Knowing the do’s and don’t of handling complaints results in the difference between loyalty and dissent. The same is true when receiving feedback. Even one instance of you poorly handling a complaint or feedback can be irreparable. Therefore, it’s important to master this skill if you want to sustain trust and keep people behind you or your organization. Whether you’re receiving information around a situation, organization, product, service, or idea, being savvy to the do’s and don’ts of handling complaints can make or break you.

The Impact of Poorly Handling Complaints and Feedback

Poorly handling information, whether from employees or customers, can have long-term consequences. It can lead to people being unwilling to speak up, losing business, creating a culture of mistrust and negativity, missing out on opportunities, or negative reviews. It’s more common than you might think: a recent article says that 70% of businesses ignore customer complaints on Twitter.

Needless to say, none of us want or can afford these experiences. Ironically, however, many leaders are unaware of how they might be creating them. For example:

  • Many managers I’ve coached have shared ideas and feedback with senior leaders and received negative responses. These responses ranged from mocking, berating, shaming, or ignoring. For some, after even one instance, the managers decided the best course of action was to mostly be silent and only speak when asked to speak. Even then, they shared as little as possible.
    The impact? Lack of engagement and missing out on ideas.
  • One leader I worked for received multiple complaints about the company’s services. The leader found ways to minimize the complaints and turn the complaints into the faults of both the customers and the staff. Of course, the problems didn’t go away and eventually, there was an investigation.
    The impact? Lost customers, bad publicity, turnover, and the leader eventually being fired for not fixing the issues.
  • We recently explored a potential housing opportunity that seemed more suspicious over time. We were initially very excited about it and then became concerned. To verify, I contacted a local real estate agent. He confirmed our suspicion was true, which made me both angry and disappointed. Meanwhile, he was laughing and making light of it, which I found both infuriating and odd. My wife later asked me if I inquired about other similar genuine opportunities (before I told her how he responded), but I told her that I had no interest in working with him after that conversation.
    The impact? Lost business for him.

The Don’ts of Handling Complaints and Feedback

In the above examples, we just saw some don’ts around handling complaints and feedback. To recap what not to do, and add a few more, don’t:

  • Mock the person or their feedback (such as by laughing or teasing)
  • Minimize their experience (“it’s not that bad”, “get over it”)
  • Insult or be rude
  • Ignore (not take action around the complaint or feedback or deny that it’s an issue)
  • Lie (say you’ll do something about it while having no intention of doing so)
  • Tell the person they’re wrong (“no one else has this problem”)
  • Not follow up (say you’ll do something about it but not let the person know what happened)

These don’ts don’t just apply to you. They apply to everyone in your organization. If you are in any kind of leadership position, it’s important that other people know how to respond appropriately to complaints and feedback. Don’t take it for granted that people are good at using these skills. Many will likely need training, coaching, and mentoring to develop them.

The Do’s of Handling Complaints and Feedback

Now that you know the don’ts, let’s look at the do’s. Here are some simple guidelines that you can follow:

  1. Listen. This includes confirming that you understand the complaint or feedback and have heard it accurately. Paraphrasing and verbal and/or non-verbal responses can validate that you’ve listened and understand.
  2. Acknowledge. Communicate that you get the significance of the complaint or feedback to the person. This is different than agreeing with the person – it’s showing that you get where they’re coming from. Empathy can be helpful here. A sincere “wow,” “I get where you’re coming from,” or “I understand why that’s upsetting to you” goes a long way (again, as you as you’re sincere; insincerity will likely cost you double).
  3. Resolve. Take action to handle the complaint or feedback. This might include passing along the information to the proper people, getting the necessary approval to take action, or resolving it yourself.
  4. Follow-up. Of the four steps, this step often gets missed the most. If you can’t resolve the situation at the moment, communicate what action you will take and how and when you’ll get back to them. Of course, then circle back to the person when the action has been completed and/or resolved, or to give a status update (even if the answer is no). Otherwise, people have no way of knowing whether their feedback made any difference (or if you just told them what they wanted to hear). If they don’t know, they are less likely to try again in the future (or think you blew them off).

A Final Caveat for Handling Complaints and Feedback

At this point, students and clients often ask something like, “But what if I don’t agree with the complaint or feedback, or nothing can be done about it?”

There are always going to be more complaints or feedback than we can act upon or agree with. In such cases, steps one and two above still apply. After taking those steps, you can use a combination of these approaches:

  1. Apologize. A simple “I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do or that can be done” shows that you care. Again, sincerity is key, both in your apology and that nothing can or will be done.
  2. Appreciate. Thank the person for sharing what’s on their mind. If relevant, let them know that you’ll consider their feedback. Or, if you can’t or won’t do anything about their feedback or complaint right now, communicate that you’re still open to hearing more feedback from them in the future. (How well you do Steps 1 and 2, along with how sincere you are, will demonstrate that you are truly open to more feedback in the future.)
  3. Discuss. Instead of a hard “no,” perhaps there is another solution. Explore alternative solutions, ask what they want or need, and ask questions to learn more. Curiosity and openness often lead to creative solutions that benefit everyone.
  4. Share the “why.” If the answer is no or nothing can or will be done, explain why is as much detail as you can.

I’ve actually had positive experiences when I’ve been particularly upset and nothing could or would be done. In each case, the formula of sincerity, a strong effort to help, looking for alternate solutions, and follow-through made all the difference. Think back on your own experiences – what’s made the difference for you when sharing your own complaints or feedback?

Got any tips or insights? Share them in the comments below!