In this long read, we tackle customer complaints. You can expect to learn how to resolve complaints in the short-term and how to tackle the root cause of complaints in the long-term. We illustrate advice with step-by-step guides and visual aids and answer all your FAQs.
Customer complaints are no fun for anyone.
They drive down customer loyalty, take time to resolve and contribute to negative brand awareness.
In this guide, we take you through the vital components of understanding and tackling your customer complaints—whatever the scale.
Contributing to business growth is a vital part of the future of customer service. Having an in-depth understanding of complaints is essential to preventing them so your business can grow faster with more loyal customers.
We cover both the short-term: resolving customer complaints on the spot. Including a step-by-step on how to respond and a sample email. And the long-term: doing in-depth complaints analysis and making organisational change happen.
Taking both angles doubles the value of customer service. After reading this guide, the actionable insights you deliver will set your team as a strategic leader in customer service improvement.
Customer complaints are often unique to the company and industry. But, they are often driven by common factors.
SentiSum uses artificial intelligence to scan through customer complaints and identify the reasons for them. Lets login to our platform to take a look at what’s driving customer complaints for two of our customers.
This is a great place to start because there are many problems that traverse every category of eCommerce. In the below example, we take a look at complaints left on Trustpilot for an online furniture retailer.
Product quality, delivery punctuality, value for money and customer service are important reasons customer’s leave negative reviews.
When we dive into the food delivery industry, we see a different story.
In this industry, we see false orders, failed discount codes and damaged packaging driving customer complaints.
Anyone who’s ever received their grocery shopping in the post will know some of these complaints well.
When we take one step back to get some perspective, there’s always similarities between complaints.
“Old ingredients”—the customer can’t use them at all and now can’t even cook their dinner.
“Didn’t order box”—the customer received something they didn’t order.
“Discount not working”—the customer wants to order but there’s an error on your website preventing them from getting a great deal.
“Damaged packaging”—the customer received the product but it was delivered in a way they didn’t like.
“Punctuality”—the customer received the product but it negatively affected their day.
“Customer support”— the customer wanted to resolve the issue but your service team was rude or unhelpful.
“Order process”—the customer failed to order a product because the process was too complex, or they didn’t receive any confirmation information after the order.
“Value for money”—the customer received the product but it was as good as they paid for.
It looks like that whenever a customer complains, it fundamentally boils down to a failure to meet expectations. Either it’s the product itself (that’s damaged, broken, doesn’t do as expected, isn’t to the expected quality), the people (deliver the product late, failed to do as expected with the product) or the service (your website is broken, a server was rude, or your customer service failed to resolve the issue).
The positive sign here is that setting expectations correctly can eliminate many customer complaints. While aligning your product, marketing and operations with the needs of a customer (being customer-focused) tends to resolve your complaints problem. But, we’ll get to the ‘how to reduce customer complaints’ part later.
How you handle customer complaints usually predicts how bad that complaint ends up being for you and your customer.
A complaint that’s resolved quickly goes away. It’s better to nip a problem in the bud than to let it snowball into a more serious complaint—perhaps even one that becomes a PR nightmare.
First, let's take a look at the frontline of defense: your initial response via email. Then, let's take a look at how innovative companies are handling their customer complaints processes.
Responding to complaints via email can be a minefield. You never know what mindset the customer is in or how they will interpret your words. And, unlike with real-time customer interactions you can’t correct your mistakes when you see the response.
Your customer service agents will need to respond quickly, but pleasantly. They’ll need to exude confidence, warmth and compassion, while using simple language that’s practical and helpful. Not an easy task.
Here are six rules your responses need to follow and how to implement them into your email templates. We’ve also included a sample response to give you a head start when creating your internal templates.
It’s a no brainer really. The more time you take to respond to a complaint, the longer it gives that person to (1) Get angrier because they think you will never respond, (2) Take it to a public forum like Twitter (everyone knows you get a response quickly after a Tweet), or (3) Complain again through another channel creating confusion between departments.
Second best to respond immediately is sending an autonomous response that sets the customers expectations (reminder about the previous section, expectations matter). Let them know it typically takes a certain amount of time to respond—we suggest doubling it just to make sure. So if it usually takes 12 hours, tell them it will be 24 hours. Just to be safe.
Even if the complaint seems daft, now’s not the time to make jokes. Making light of the situation may diffuse it, but it also has the potential to backfire and your uptight customer will think you’re taking the piss out of them. Best to avoid.
Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to win friends and influence people” makes this point excellently.
“Be honest. Look for areas where you can admit error and say so. Apologize for your mistakes. It will help disarm your opponents and reduce defensiveness.”
In the book, Carnegie teaches fundamental concepts to human communication. He spells out simple things that we already know deep down about what we do and don’t like about others and our relationships with them.
In the chapter about apologies, he says nothing disarms an angry person like a complete and profuse apology. Being absolutely over the top, admitting all fault and basically laying down for them to walk on you means that they’ll likely say ‘well, it’s not all your fault’ and come to your defense. Works like a charm. So, apologise profusely.
Dislaimer: Use common sense here. Do not admit liability for some things without consulting a lawyer.
Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge. Most people just want to be heard and for someone to understand that this complaint meant something to them!
They know deep down it wasn’t done on purpose. So a sincere apology from an open ear often diffuses the tension.
You can make it obvious that you’ve heard them by repeating back their problem and the pain it caused the customer.
A complaining customer also wants an explanation. Often being clear on why something happened the way it did is enough for the customer to feel respected.
Try being honest with your customer (within reason, of course). But, often transparency will go along way because it shows you’re aware of the problem and are, perhaps, thinking of solving the cause of it.
Get to the point as soon as possible. You are solving the problem and here’s how.
If you need more time to find a solution, don’t say ‘we are going to do our best to find a solution’. Sadly, your customer has been burnt too many times by other companies to trust language like that.
Let them know specifically what steps you’re taking to resolve their complaint. If you need more time tell them exactly why, the time frame, what you’re waiting on and that you appreciate how patient they’re being.
Sometimes a gift is a great option to help build customer relationships. However, I don’t think when a customer is complaining is a good time.
A token of ‘sorry’ is a pretty lame sorry. What a customer wants is the situation corrected: a refund or a new item, immediately.
We suggest that you reserve gifts for customer relationship building during important times. For example, if one of your agent overhears that a customer’s family member passed away, they’re about to get married or it’s your customer’s birthday.
Pret A Manger, the UK-based sandwich chain, lets every customer service staff member have a daily budget. With that budget they can give free coffee or sandwiches to customers that look like they need it...for example, if it looks like their day go use a pick-me-up. That’s when it’s GREAT to give a gift and it won’t be seen as a poor attempt of an apology.
When a customer complains, own the mistake and move forward. No gifts.
Dealing with a customer complaint should be a collaboration between you and the customer. How you approach the resolution determines how tense it will be, and, if you do a great job, perhaps there’s even an opportunity to make that customer loyal for life.
In any collaboration, you never want to be final. Always leave room for the other person to clarify, ask questions and reopen areas of conversation they don’t understand. It’s good practice to let the other person know you’re open to their questions and are happy for them to respond.
You’ve probably heard this before, but say “sorry” less and “thank you” more. It’s very effective to diffuse the tension by saying how much you appreciate the customer being patient and staying cool. It also helps you maintain dignity throughout the exchange.
Here’s a great infographic to help you decide when to use ‘sorry’ and when to use ‘thank you’.
“Dear [First name],
I’m so sorry [problem] happened. I know how [emotion they are feeling] this is and there’s a lot of making up to do on our part.
I can’t turn back time, but what I can do is [what you’re doing to fix it]. You can expect a full resolution of the problem by [time].
You can rest assured that we are on this. I’ve raised a flag and we’ll be running a project to make sure the root cause of the problem (which we think at this time is [cause of the problem]) will change.
Thank you so much for your patience in waiting for a resolution. The team here is very grateful to you for raising the issue.
If you have any further questions, please reach out to me directly by responding to this email.
[Agent first name]
Resolving complaints in the moment is important to customer happiness, but it’s a short-term strategy.
It’s essentially a game of whack-a-mole and we encourage you to get preventative rather than prescriptive in your approach to complaints.
To get prescriptive you need to get a solid process in place that looks something like this:
If you plan to do your analysis manually, we suggest you read our article on manual customer support ticket analysis. It includes a handy template and a step-by-step guide to complaints analysis.
However, for those of you with high ticket volume and not a lot of time to deal with endless data tagging, maintenance, analysis and distribution, here’s how we get to the bottom of customer complaints using SentiSum’s customer service AI analytics.
After a quick integration with your complaint ticket system or review platform, the SentiSum team builds a natural language processing (NLP) algorithm that understands your customers and why they’re complaining.
