When a Customer Complains

When a customer complains, it always seems like a slap in the face to a small service business. But, in this age of online reviews and social media, an unhappy customer can make a lot of negative noise by posting unhappy reviews about the issue without ever confronting you directly. When a customer offers a complaint, they’re offering you a chance to make it right and improve your business.

A complaint is a snapshot of a bad moment

We’ve seen it to often: a complaint is offered, and the offending business becomes offensive, which may even make the situation worse.

No one wants to feel like they’re in the doghouse. Especially when it comes to their customers.

No one wants to feel like they’re in the doghouse. Especially when it comes to their customers.

“You were dismissive, condescending, and rude when I came to you with my problem,” one customer told the manager of a small food service business.

Ouch! But, taken from the perspective of a company which is trying to better themselves, complaints can point to problems.

Analyzing a complaint

Maybe your customer wanted a little more than they got. It’s easy for a service-oriented business to have a less-than-hundred percent day. We are human. In the case of the complaint we mentioned, the woman thought her salad from a well-known restaurant was less than a full portion. It could have been corrected with an apology, a smile, a second cherry tomato, and some lettuce. Total fiscal output: 15 cents. A happy customer who returns--what? $500? $1000? More? You decide.

We have one client who pegs each customer with a $10,000 value. “Each customer is worth $10,000 to me,” he told us. “I treat them that way because that’s how much business I figure each one is going to bring my company. It might be more or less, but that number always puts me in the right frame of mind for how to treat them.”

Part of that treatment is taking their complaint seriously as a warning that your business may be on rocky waters.

A chance to better your business

When a small business works hard at their online presence, an unhappy customer--particularly one who has been offended by the response to their complaint--can be social media poison to a hard-working business. But, one who complains directly is offering the company a gift: the opportunity to rectify the problem, compare it to other complaints they might have had, examine their business for weaknesses, and make amends to the customer.


One of the hardest things to do is to apologize without making an excuse. Think of the last time someone owed you an apology for something: did they offer an excuse along with it? Did that excuse bolster your opinion of them, or make them seem like they were trying to justify their behavior more than offer sincere amends?

“I am sorry. I was wrong. I am going to correct this and look hard into how it happened in the first place.”

Remember the story we told earlier of the unhappy customer who thought the salad was underwhelming? A few days later, the woman got a call from the manager, who apologized not only for the problem but also for her reaction to the complaint and offered her a free salad.

“When I went to pick it up, I could tell that she was sincere and she made me feel like my opinion was of value. Plus, their food is almost always so good!”

Better and stronger

We know; you’re busy, and it’s hard to interact with unhappy customers. But, catching mistakes early is hugely important and will make your business better and stronger. So, when a customer complains, having the right frame of reference can make a difference in your response. If they give you the chance to correct something, it may be a chance to dig deep, find and correct your weaknesses. So, when a customer complains, reach for your best.