Complaints and Their Role in Business – I need your help

Lately, having had some terrible customer service experiences with some big brands, I have been thinking a lot about complaints and what they mean to the consumer and the business.

Complaints are so very different fromΒ a bad review and the appropriate responses are different as well. And I know when I ran a bricks and mortar store how painful they were as well.

So I am asking you for some help from you. Here are some questions that you might answer for me:

Do you have any anecdotes about the good, bad and ugly of complaints vis a vis your business or businesses you deal with?

Do you have suggestions on how you handle complaints?

If you are agency do you value add your client relationships by helping them navigate the complaint waters?

How do you see complaints as different than and the same as reviews?

What do you think are the key bullet points when thinking about responding to complaints?

And you are welcome to send along anything about complaints that would add to the conversation. Don’t feel limited by my suggestions I just put them out there to give you something to think about.

As always your ideas, if used will be credited with a link. Not that I am offering a quid pro quo. That would be bad. Just offering to credit you. πŸ™‚

You can answer below or email me at

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Complaints and Their Role in Business - I need your help by

20 thoughts on “Complaints and Their Role in Business – I need your help”

  1. I have well over 8 years of customer service before I got into marketing. I even worked in the public sector. Chances are, I have heard almost everything.

    Disclosure: This the condensed version. Hopefully there are no grammatical or spelling errors.

    1. Complaints are opportunities. Think otherwise and you will create problems for yourself. You must recognize the origin of the issue and prevent it from reoccurring. It’ an opportunity to improve.

    2. Complaints will turn into negative reviews if handled poorly.
    You know this. Some do not or think they have an invisible force field. Many companies have learned the hard way and had to rebrand.

    3. When you receive a complaint, the customer has felt some level of displeasure , disrespect and inconvenience; maybe all three. It’s a matter of listening 1st. Let them explain the issue. Steer the conversation without frustrating them further and spending more time than needed.

    4. People who complain are looking for decisive action. They are at their limit. Resolve it quickly. One should have processes in place.

    5. If the customer remains angry, I capture their info and call them back. Give them a short time frame. Trying to resolve a problem with an angry person will be far too difficult. Some are angry and calm down and others remain out of control. Too hot to handle is just to hot.

    6. You won’t resolve all of them. Humans are fickle and some people are just unreasonable. Some are looking to take advantage.

    7. Reviews. Few companies have perfect reviews. It’s when a pattern develops that it hurts the company. Customers expect bad reviews. You should respond to them offline but leave a response online if attempts break down. No one is perfect.

    It really depends on the circumstances. New client? existing client? Make sure to document everything. When I see an existing client always complaining, that’s a red flag. Retention is important for growth. Some repeat clients are not worth it. I’ve seen some spend very little money and drain resources. Whatever the case is be thorough and thoughtful.

  2. Hey Mike,
    Not sure if you saw my Moz Blog post in February, but I thought of it reading this article because I outlined 5 bad personal experiences with businesses in it and what I felt might have made them better. If you’d like to read:

    Honestly, I believe the ability to handle complaints well comes down to how well a business is loved by ownership. Loved businesses stand behind their service, their staff and their customers. Unloved businesses aren’t committed to quality, fail to adequately train staff and try to blame customers rather than be held accountable for mistakes. Ownership has to really love the business and have the capacity to transmit that feeling to staff and consumers. The absence of this can be felt by everyone, both in soulless big brands and struggling small ones.

  3. I hope this isn’t off topic but to me all businesses should be actively encouraging FEEDBACK that they can incorporate into their business planning. This is alongside LOYALTY programs so that they can leverage existing customers to win new customers. Sounds simple but needs careful planning and perhaps some systems help. My clients have access to a great system that seeks feedback and streams negative feedback to customer service staff and positive feedback to requests to leave a public review. Without such a system the first thing most companies get is a poor public review which is much more difficult to fix. They also carry on blindly making the same errors if the level of disatisfaction is not bad enough to cause outright complaints.

  4. Nicholas
    Those are great. I would love your full version. I have a similar set of guidelines “in the can” but I think I will “steal” a couple of yours to flesh it out.

    1. Absolutely. In fact I think of complaints as “buying signal”. The customer still wants to do business with you , but before they can there needs to be a resolution.

    2- In a recent as yet unpublished survey 70% of consumers said that they didn’t complain directly to the business and interestingly >10% said they just went directly to the review sites

    3- Love your “categorization” of the broad causes of complaints. Well done!

    4-I am running a survey on customer expectation for a timeframe for resolution. All indications are that it needs to be quickly.

    5. Great tip. Trying to get to the point of resolution is hard when the other side can’t hear you. Even if you were able to hear them.

    6. So true.

  5. Complaints are the raw material out of which a better business is built.

    That is why I promote a reputation management process that doesn’t just try to cover up bad reviews with good one, but that funnels potential negative comments to the owner/designated person for follow-up.

    The way I see it, the promotion of good reviews is just part of the process, the avoidance of bad reviews, by proper handling, is the other.

    The key to it, however requires assertive efforts to get feedback from all customers, so that you can hear not only the positive but also the negative.

    That means you need a system that politely and persistently asks for people’s feedback.

    Then it needs to be able to funnel that content to either positive postings on the various review sites if positive, or if less than 4 star or better back to ownership for feedback.

    Unfortunately my system does not make the ownership do anything about the feedback, but simple good business practices usually kick in.