NLP is vital to the process because it’s like having 1,000 humans reading each complaint and writing down the reason for it in a consistent unbiased way. That means you can understand millions of complaints in seconds, and even in real-time as they are made.
Let’s do a step-by-step for uncovering large complaint drivers.
Step one: login to app.sentisum.com
Step two: Select your date range. Maybe you want to look at new complaints today, or maybe the last few months or years.
Step three: Choose your input channel. Where do you want to see complaints from? All channels or only complaints that were emailed?
Step four: Hit the deep dive button. At the top will be the complaints with the highest volume.
Take a look at the list on the left. We can see that ‘Rude Driver’ for this company is the largest generator of customer complaints. Some training could be a quick win, but let’s dig deeper first.
Step five: Dig a little for the real customer insights. As you can see here (the non-blurred part), under ‘rude driver’ there are a number of areas in particular causing concern for customers.
The door, tickets, and wearing of protective masks, for example. Here are some solid insights into common issues facing customers using the services of this company.
The final step in the process is understanding the topics themselves. Does “Driver” → “Door” mean that customers typically get the doors closed on them, hurting them? Or, does it mean the driver refused to open the door for them, so they missed their bus stop?
We’ll tackle that next.
Using the SentiSum platform, getting insights is easy. But, insights without action is a waste of time.
Here’s a few steps you can take to get clarity on your customer complaints and then to make resolutions happen at the root cause level.
First things first, you want to make sure the issues you uncover are still relevant today. Sometimes customer complaints are of the moment (e.g. complaints about your employees not wearing face masks during a pandemic), so if you’re doing this analysis in two years time (god, I hope) then that issue is really not worth solving.
Look at the historical causes of complaints and compare them to more recent ones to get an idea of persistent customer problems.
Each input channel can give different results which impact your analysis. For example, only a particular customer demographic might still use phone calls over live chat. Looking only at complaints made over the phone may make it look like a problem is more severe than it is, when actually it’s only severe for a tiny proportion or fringe group of your customers.
As always, as much context as possible about your complaints is important.
The biggest win for your company is to tackle complaint drivers in one of three ways:
When doing a root cause analysis you want to get to the nitty gritty of the complaint driver.
In the previous section we looked at going from high level (general topic) and zooming in (specific cause of that topic). You can go one step further by perusing the individual complaints themselves and building context.
We then suggest listing topic drivers and mapping out what the problem might be. For our bus company example, ‘rude driver’ complaints were most often being caused by issues relating to the ‘door’. If we take a look at a few individual complaints, it quickly becomes clear that the bus drivers are refusing to let passengers off at the right time or shutting the door too quickly and hurting people.
This is clearly a training issue. Send a note to the director of training and show them evidence: 5,000 complaints in the last year were because of how drivers use the bus doors.
That’s a significant problem and it could perhaps be remedied quickly by changing the driver training curriculum to focus on ‘use of doors’.
There is no point doing a root cause analysis if you don’t share what you find. As a customer service lead, you most likely don’t have control of the cause of complaints, so you’ll need to make sure the department leads know what you know.
Driving change isn’t easy. But there are a few ways to make sure you get heard. First step is to quantify the problem: how many people are impacted by this and how badly. Second step is to shout loudly about customer-centricity and how solving these problems actually prevents churn and drives business growth.
Please let us know if you find any solutions to making people listen. We’re in this together.
When we say customer complaints or consumer complaints, we’re talking about customer complaints in the context of a contact centre.
When a customer expresses their dissatisfaction to someone at the company in a formal documentation process. Usually, your customer will call a customer service representative or visit your website or mobile app to find a live chat, and once their, they’ll let your customer service team know what the complaint is.
Complaints are typically made with resolution in mind. Customers call because they want something fixed, like their pizza arrived cold and they want a hot replacement or their money back.
But, other times, customers complain because they’re angry and want to be heard, like in the below example, a bus company received 800 customer complaints because buses weren’t stopping for customers.
That’s infuriating (and slightly funny) but not something that can be fixed immediately.
The types of customer complaints are unique to the industry, company and product. In eCommerce fashion, complaints could focus on wrong sizes, incorrect descriptions, or poor delivery, whereas in the consumer electronics industry complaints could focus on damaged products, missing parts and wrong items.
However, there are universal things that piss off every customer. And that’s usually the way customer service is delivered in the first place.
Thankfully, this is becoming less and less of a problem (in my experience at least). However, nothing is more painful than the combination of (1) A company’s only contact channel is my phone call, and (2) there’s a 45-minute wait to talk to an agent.
