5 Tips to Turn Customer Complaints into Business Assets

Some people can be horrible to deal with. You are trying to be helpful, respectful, and patient but the more you try to appease them the more unpleasant they become. I once had a customer literally shout and chastise me over a staff incident for about an hour until she wore herself out and finally accepted my offer that I would investigate the incident and pass it onto senior management to be dealt with. I can see her face now, and it sends me to an energy draining place that leaves me deflated and beaten up. Have you experienced something like this?

Customer satisfaction is becoming harder and harder and to deliver. The contemporary customer has never been so empowered and informed, while the competitive climate of almost all industries has also elevated. Add in the time poor nature of many clientele, and it is pressure cooker that occasionally boils over and leaves us on the receiving end of some harsh critiques to put it politely. In my experience, this comes with the territory of running a business, no matter what your industry is. There are a few practical ways to turn such negative exchanges into a positive. Here are my top tips:

  1. Diffuse. Anger, irritation, sadness, despair… these are all strong emotions, and no matter how right or wrong you are, there is no talking to someone when they are over-ridden by these feelings. To best deal with this we need to find every bit of empathy we can muster. Seeing through the bile being spat out at you and being patient isn’t always easy, but it is an essential step to turning the situation into a positive one. Diffusing the exchange is key and using the AQUA tool is a good place to start:

A – Acknowledge – it will only elevate the problem if we dismiss the complaint.

Q – Question – showing empathy and using a few questions to get the person talking about facts is already starting to diffuse the emotion and will get the person speaking rationally.

U – Understand – show understanding by using caring body language, lots of eye contact, and simply be the authentic person you are. See yourself as a friend rather than a representative of your business. At the end of the day, you are on the same team.

A – Action – be clear and direct with what is going to happen next. Follow it up personally and instil confidence in the customer by doing what you said you would do.


  1. Side-by-Side. A lot of the time the real problem is forgotten and the abuse can start to be directed towards you. This is not good, nor is it productive for the customer. A great way to change the dynamic is to stand or sit next to the customer rather than directly across from them. The attention needs to be directed at the problem, both conversationally and physically. Using your notepad or the product in question, you can start to write and point to the problem and keep referring to it. Hopefully it won’t be too long before the customer is directing their energy at the problem instead of you. In fact, at times it may give you a chance to join in and direct your own emotion at the problem too! All of the sudden, everyone is working on the problem together and collaborating rather than fighting.
  2. Getting the complaint is a good thing. According to the retail professionals at the Australian Retailers Association HQ, Australian businesses lose 13% in sales per year due to customer dis-satisfaction. That is a huge number. Imagine the positive impact on our revenues if we avoided even half of these loses. How can we make an impact on these losses if people keep the problems to themselves and simply do not come back to shop with us? Seriously, what can we do? Absolutely nothing. By that stage, the horse has well and truly bolted. We must have ways of intervening before this and getting the truth from our patrons. Feedback forms, Net Promoter Score Surveys, Suggestion Boxes, Follow-up e-mails/phone calls/text messages are all methods to get this info. There are many many more, but my advice is to use the most personal process available to you. If you deliver a service that runs over an extended time, then be sure to check in as often as you can while being appropriate. Getting the complaint is a huge win. You can do something about it and turn things around.
  3. Better than getting it right in the first place. I have had a few situations as a customer where I have lodged a complaint and the way it was addressed either killed the brand off for me forever (i.e. I never went back), or it turned me into an even bigger follower than I was before. Sounds mad, but every complaint is an opportunity to create some of your best long term customers. As we discussed before, complaints are usually laden with emotion. It is all about how we feel as a valued consumer. When a complaint is received the first thought must be – how do I WOW this person? I want my complainee (is that a word!?!) to feel that they are the most valued person in the world. I want them to think that my brand is full of wonderful caring people that really do care. Now, I know, this is tough, but if you are prepared with tools, processes, and actions ready to go, then it becomes a lot easier to nail. It is also viable, because you have crunched the numbers on what resources you can afford to use over a quarter or year. No matter what, you want these customers to be raving about how special you made them feel when talking to their friends over a coffee or glass of wine.
  4. Be willing to fire clients. Some people are terrible to deal with and always will be. It’s not that they are terrible people, they are just not our sort of people. They don’t get us, and we don’t get them. This is ok. The reason why this is an asset is that we can draw the conclusion that this is now one less person to throw resources into. We can now concentrate on the customers that we love and that love us. I would always rather have 500 diehard fans than 10,000 marginally interested ones. We must sometimes understand that subtraction is better than addition for our client base. When we receive certain complaints, or repeated problems with an individual customer then this is a flag to fire them and move on with serving those that you love.

