Customer complaints

Is there a silver lining to customer complaints?

By Rieva Lesonsky

Yes, there is — in fact, smart business owners consider customer complaints solid gold. In this post, I’ll explain why customer complaints matter, what you can learn from customer complaints, and how to make the most of them to improve your business.

Why customer complaints matter

Businesses of all sizes spend a lot of time, money and effort trying to find out what their customers think of them. For small business in particular, this can be time-consuming and expensive. You may have used online surveys, comment cards in your location, social media surveys or even in-person customer focus groups to try to get a handle on what you’re doing right — and wrong.

What’s more, only a small percentage of customers actually complain to you directly. More likely, they will complain to their friends and family about your business, badmouth you on social media, or write a negative review on Yelp or other online review site.

When a customer complains, they’re dropping honest feedback right in your lap, without any effort on your part. That’s as rare, and valuable, as gold.

What you can learn from customer complaints

Customer complaints are a tool you can use to quickly improve your products, services, and customer experience. They can tell you:

  • What systems, processes or policies at your business aren’t working
  • Which employees are not pulling their weight
  • Which products or services need to be improved or eliminated from your offerings
  • What your competitors are doing that you could learn from
  • and much more.

Word-of-mouth has always mattered to small businesses. But with customers today putting more and more stock in the opinions of friends, family members, and even complete strangers via online reviews and social media, honest feedback on your business matters more than ever.

Unfortunately, many businesses brush off customer complaints as one person’s opinion or an isolated incident. As a result, they don’t learn anything from them.

How to get the most value from customer complaints

Here are 7 steps to getting maximum value from customer complaints.

  1. Look at things from the customer’s point of view. It’s human nature to become defensive — but to get the most from customer complaints, you need to take the opposite approach. Assume the customer is right, and look at what your business did wrong to generate the complaint. For example:
  • Is your return policy unclear?
  • Is information about your business online, such as hours of operation, current and correct?
  • Is your website checkout process simple to understand?
  1. Encourage complaints. Since most of us are raised to be polite, lots of customers will never complain at all — they will just take their business elsewhere. Next time you conduct a survey or focus group, specifically ask customers for negative feedback. It may take a little urging to get them to be honest, but let them know you want to hear any complaints, no matter how small. There are very few companies that do absolutely everything right. Even Nordstrom has painfully slow shipping times for online orders compared to Amazon Prime.
  2. Talk to your most loyal customers. These are the ones who will stick with you even if things start to go south, so in order for them to complain, things have to be really wrong. If you have a loyalty program at your business, tap into the information you’ve gleaned from it to identify your most loyal customers. Then reach out to them on a regular basis with surveys and other tools to get their honest opinions.
  3. Tap into technology. Freshdesk, Help Scout, ZenDesk and Zoho Desk are four popular customer service software apps for small businesses. They can help you track customer complaints, questions and interactions so you can respond quickly and see patterns.
  4. Take action. Once you’ve listened to complaints and apologized for problems, take steps to fix them. In addition to handling individual complaints promptly, also set a regular schedule, perhaps once a month or once a quarter, to go over complaints in the aggregate. This will help you identify the most common complaints as indicators of problems with your business.
  5. Communicate with customers about the actions you’re taking. It may take time to make big changes to resolve a problem with a process or policy. So your customers don’t feel frustrated, let them know you’re working on the problem. Post status updates on your website or share them in your email communications.
  6. Follow up. Whether it’s an individual customer complaint or a larger issue that you worked to resolve, follow up with customers after you think the issue is handled. It’s important to make sure that they are satisfied with the outcome. Only then can you truly say you have resolved the customer complaint.

Closeup portrait of angry young woman stock photo from pathdoc/Shutterstock