Staying Classy Part Two: Responding to complaints like a boss

Welcome to 2019 and to my brand new series; Staying Classy! This series is all about the good, the bad and the ugly of handling complaints and feedback. Over the next five weeks I’ll be diving deep into how to manage complaints, all whilst staying classy. If your goal for 2019 is to dive into creating an amazing customer service experience than this is exactly what you need.

Okay, it’s time to create your complaint process. Taking the time to set out your process has a couple of benefits:

  1. It gives you a structure to follow. I’m sure you’ve heard about decision fatigue, and having a process means you don’t have to decide how to act every time you receive a complaint.

  2. It ensures you aren’t missing something, like a method customers might get in touch, or a chance to improve your business.

Know your (and your customers) rights

Before we dive in, it’s important to understand how the law impacts handling complaints. If you have a business, you are likely governed by legislation set by your state or federal government. This legislation might include complaint resolution processes, your rights and the rights of your customer. This legislation helps to protect you and your customers from being ripped off or taken advantage of. Understanding if legislation applies to your business can help you when you are creating your complaints handling process because you can use it to build your process around.

It’s also important to understand your rights so that you can’t be taken advantage of by customers. I realise this is a cynical perspective, but it’s important to understand that sometimes customers will make threats, and use a veil of legality to justify it. Once you know the legislation surrounding your particular industry you can use that as a base to create policies for refunds, replacements, fair use and returns (and any other policies that might apply to your business).

Step One: How can customers get in touch?

Start by listing every way someone could get in touch with you or talk about your business: be it social media, your website, email or chat. We’ve already talked about all the different ways you should ask for feedback so refer back to that article to help you make your list. This is also a great time to round out those options or edit your existing ones.

Step Two: Acknowledge

Once you’ve made your list the next step is to make time to review all the feedback and acknowledge it. This is dependent on your schedule; I put aside some time in the morning before I get distracted by other items on my to do list.

I do have one tip, try to respond to social media comments as soon as you possibly can. I’m sure you’ve seen how quickly a social media post can go viral. This way you can get ahead of it before it gets out of control.

Once you’ve decided when to acknowledge feedback, you need to work out how you will acknowledge it. I am a fan of the editable template. I don’t think you should respond the same way to everyone (I see this all the time on websites like Trip Advisor and Airbnb, and it isn’t a good look) but you can have a basic structure you can adapt to the scenario.

Some helpful templates

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for taking the time to let us know about your experience with <OUR PRODUCT/OUR SERVICE>>. I’m sorry to hear about your issue with <<INSERT SPECIFIC SITUATION HERE>>. I’ve sent you an email regarding this issue, and I would love to discuss this when it’s convenient for you.

Hi Sarah,

Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback about our customer service/website/delivery function. I’m sorry that you <<INSERT EXPERIENCE HERE>>, as this isn’t indicative of the service we strive to provide. I’m going to pass on feedback/investigate how to make this better/look into changing this and I would love to keep you updated with what the resolution is. I’ve sent you an email with the steps we have taken so far, and I would love to hear if you have any further feedback regarding this (or any other issue).

Step Three: Resolving the issues

Now that you’ve acknowledged their feedback you need to decide what happens next. There are a few different options; is there a problem to solve? Is this just feedback about improving or changing what you sell? Is this just feedback with no action needed?

A) Problem to solve

Work out the resolution to the problem (obviously). This is why it’s essential to have policies surrounding replacements, refunds and other common complaints. It gives you something you can reference them when making decisions.

Now - there will always be times where your policies need to be bent to serve your customer. That doesn’t negate the need to have them though.

B) Feedback about improvements

You need to keep track of all of the feedback you get about improvements or changes from your customers and - more importantly - you need to take action on feedback when it improves your business.

The best example I can give of listening and responding to feedback is Elise Cripe’s Get To Work Book. I have bought this planner for the last three years and every time I’ve noticed an improvement. The first year the front cover fell off after about three months, so the next year the cover was reinforced. It’s a dated planner with tabs for each month, after that first release she moved where the tab opened from a notepad to the monthly calendar. Every single change has come from feedback that people have given her through her Instagram.

This is the power of listening to your customers. All of this I’m certain she would have worked out herself BUT by seeing what her customers thought was most important she was able to prioritise specific changes over others. She also made sure to share back with her customers the changes she has made.

C) Feedback with no action

Before you assume all feedback needs action let me tell you - sometimes you’re going to get feedback that is irrelevant, useless and occasionally offensive.

Whether it’s on your social media profile or in an email that space belongs to you, and you are allowed to feel like it’s not something that needs to be out in the world.

Step Four: Respond

There is an art to responding to complaints with integrity and respect. For better or worse I have had a lot of experience with handling complaints. I hope I’m able to share some of this knowledge with you. Here are some general tips to get started:

  • Be tremendously kind: This is the hardest thing to do - I can confidently say from over a decade of experience that reacting with anger or frustration will do NO good. Now, you don’t have to FEEL kind; you just have to act it. Kindness disarms angry people; it makes them feel listened to and acknowledged. Also, if you don’t like the idea of being kind to assholes think of it as psychological manipulation because it’s tough to stay angry at someone who is reacting with kindness.

