a negative into a positive. Harvard Business Review found that people who complained or wrote negative comments about a brand on social media and received a response were more loyal afterward than those who never complained at all.

“Customer complaints are the biggest opportunity a business has to repair a fractured relationship with a customer.”

Not only is listening to your customers’ complaints integral to good customer service, but the feedback they provide goes beyond scoring customer satisfaction brownie points—it can help improve your overall business, too.

“Customer complaints are great for business intelligence,” says Brummel. “They can help uncover a gap in your system or process, and give you an opportunity to fix it, or help you to look at your product in a new way. With this valuable information, you can share those insights across teams and drive product innovation. Customer complaints are one of the first steps towards making your business better.”

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