How to Love People With Complaints

Do you love handling complaints? Someone is upset with you, your behaviour, your work, your actions, with your proposal.  Something.  Or they are unhappy with the people you work for or with or some process or element.  They are expressing their unhappiness in forthright terms, right at you. Criticism. Here we go.

You feel like you are their problem because of their manner.  They are giving you the best of their grief. They may write a cranky email. They may tell you in person, or telephone. Worse, they write a review on social.  If they feel that they get no acknowledgment, no satisfaction or that this has met with stone-walling or if they have another agenda, they may escalate their action. Handling criticism and complaints well is an essential life skill.  It can feel like personal criticism – and sometimes it is – rather than feel like a problem that has to be solved.

The hard thing about managing complaints is that the way a complaint or criticism is presented makes it feel like a personal attack.  The delivery makes me feel that I am unsafe. This can hit my buttons, whirring my emotional autopilot into action to keep me safe. This auto-response can present in lots of ways but it adds up to direct or indirect unhelpfulness. When someone is focussed on me and not the issue, I do not appreciate their manner, tone or even care about their problem and the result is an escalation.

What do do when you get a complaint?  How do you handle difficult feedback? The challenge is to maintain the relationship.  If you can get through a situation like this with some resilience – it strengthens relationship, commitment, loyalty and connection.  Whether it is a family member, friend or a client or customer…your goal is to deal with the complaint fairly, set boundaries if necessary and build relationship with this person.  Here’s how to love people with complaints.

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1. Listen carefully.  Use your basic true listening skills.  If a complaint is met by being ignored or by deflection the end result is going to be unhappiness.  Restate to them what you understand is their problem in a neutral way.  The skill of reframing is very useful in these situations. Look concerned, respond with interest and be willing to understand what is the source of their problem. Sometimes people talk about the problem they had with a product when the issue is not the product but their knowledge of how to use it.  Or they are upset because they had imagined something different – they may have had a different expectation.  And also – sometimes there really is a PROBLEM!   Let them express themselves. What they are telling you is pretty useful information because if something you are selling is not up to scratch – you really want to know about it.

2. Recognise their feelings and your understanding of why they are upset. This acknowledgement does not mean you agree with them – it means you heard them. You don’t have to make any admissions to do this.  People really find it hard to hear facts if their feelings are in the way and they will be in the way until they are recognised.

3. Understand the details. This is about the facts.  What did they expect, what happened, what caused the problem. Take notes!  Go through their perspective on what happened, when and why they think it happened. Do this in a calm and neutral way and then undertake to do what is appropriate.  You may have to check facts.  You may need to find further information. Let them know.Sometimes the complaint is based on their misunderstanding or miscommunication. When this is the case, be sensitive in the way you bring this to the complainant’s attention. No one likes to lose face. Be kind in the way you bring this news. Try to resolve the situation in a positive way, in any case.

4. Apologise.  Express regret that they have experienced this disappointment, distress, inconvenience.  It isn’t even necessary to make admissions about fault at this point, because you are really acknowledging their feelings again.  This should be easy.  An apology does help.  It especially helps when you are actually at fault.  We all know that things sometimes don’t go well.  It is often less of a big deal to recognise that and say so, than to pretend otherwise, which makes it worse.

5. Take action to remedy or explain.  If you can fix it immediately, do that.  If it is more complicated then indicate you will take action – to investigate, to provide a solution, to get back to them with results or an action or with further information or explanation…this may vary according to the situation. Problem solve. Sometimes the complaint is based on their misunderstanding or miscommunication. When this is the case, be sensitive in the way you bring this to the complainant’s attention. No one likes to lose face. Be kind in the way you bring this news. Try to resolve the situation in a positive way, in any case.

6. Confirm agreement with your action by asking a question. Would that be ok?  Would that solve the problem?  Would this be satisfactory? Does that make sense?  This gets them on board with the solution finding.  Or provides an opportunity to clarify or negotiate.

7. Go the extra mile.  Especially when there is a fault or mistake or a genuine issue that they experienced, exceed expectations in the way you fix the issue, follow up to see if the problem was addressed.  Giving people more is a small investment in a good customer relationship, one who says good things – or at least does not say bad things.  And you want them to come back – if they feel embarrassed or aggrieved they are not likely to return.

8. Follow up.  Check in later with how the solution went: in person, by phone or in writing. This is about building trust, respect and relationship.  Build goodwill.  Well resolved complaints become loyal customers and supporters.

8. Keep records – this is about saving your skin. If you don’t have a contact data base, a records or reporting system then email a summary of the phone conversation/event to yourself or a supervisor. It is important to keep the correspondence.  Not everyone is genuine or nice or reasonable.

In summary: 

  • Give your interest and attention.
  • Name their emotions.
  • Restate your understanding of the problem.
  • Apologise.
  • Act to investigate or remedy.
  • Confirm that this is ok.
  • Go the extra mile.
  • Follow up.
  • Keep records.

And a caution.   Not every complaint is about you and your crew – it can be about unrelated frustration with their life, their world and you just happen to be a safe place/trigger for venting frustration and anger.  This is very common.  It doesn’t mean you are necessarily innocent of any fault – it just means it’s become a bigger problem than it needed to be.  All the more reason to handle the problem well.  Not every complainer is innocent – sometimes they have been caught doing something embarrassing or improper and attack is their best defence.  Sometimes the way a complaint is presented is untrue, unjustified or extremely offensive.  Not every complaint is genuine – it can be about pursuing or creating an agenda or a search for freebies.  This is not that common, however, it can happen.

When this happens, be as cool as you can.  Always behave as though the way you behave will become public. Keep the high moral ground – be courteous, be firm but friendly and keep good records.

Receiving a complaint or a criticism is an opportunity because they could have just left with unhappiness and never said a word to you in person about their dissatisfaction.  When they speak to you, it is an opportunity to restore relationship.  Handling criticism and complaints well is an essential asset to you and a core communication skill.

Saleena Ham

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It's better to show the Love than have them complain all over Social!