Customer Service: How to Handle a Complaint

What You Say When a Customer Complains
by Gene Griessman

One. Begin with an apology if it’s face-to-face. First thing. If you don’t, your upset customer may blame you for not apologizing.  As for wording, I prefer “I apologize” to “I’m sorry.” It’s a nuance, but “I apologize” sounds a tad more thoughtful and more deliberate than “I’m sorry.”

Two. Explanations can create a problem. In general, don’t explain unless you feel it’s absolutely necessary.  Explanations can sound defensive.   Explanations can sound like excuses. Explanations open you up to uninvited advice, like “Why don’t you…?” “Why didn’t you…?”

If you do offer an explanation, it should come after your apology. If you’re a restaurant manager, and some of your servers/kitchen staff call in sick, you might be justified in saying something to customers, like, “I apologize for your long wait today. Some of my servers called in sick. That doesn’t excuse us, because you still had to wait….”

Three. Consider doing something extra. If you’re a restaurant manager, you might offer a complimentary dessert, and if the service was really bad, a voucher for a complimentary meal next time, when hopefully you will be fully staffed.

If you ruffled the feathers of an important client, do what Holly Kahan recommends: send a gift with a note, “Thank you for your understanding.” (Read her complete recommendation. )

Recently I made a purchase at a retail store (a large, successful chain) where found myself in a line where an overworked, lone cashier was working as hard as she could. Five lanes were standing empty. Her line was getting longer and longer, until by count 14 customers were waiting.  I asked a woman behind me to hold my place, and I walked over and knocked on the closed door of the manager’s office. When he eventually opened it, I pointed to the long line and asked, “Do you think you could open another lane.”

He replied, “I can’t because one of my cashier trays is jammed.”  That is not what most customers want to hear. Here’s what he might have done.  First, apologize. Then he could have said, “Let me get right on this. Thank you for telling me.”

I didn’t really care about his tray problem. But since he mentioned it, I wondered why on earth he didn’t open one of the other four registers, and work on his tray problem later.

The point is, when you explain unnecessarily, you can sound defensive, perhaps inept, and you run the risk of annoying the customer.

End of story. The manager did open another lane, but he could have turned a negative situation into a truly positive one if he had chosen his words more carefully. What you say is often the big difference between good service and bad.

–Gene Griessman is an internationally known keynote speaker, actor, and consultant.  His video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations.  He has spoken at conventions all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, contact us at 404-256-5927 or


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