Illustration of paint contractor taking the high road

4 Steps to Help You Take Control with Customer Complaints

By Joe Curcillo

Dealing with an unhappy customer? The best way to take control is to take the high ground. Not just the high road of virtue and doing the right thing, but the high ground as a vantage point to observe the situation as a whole. Prepare to remove yourself from the fray and look at the big picture. The best means of accomplishing this is to remember these four rules.

1. Do not speak until you have truly listened

The opposite of speaking is not listening – it is waiting to speak. Listening is a separate task, and in fact is an art. If you’re waiting to speak, you are preparing to address the other person with words.

The easiest of all customers to deal with in the world of irate customers is the one that just wants to be heard. Everyone has dealt with someone who expressed every detail of their complaint to every person in their organization. They have begun to tell their story to the parking lot attendant as they parked their car, and each person they encountered en route to the manager’s office.

Their repeated rehearsal of the story should be your first indication that all they need is understanding and reassurance. They want someone to listen; step up and make that person you.

2. Do not defend, until you have heard the attack

Step back, and allow the speaker to talk. As you listen, do not formulate your responses, but follow the speaker with an eye towards understanding the nature of their accusations and allegations. The ability to effectively challenge someone’s argument hinges upon your understanding of their argument, not on the merits of your own.

Taking control of a situation requires you to pay attention to what is being said so that you may take all you’ve heard and use it collectively as you map out your proposed solution. Adopting the other person’s arguments in your solution will make it much more difficult for a person to logically rebuff your offer of resolution.

3. Identify the true nature of the complaint

There are many reasons why a person will complain. Dissatisfaction with a product or service is obvious, but some complaints are born and nurtured in environments outside of your control.

Taking control of these types of complaints require you to listen and explore with questions the circumstances leading the customer to your door.

  • Some people are simply disappointed with your entire industry. If this is the case, it’s necessary to set yourself apart from the herd and let the speaker know that you care.
  • Some complaints are born from a lack of clear expectations. Explore their concerns and guide them back to a more realistic path.
  • The most difficult of all complaints is the person who, due to their own shortcomings, has an inability to understand that the reason your products or service is failing, is their inability to follow instructions or guidance. It is essential that you speak to these people as you would to a friend. There is no need to use industry jargon or million-dollar words. Make sure that your vocabulary and speech is simple enough that they can follow your directions to the letter. But do not allow yourself to come across as condescending. This can be avoided by remaining social and human as you address your customer.

4. Focus on how you and your company can improve

Learn. Even the most irrational or self-absorbed customers can teach you valuable tools to improve service.

As you listen, pigeonhole some of their thoughts and complaints into the recesses of your mind. By looking for areas of improvement in each and every conversation, you will not only actively listen, but you will enjoy the opportunity to grow and become better.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of PPC magazine. Joe Curcillo has been helping corporations and associations improve their communication techniques since 1979. More at