The Pen and Paper Trick

I just downloaded Brin. It’s a new app and I have no idea what it really does yet. It wants to talk to me, and provide me with a whole host of info. Everyday there is a host of new apps to explore and discover. Another accounting software, platforms that integrate with a whole lot of others, or the category of super popularity – productivity apps! As soon as you get to grips with Snapchat, Instagram pulls out a competitive platform, and the dance is never ending.

Innovation in technology is everywhere around us, and it is moving forward at an expediential rate. It is exciting, a little scary, and sometimes exhausting.

When I speak of innovation with people, the tech version is what people immediately think of for the above reasons. However, innovation to me comes in the form of a good chat, or even just a piece of paper and a pen. Allow me to explain.

My interpretation of innovation is to do things in a new way. A way which we haven’t thought of doing before or have implemented previously. The most confronting aspect of my work is that a majority of people go about their business the way they always have because that is how it has always been done. It can often be very restricting for an entity’s ability to grow or work itself out of a tight spot.

Before I get on my high-horse about this it is important to point out that there are good reasons why a lack of innovation takes place:

Short Term’ism – an everyday battle. Trying to achieve today’s target often means that overall values and long term goals need to be comprised. It is a fact of life and a part of the human condition. This is the easiest of traps to fall into for all of us.

Time – innovation requires an investment in time. To think creatively to build a strategy ready for communication and implementation will use time. Who has spare time? None of us, or at least we don’t if we do not see the value in creative thinking and prioritise this as a necessary task.

Cost – almost 100% of the time implementing new ways of working will take an investment of cash. New materials, equipment, people… etc. This is all that leaders can see when faced with the prospect of change.

Risk – all of the above all have a level of risk. Put them all together and add the fact that your new innovative plans will never come with guarantees. Now you have every excuse to remain where you are and keep doing things the way you always have.

The bad news about using all of these reasons (or excuses) to not start getting innovative is that it is extremely rare (I cannot overstate this) that your competitors, and ones that do not even exist yet will take your business away from you. This may not happen now, or in the next year, but it will happen. It has been proven on many occasions that businesses rely on good timing in regard to the market as the most critical factor for their success. Take seven minutes to watch the insightful Ted Talk by Bill Gross on Start Up Success. Bill uses examples in the sharing economy such as Airbnb & Uber to illustrate his findings. These business models simply did not work five or ten years previously. People tried and failed. The technology was not right, but most importantly the market did not relate to it with the result being that no one brought the concept. The lesson – move with the times, listen to the consumer market with detailed attention, and constantly innovate.

There is a good trick I use to install innovation and creativity into a person and their business. It requires paper. Preferably, A1 or A2 size. A pen, or preferably some coloured markers (however some napkins and a pen at a bar works well too). Then identify a particular problem that needs to be solved. Make it as specific as you possibly can and write it down. You can do this by yourself or with a small group. Either works well depending on the topic.

Step 1 – Brainstorm two or three solutions. At this point stop.

Step 2 – Take one clean sheet of paper and write/draw a picture or mind map of that idea and explore it as much as you can. Think of every which way it would work and how the idea could be activated until it has been developed as much as you can.

Step 3 – repeat for your other initial ideas.

Step 4 – by this point you have probably opened up a few other ideas in areas that you never would have thought of. Take a moment to explore them if you have the energy or time. If not, schedule yourself a time to re-convene and bang out the process again.

Step 5­ – Sleep on it. Allowing your mind space and time so that your sub-conscious can work on the ideas by itself. This is hugely beneficial as the analytical conscious mind finds many reasons/excuses (as stated above) to rule out great ideas. Sleep, exercise, playing games/sport, gardening, or general procrastinating can be useful for this step. Yes, procrastinating can be productive!

Step 6 – Conviction. You need to muster up the guts, the balls, the courage to go for it. This is easier if you grab a piece of paper and pen and write out the process of implementation. I use a quote that works well for me “writing is doing”. Getting thoughts out on paper makes it real and ensures good ideas don’t just bounce around in our brain resulting in never turning into actions.

I have used this method with many clients. In my previous roles with corporate businesses, and with franchisee’s. I use it often myself when I have a specific challenge to deal with, and it is extremely helpful when creating new marketing campaigns and sales strategies. I call it a trick because the process makes seemingly complex and paralysing situations simple and easier to find solutions for.

Maybe I will use it right now to solve my app problem starting with how to use this new app Brin, and figure out how it can be of use for me and my business.

