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Four mistakes you may be making in complaint handling

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

“Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional”.

In any business, it is natural that complaints will arise from time to time. The difference between a complaint being resolved quickly and positively and a complaint escalating into a full-blown dispute is the skill with which the complaint is managed.

There are several common problems that arise in responding to complaints which increase the risk of a dispute that will be costly from a financial and reputational perspective. In this article I set out what those mistakes are and how to avoid them.

We immediately deny

When somebody complains about you, your brain perceives this as a psychological threat. Your identity is being threated. Perhaps you see yourself as an honest person and they are accusing you of lying. Or you see yourself as competent and they say you made a mistake.

In response to this psychological threat, our natural reaction is often to go into defensive mode and explain all the reasons why the client is wrong. Or perhaps, we go on the attack and point out all the things they did wrong. Either way, what we are doing is taking over the conversational air time.

There are a couple of issues with this. Firstly, the client may not have fully explained the situation before we jump in so we may not have a full picture of what their concerns are. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, by taking over the air-time, we signal to the client that we don’t want to hear from them and that their opinion is not important.

Before jumping in, it is important to ask open-ended questions about their concerns and then listen carefully to their answers. Following this process helps to ensure everyone is clear on what the dispute is actually about – which may be different to what the client first explained. More importantly, the client will feel heard in a way which minimises the risk of escalating conflict.

We put it in writing

Complaints are often received in writing. With the distance between the writer and reader, the client is likely to express negative emotions more strongly than if they were in conversation. This can make the conflict seem larger than it is.

The temptation is to respond to a written complaint with a written response. The problem with this is that your response may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Picking up the phone and having a conversation with the client is generally a much less risky strategy.

We fail to follow up

Often complaints may be small in nature and, if the client feels that their complaint has been heard and acknowledged, it may be enough to satisfy them. However, if the client feels that their complaint has not been taken seriously or that the business has not fully listened, the problems may escalate and have a huge impact on the business’ reputation.

It is important to check in on the client again following resolution of their issue to ensure that their concerns have been fully satisfied. It is not uncommon that someone may think they have satisfied the client but in fact, the client has just decided they are unlikely to get an acceptable outcome and have given up. Their next step may well be to leave a bad review online which can seriously harm the reputation of a business.

We ignore our own contribution

In most disputes, both parties have contributed to the problem. It can be helpful to seek an outsider’s perspective counteract your own natural psychological biases which tend to lean towards minimising your own contribution. This could be someone in your own business or, for more neutrality, an external party. It is important to get advice from an unbiased, honest individual and not just someone who will just favour your own perspective.

Understanding that conflict actually creates an opportunity to build the relationship with a client can be helpful in building your confidence to handle complaints when they arise.

For assistance in managing a difficult complaint contact us for a 30 minute Negotiation GP Consultation.


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