Solution: Please, we know ‘cost centre’ thinking is prevalent. But, seriously, employ a few more people to cover the peaks and valleys of call centre demand. Do the maths internally—what’s worse, employing extra staff that aren’t always at max capacity...or annoying your customers and increasing those who leave you for a competitor? Selling the value of excellent customer service internally is a vital skill to learn. We wrote an eBook about it here so you have no excuses.
It was a woeful moment in history when companies put saving time before customer experience. I once got stuck in a virtual loop at a hospital because I didn’t know the exact title wording of the department I needed to go to—see point eight, ‘don’t fuck with people’s finances or health’.
Solution: If your chatbot or voice bot makes things harder, not easier for your customer, put it in the bin.
From a customers point of view, a customer service agent represents the company. It makes no sense to us to be transferred to another department to get one issue solved, and back again for a different issue. I understand, because I work in this industry, that it’s easy to train people in specific areas and sometimes there are whole teams in different countries for each issue. But, most customers do not know, do not care, they just feel hatred.
Solution: “Empower your agents, people!”
This is a natural consequence of point three. And it just makes things worse. Okay, so I’ve accepted that one person can’t deal with every problem, now you’re asking me to accept that when you transfer me across you can’t quickly explain the problem? Or you don’t have a CRM tool where you write some quick notes down?
Solution: Identify why your team is not trading notes. Do they not trust each other to write it down correctly? Can they not be bothered? Whatever it is, fix it. At least, start off with ‘Hey Ben, it looks like X and Y is your problem. Is that correct?’ That’ll let me know you’ve tried.
Some problems, especially in business-to-business land, take longer to resolve. It’s not normally a problem but most customers are impatient and worried they won’t ever get a resolution.
Solution: Common issues should be fast to resolve. Any others should be met with lots of extra empathy. Acknowledge the frustration and fear, and let the customer know when they’ll hear from you and what to do if they don’t. Reassurance can go a long way.
Expectations are everything. They influence entire economies and cause stock markets to crash. In a negotiation, if I expect the price to be £100 and you try to sell it to me for £50, I’ll see that as cheap. If you try to sell it at £10,000 I’ll be horribly shocked. My initial expectation sets the tone for my ultimate reaction.
Solution: A customer service agent, manager, supervisor or director, you’ll need to be constantly managing expectations. Don’t say the wait will be 5 minutes when it will be 10, say it will be 15 and pleasantly surprise the customer by being quicker than expected.
The problem here is obvious. Rude agents (apparently) account for around 30% of unhappy customers leaving reviews. When you’re trying to get something resolved and the person on the other end of the phone is being rude, that’s a recipe for reviews, survey results and customer churn.
Solution: Train your agents to empathise and apologise. Customers can be rude and a pain in the ass, for sure, but it won’t help things for agents to respond to like with like. This problem can also be a symptom of customer service burnout which you can get tips to help resolve here.
As mentioned briefly in point 2, some things need immediate attention. Namely, topics like health and finances.
Your customers need quick responses to problems that impact their lives significantly. If you’re a banking company and a bug is preventing people from withdrawing cash, if that isn’t resolved immediately, expect some severe backlash.
Solution: Figure out which topics are the highest priority for your customers. For example, you could identify which cause customers to ‘churn’ or leave negative reviews. When support tickets of that nature come into the system, route them to the front of the queue using AI for customer service automation and get them resolved quickly. Learn how to buy AI for customer experience here.
Some companies continue to hide access to customer support deep within their website or behind a large survey. Other companies have it in a totally different place to where the customer expects—for example, on the website when the company is solely a mobile app.
Solution: Put access clearly at the very top of the most obvious page. Let the customer know that their query could be resolved in the help centre you spent months developing, but don’t then hide access to a live agent until they’ve realised your help centre is a load of rubbish. Some people don’t want to read, they want help. Be there for them, too.
Poor customer service could be the result of many things. It boils down to failing to meet a customer’s expectations.
Some of those expectations include: being heard and empathised with, having their complaints resolved quickly, not waiting for hours in queues, and being treated with respect.
Your call centre is a source of relationship building. Every interaction is a chance to create positive goodwill with customers so they’ll keep coming back, spending more and telling others about your company. If they experience poor customer service, they’re likely to be taken aback. A brand they love, suddenly not meeting their expectations? That brand quickly becomes one they hate.
That’s just one reason that great customer service needs to be a priority for every company.