The Decision Making Triad

Good decision making does not come naturally to me. There, I said it! I admit it!!!

I am naturally a very emotive person, and particularly when I was younger I would allow emotions to cloud my judgement. The result would be poor decisions resulting in a loss of time, money, and opportunity. To make matters worse, my emotions and ego would then stick up for my poor decisions leading to defensive behaviours and justification. The justification didn’t change the result, nor did it make me feel better.

When it comes to business, as owners or managers we are passionate about what we do. Emotion is going to be a big part of how we communicate with our customers and staff. Emotion is a great connecter, inspirer, and can drive us through projects and tough times. But emotion is inconsistent, temporary, and fluctuates. This is why emotion is a poor basis to make decisions upon. A good example is anger and frustration. I am sure I am not alone in feeling these on a regular basis. When you are angry at a staff member for providing poor customer service, or missing a sale this is not a good reason to change staffing, or decide on next quarter’s L&D plans. This is simply a snap shot that needs to be banked (or noted) and added to all the other information you have. But what other information? and when is a good time to make business decisions? Let me introduce what I call The Decision Triad

The Decision Triad

Things can get complicated very quickly in life so I try and keep things as straight forward as possible. When it comes to making key decisions in business I use a triad of three key techniques in conjunction with each other. To use these together makes for a strong clear way to  lead and direct your work environment.

  1. Notes

Keeping a regular record on what you see and hear can become one of the most powerful tools you will ever use. If you are like me, you’ll know that memory can be very unreliable. Especially when we are talking about things that happened six months ago, (let alone last Monday…!) You may use a hip pocket notepad, or an A3/A4 notebook that you keep locked away in your office and update on your breaks, or you may utilise one of the many great mobile/tablet apps to keep your notes. Whatever you use, make sure it is “user friendly”. The last thing you want is for your note taking to become another job you need to do on top of everything else. Write down all of your observations that you feel are good or bad, or just worth remembering. In this exercise, you are not writing down tasks. This is not a To-Do List. Purely observations. An example may be that a team member came to work 15 minutes late, or that the toner on the printer ran out and a spare was not organised. These small observations will give you great insight for a later date when you come to making decisions on your people, your processes, and your business strategies. A quick tip – make your notes detailed, and include dates and times. Use a consistent format so it is easy to read over quickly when it comes to reviewing all of your information.

  1. Analysis Schedule

We all have a calendar and schedules. If you are really organised, you will have an Ideal Week that is adapted to current needs for the week at hand. But within this do we have a time of the week where we take time out to analyse our business and all the observations we have seen? Some may want to do this daily, or maybe even once a month is enough, but the key to this part of the triad is to STOP! Stop and consume all the relevant information within your business and then decide on your tasks and the tasks of your people. This small investment in time can save thousands and thousands of dollars as well as a lot of man-hours.

  1. Numbers

If notes and a regular schedule make up the base of the triad, then Numbers is most definitely the apex.

Knowing your numbers. Checking them regularly. Knowing what drives good and bad results. Knowing how they relate to particular people or marketing activity in your business are all ultra-critical. Relating the key driving figures in your business (usually called KPI’s or Key Point Indicators) back to ultimate revenue and profitability are going to put you in the driving seat. Relating these numbers to your observations and doing this regularly will then create a very clear picture of what the next steps are going to be. I would describe myself as a people-person, so I naturally thought that making decisions based on numbers was quite a sterile way of doing things. But, I have learnt that numbers show us everything. They tell us about our engagement with our customers, how effective our communication is, and where we are failing to connect with each other amongst many many other things. Well-crafted KPI’s can start to create magic. Suddenly you can gain confidence in your leadership ability that you have never experienced before. You can gain clarity in what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to achieve it. You can start creating time in your working week.

Ultimately, you can be catapulted into a mindset where you feel that you don’t need to make a decision again. You simply need to follow what your numbers are telling you to do. Whenever there is uncertainty you can refer to your notes, or ask your team why a certain number is the way it is (i.e. get inquisitive). You may even need to ask if the number you are measuring are the right ones. If they need change, then change them!

In many businesses, you will be able to utilise your CRM or POS system reports. There is also the good old spread sheet which I must admit I am still fond of. But, be under no illusion. If you do not set up this triad then being consistent is going to be tough. Therefore, it will be near on impossible to gain consistent performance from your team and your products. The triad will not stop us from losing our temper occasionally, and it will stop us getting frustrated, but it will ensure our decision making is sound. It will help us have effective conversations with our team, and I am certain this will positively affect our enjoyment at work along with sales results.