    Although from time to time I need to warn clients not to react negatively to the Horses Asses they sometime encounter n these negative challenges.

    Most are wise enough to see room for improvement as a positive.

  6. @Miriam

    Sometimes I think the companion of love is overly protective.

    I agree that they have to love their business but they also have to realize that their “baby” isn’t always perfect and that there is no better source of where it is going wrong than the people it was meant to serve. All too often either “Flight or fight” kicks in OR “Protective Mother Bear Syndrome” rears its ugly head. In either case, adrenaline pumps up, the ears shut down and everything heads right down the crapper.

    I will head over to your article. Thank you for sharing it.

    Uh… and no there are no knives. Love, appreciation and joy that you are my friend but no knives. If you are unhappy with that go see Nicholas, he can calm you down.

  7. I have to chime in although it’s pretty much all been said. Great thread Mike.
    I participate in Reputation Management with my clients, on top of the Local SEO I do for them and more. As such, I offer them verbiage that they can use to take the sting out of a negative review or email complaint. Often I can be more objective. I can help the business to sound concerned and professional. Their personal discomfort has less chance to seep through. I’m sure I’m not alone. It’s a value add that all of us here can (and prolly do) offer because we have seen it all and we have perspective.
    That’s all I have to add.

  8. @Jennifer

    Great point and one that makes all kinds of sense. If the business owner can’t be trusted to behave rationally then its certainly best to bring in another person.

    The main reason that it makes sense to me to train and coach the business owner is that many consumers (again as yet unpublished research) expect immediate or near immediate responses to complaints. Obviously it is business dependent but a business needs to understand the expected timeframe for their clients to put the plan together.

  9. While I’ve never enjoyed complaints, I do feel they are almost invaluable since they provide insight into what your business/product is getting wrong. It is more than likely other customers/clients have had the same complaint but haven’t voiced it.

    Complaints allow you to fix any flaws (real or perceived) your business may have and improve in certain areas.

    With any new client I work with, I’ve always tried to stress the importance of open communication and to always be comfortable telling me when things are not meeting their expectations. This allows me to deal with unhappy clients offline which I believe has reduced potential negative reviews.

  10. Ah, well – I’d probably have cut myself trying slice open tin cans, anyway, Mike πŸ™‚

    Agree with you about needing to know your baby isn’t perfect. Agree with your assessment of that, and if you really love your business/brand, you’ve got to be real about its failures so that you have the right mindset for correcting them.

    Dave, thanks for the 100+!

  11. @Derek
    I agree whole heartedly. I am doing (again unpublished) consumer research that indicates that somewhere north of 70% do not say anything and about 50% just never come back.

    Conversely 75% say that if you asked for feedback they would give it to you.

  12. @Earl

    You are a man after my own heart. The system you describe is very similar to what I helped design for Getfivestars… feedback from every one, complaint alerts etc

    And it works.

  13. @Nicholas – I too like what the list you posted (the 7 points). It sounds like you know your stuff and I think it’s a great guide πŸ™‚

  14. Mike this is a great question & discussion.

    A complaint is direct feedback from a customer to a business with a direct or implied request for a response/resolution. A business with any customer service operation in place presumably would handle customer complaints/issues directly with their customers.

    A review is an expression of a customers experience with the business for a public audience. A customer might write a glowing review of how the business handled their original complaint and made it right. (These are the best kind of reviews!)

    Whenever I see reviews consistently take the form of complaints about a business it tells me that their customer service is poor or absent. And if there are no public responses to complaint-style reviews, then there is real trouble.

    Yesterday I wrote a 2-star review of Chipotle on Yelp. It was not a complaint. They have every right to deliver an underwhelming experience while serving mediocre burritos. But it inspired me to share my opinion about how they roll.

  15. Hi Mike,

    we haven’t gotten any bad reviews thus far (knock on wood) but we have had issues. I guess in this case complaints. Most of the time we go out of our way to fix it if possible. A lot of the time it’s more of a misunderstanding than we actually messed up, but either way, I think we go above what we should to fix it, some times cutting way into the profit.

    At this point in our business, we’re still fairly young and naive so I’m unsure how long this way of doing business is sustainable but so far we’ve been on good grounds with all of our clients. More than good to be honest.

    The other thing we’ve not experienced yet are unreasonable customers, and I think we’ve been fairly lucky thus far but will probably encounter a bad client at some point. This has made it extremely easy and pleasant to go above and beyond for our clients when they have any sort of issue.

    But I agree with the other commenters. I think a complaint is a symptom (of an illness as a metaphor) and how you treat it determines whether it turns into something more serious or get healed.

    1. @da
      I am not sure what kind of business you run but given that the research< \a> says long haul an existing customer is easier to sell, cheaper to retain and worth more by a factor of 10x than a prospect.

      I have no idea the lifetime value of your customer nor your acquisition cost but if the above stats are true it makes all kinds of sense to work really hard, like you seem to be doing, to remain that customer.

  16. @mike

    we do web design with support after launch so their isn’t too much more we can sell. We tend to do extra work for free and not charge extra for work that probably should be done at additional costs. We also strive to fix things within an hour but at most a day. This can get hectic depending on what else is going on. I know a lot of other firms will let their support tickets pile up and get to them when they can.

    We also heavily discount for repeat customers. We do love all of our clients so far and it’s been easy to work hard for them. But I do not think most firms do this. In fact, one of my clients switched from a big name competitor recently due to their complaints repeatedly being unheard.

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