  • Have boundaries: Acting with kindness does not mean staying quiet when someone says something you find offensive. Everyone has different limits and different things they find offensive. What you should not do is react with anger. What you should do is politely state that “I would like to ask that you don’t say X or call me Y as I find it offensive. If you use that language/say that phrase again, I will end this call/cease responding to your emails.”

  • This isn’t about you (the person): This might not even really be about you (the business). If you’re the last in a long line of companies this person has worked with, and you’ve confirmed you don’t offer one particular service, that they feel they need, that might be the last straw for this person. As much as you can, do not take it personally.

  • Empathy not sympathy: This is the big one, this is the one that prevents your heart from breaking. When you are sympathetic, you say “I feel what you’re feeling”. When you’re empathetic, you’re saying “I understand how you’re feeling”. This allows you to show respect to your customer and yourself. If you feel sympathy for every customer, you will feel a lot of anger and frustration in your life. If you are empathetic, you can look at those feelings and still protect your heart.

Over the phone

Responding via a phone call isn’t always possible (you may not know their number OR if they might be overseas), but it’s an excellent option for when it’s available because it allows you to have a conversation.

Something important to remember when you respond to complaints is the fight or flight response, when your brain recognises a threat it secretes the adrenocorticotropic hormone which in turn releases cortisol and adrenaline into your brain. The problem is that our brain isn’t great at differentiating between a real mortal threat (the person holding a knife in a dark alley) and a non-mortal threat (business owner refusing to offer a refund). Here are some tips for helping you respond to customers:

  • Take the higher ground: This is the reality, some customers are just not going to be friendly people. When they are angry, it’s easy to feel like you should stoop to their level. As hard as it is, you must take the high ground. Having a business with integrity means always being respectful, even what you don’t want to be. This isn’t about showing respect to the customer; it’s showing respect to yourself.

  • Let them talk: It can be hard, but you shouldn’t interrupt a customer who is upset. Allowing them to share their complaint without interruption shows them respect, gives you a chance to understand the issue thoroughly and also time to work on a resolution.

  • Acknowledge how they feel: Tell them you understand that the situation has frustrated them. This will help them to get out of flight or fight mode and help them feel listened to.

  • Take a breath: Once they finish explaining the issue, take a breath before responding. This has two benefits; if they aren’t done this prevents you from seeming like you are interrupting them. If they are done, they might take that pause to say “are you still there?” and then you can respond, “Yes, I’m here, I was just listening” which is a great way to reassure a customer that you are taking this seriously.

  • Place them on hold: This gives the customer a chance to get out of that fight or flight mode and also gives you a chance to get out of fight or flight mode too (because your brain is going to see a customer yelling at you as a threat as well). Remember how your parents would tell you to count to five? This works in these situations. When you're counting, don't think about whatever it is that's causing you frustration. Instead, focus on the counting and your breath.

  • Summarise: Always confirm you understand what the problem is, and repeat back the information if you are at all unsure. Also, ensure that you explain precisely what you are doing, why, and when. Don’t be afraid of repeating yourself.


If you have a small online business, you’re much more likely to to be responding in writing (via email or possibly direct message on social media). Some of my suggestions for responding via email are:

  • Take a (virtual) breath: You will almost definitely prevent rage induced responses if you take a breath. This can be just getting up and clearing your head before responding or drafting your response, leaving it for a few hours, then coming back, rereading and sending it.

  • Get an editor: This can be an actual editor or just a friend. They aren’t emotionally involved and can help you take a more neutral tone.

Here are some helpful phrases and templates that I’ve used for years to help me respond to complaints

  • Thank you for taking the time to provide me/us with feedback about your experience/product/service.

  • We appreciate you taking the time to tell us how I/we can improve our service

  • I understand that this has caused you considerable frustration/concern and I want to assure you I/we are treating this as a complaint.

  • I can understand the frustration this issue has caused

  • I can appreciate the inconvenience this has caused.

  • I have fully investigated your concerns and…

  • I can confirm that <insert request here> was not completed as requested due to <insert reason here>

  • This is not consistent with the service that we strive to provide, and we have taken all possible steps to ensure that this does not happen again.

  • Please accept my sincere apologies. I/We will make every effort to ensure that this does not happen again.

  • As a result I/we have…

  • I apologise for any inconvenience this has caused, as this is not indicative of the level of service I/we strive to provide.

  • I/We understand that your experience was not as expected and appreciate you taking the time to bring it to our attention.

Step Five: Track

This is the part that I get the nerdiest about because it’s the part where I think many companies fail. I understand it, you create and release this awesome cool thing and it launches pretty well and you immediately want to move on to the next thing because creativity is fun!

I have worked in management for a large company for a long time. Like most modern companies it has been going through a lot of change in the last decade. With lots of change comes big projects, and with big projects comes that feeling that the launch is so exciting and awesome. Then it’s over, and it’s like my department has been steamrolled, and I’m left trying to pick up the pieces to create something workable going forward sure you’re continuously making it easier for yourself. It’s your business - you don’t need to live with cobbled together systems.