Complaints from hell, Pt. 2: Resolve them or else

By Steven McCarty

The National Ethics Association

You can do all of these things and still end up with a complaint. This article provides a few strategies that should help.

Your ultimate nightmare: Despite your best efforts to sell the right product, your client is now unhappy about how things turned out. In the good old days, the person might scream at you and then badmouth you to 10 other people. Today, the person may also post his complaint on the Internet, where it will be seen by prospects who are Googling before doing business with you. Complaint from hell, meet marketing fiasco.

In my previous article, we said the best way to avoid this problem is to prevent complaints before they occur. How? By doing business by the book, acting with professionalism, exceeding client expectations, becoming a great communicator and always doing what's best for your clients.

But you can do all of these things and still end up with a complaint. The challenge then is to keep it from going viral on the Internet, where it can do irreparable harm to your reputation. Here are a few strategies that should help.

1. Listen first, talk later. When a client calls you to complain, resist the urge to speak. I know this isn't easy to do for sales professionals. But if you can restrain yourself, you will have won half the battle. So as you let the client vent, listen very carefully. Also, try to discuss the complaint in person rather than over the phone or through email. You'll get a much better read on its severity and demonstrate your concern.

2. Apologize, then empathize. After the client has finished venting, make a sincere apology. Even if you feel you have done nothing wrong, apologize anyway. This will go a long way toward defusing the situation. Then after you apologize, say you understand the person's frustration and are willing to resolve the situation.

3. Uncover the facts. Now, grab your pen and notepad and start fact finding. What is the client's central gripe? What happened exactly? Why? Were you or your staff to blame, or was it a case of the client's expectations being out of sync. Don't defend the facts; just document them.

4. Reflect your understanding back to the client. Next, make sure your impression of the event matches up with the client's. Say something like, "What I heard you say is X. Does that sound about right to you?" If it doesn't, clarify where the understanding gap lies, and then reflect the revised facts back to the client.

5. Take action now. If you know how to resolve matters, commit to doing so now. If you don't, promise to research the matter and get back to the client with a satisfactory resolution in a reasonable and specific number of days.

But here's the most important tip of all. Whether you did anything wrong or not, do the ethical thing and own the complaint. Avoid anger and verbal criticism, and do what it takes for an elegant win-win resolution. By taking responsibility and committing to a fair outcome, you will make sure the complaint from hell stays right where it belongs.