In a sense, we want customers to complain. When a customer complains that means we can do a proper complaints root cause analysis and make sure the issue doesn’t arise for future customers.
However, data has shown that 96% of unhappy customers don’t complain and 91% of those will simply leave and never come back.—Source: 1Financial Training Services
That means customers not complaining is actually a bigger problem than expected. So we need to get to the bottom of why they aren’t complaining, getting heard, feeling happy it’s resolved, and moving forward as a happy customer.
Why are customers choosing not to complain?
Let’s face it, most customer service is inaccessible or requires waiting in a lengthy queue. Catch motivated customers early by eliminating queue length and getting them on to a phone call ASAP.
Some customers have been burned before. They think there’s no point because nothing will change. If you’re more customer-centric than the norm and love to hear form your customers—let them know! The door is always open and your team is actually very responsive to customer complaints.
Some people don’t like to be a bother. I go out to dinner with them all the time. They order one meal and another comes, and they don’t want to say anything.
The dilemma is that of course, the waiter wants to know. They’d rather you’re happy than eating the wrong food.
Overcome this problem by making complaints anonymous or allowing the customer to complain via discrete methods. For example, live chat removes some of the awkwardness of a phone call, so you’re likely to catch more complaints if you offer it as a service channel.
It may be too late to help these people. If something got to them this badly, you may have to move on and take the loss.
Customer complaints analysis can be complex. For many companies, complaints come in the thousands if not hundreds of thousands every year.
Breaking down one complaint is easy. Deploy a simple why, what, when, how, who analysis to see if this could have been prevented and the investment required to prevent it.
We recently wrote about how you can do a manual support ticket analysis here. Including a free Excel template.
However, doing this kind of complaints root cause analysis is complex at high volumes.
We suggest implementing software to expedite your analysis. You should look for software that is simple-to-use, uncovers detailed reasons for complaints, integrates with your existing help desk, and lets you share the insight widely.
SentiSum is the best-in-class solution for complaints teams with high volumes they need to make sense of quickly.
As a customer support professional, you’re likely to face a lot of negativity. People generally aren’t calling customer service to tell you how lovely their experience was. It’s the nature of the game.
Negativity is contagious. As are all emotions, even over short periods of time.
Which means you need to stay vigilant to the negativity of others. Here are a few tips we’ve gathered to help you.
Mindfulness has taken on some pretty annoying connotations, but it boils down to a few techniques that have been used for thousands of years.
One mindful approach is to distance yourself from others emotions. Don’t take them personally. When someone is incredibly grouchy, it’s never your fault, it’s usually something much worse going on in their personal life. Choose to see it that way, protect your own emotional wellbeing by not allowing them to ‘dump’ their bad day on you. A great way to do this is to build empathy: imagine what horrible events must have led them to being so unhappy today and send them some positive energy.
Another mindful approach is practice non-attachment. Often, the negativity we feel comes down to attachment. What you are attached to creates the particular lens through which you see. For example, a lot of people are attached to being respected. It’s ego pleasing to feel important—I totally get that. But, having an extremely strong attachment to ‘being respected’ even by people who have never met you and just hear you as a voice on the phone or see you as a couple of lines of text on live chat, is likely to bring up a lot of negativity for you. If someone being rude and aggressive via live chat really bothers you, take a look at why. What are you holding on to that’s making you feel this way? Does it really matter to you if a customer is being a tool over live chat? Easier said than done, but try practicing letting go next time.
You wouldn’t tell someone being bullied to ‘smile’ and ‘take a deep breath’. You’d tell them to remove themselves from the problem altogether.
If your mental health is really suffering, consider: moving jobs, having zero tolerance, setting clear boundaries, talking to your boss about moving to a friendlier area of the business. Remember, no job is worth damaging your mental health over, however much you like your boss.
Poor customer service is usually a symptom of a wider company issue. The issue that leads to poor customer service is typically being non-customer-centric culture. A customer-centric culture has strong leadership (think the CEO level) who believe in a customer-first approach.
You can always tell when a company has a great customer culture because leadership sets the right example, they empower their staff with quality tools to do their job well, and they also empower them with the authority to use those tools—especially in aid of the customer themselves.
When corporate culture becomes all ‘me, me, me’ customer service typically fails first: how can we talk to fewer customers, how can we hide our customer support phone number, how can we outsource our customer service to countries and people who know nothing of our business. They’re all decisions that, in the short term, make the company’s life easier and the customers' life hell, without regard to the long term impact of the decision.