Turning customer complaints into opportunities

2006 | Jan 1 in Client Fulfillment

By E-Myth Business Coach,


The recent holiday shopping season was a time of hustle, bustle and, for some, a lot of stress. Correspondingly, many business owners experienced not only the happy ring of a busy cash register, but also the occasional unhappy sting of a customer's complaint.

But the fact is, complaints can happen any time of year as customers' busy schedules and short tempers collide, leading to criticism about some aspect of your goods or services. Fortunately, you can choose to see a complaint as an important customer leverage point, and work to turn a negative into a positive. What you do about a complaint will determine whether the customer leaves your business in a bad mood, never to return, or whether you can satisfy them to the point that they become a repeat client. From a strategic standpoint, complaints are actually opportunities waiting to be capitalized on.

Taking a strategic view

It is paramount that you not act on your knee-jerk, emotional reactions to a complaint, because the situation could escalate in the wrong direction. On the contrary, the ideal way to solve complaints is to take the time to discover the root cause of the customer's dissatisfaction, and then deal with the situation in a practical manner. It is much better to proactively address the complaint, so that the customer feels heard and the problem is quickly rectified.

For example: if the customer complains that they waited a long time and no one helped them, you could try giving the client more individualized and personalized attention. Or, perhaps you could evaluate every point in the client's buying cycle to determine where you or your staff may, in fact, have dropped the ball. You need to show the customer that you care about them, and that you will take the experience as a lesson that you will apply to your business. Customers appreciate it when their concerns are validated, and not ignored or brushed off.

Ultimately, however, your goal should be to go beyond implementing a one time "fix", and work to systematize solutions so that similar complaints won't happen again -- either with that customer, or with any other customers. If you don't strategically identify a system to address complaints, you will never know if you just fixed something this once, or if you solved it for good.

Systematizing the solution

One important step you can take is to identify the complaints and the various solutions and put them down in writing. Then, you should take into account any necessary resources required to implement this new system, such as new technology, new staff accountabilities, or additional training that could serve the business for both the short and the long term.

Once those issues have been clarified, you can roll the system out to the users. This does not mean simply leaving a copy with a "please read" post-it note on their desk. Rather, it might be a good idea for you and your employees to actively role-play complaint scenarios, so that they can see how similar complaints can be better handled in the future. You may also want to engage your employees through question-and-answer periods and discussion sessions to ensure that they have no hesitations about the new system, and that any uncertainties are resolved.

After the system has been developed and rolled out to employees, then what? Should you assume that you will no longer receive any customer complaints? Not necessarily. You must continue to keep an eye out for any weaknesses in the system, quickly identify any new complaints, and then fold the solutions to those new complaints into the system. It will be a perpetual cycle of innovating, quantifying, orchestrating, and constantly improving.

Opportunities in disguise

Remember, you should actually appreciate hearing complaints because they give you a clear reference point of where you can do better. You will never reach your objectives if you react to complaints negatively, sweep them under the rug, or do not take them seriously.

Complaints are really just opportunities in disguise that can enable you to optimize and improve the inner workings of the business. And, if you can start to see a customer complaint as a leverage point to turn a negative into a positive, you can take advantage of the opportunity to take your business to the next level.


  1. .Charl Y. says:

    Very informative Good job. Thanks.

    Submitted Jan 10, 2006 8:02 AM

  2. .Antonette L. says:

    Good perspective for B2C businesses. I have a client who is wrestling with the dilemma of how to treat customers who are no longer paying as agreed. The President keeps overriding the accounting department and extends credit. The inconsistency is driving the staff nuts.

    Submitted Jan 18, 2006 3:11 PM

  3. .robert b. says:

    Keep in mind that "bad news" (customer complaints) is "good news" (opportunities for improving the business. At Stwe Leonard's, each customer is invited to write a comment before they leaving the store. Each morning, the previous day's comments are written up and distributed to store managers through out the store. Good news is always nice; but bad news is really appreciated because some customer has taken the time and effort to communicate what they are really looking for. rwburian@optonline.net

    Submitted Jan 18, 2006 3:27 PM

  4. .Neal W. says:

    It is also immportant to consider each customer as a walking advertisement for or against your business. Generally, people want to be treated in a prompt, courteous and considerate manner. If you truly want to grow your business into a World Class Operation; you must respond to complaints on the spot, first listening to and understanding the root cause of the complaint. Repeat the complaint back to the customer as you understand it and get their acknowledgement, then offer a solution. If the solution is not satisfactory, ask the customer how they might resolve the compaint. Offer a short term fix with the promise that a permanent fix will be implemented should further study of the problem be required. Be sure to follow up with that customer for satisfaction of the system corrections to resolve the complaint, and monitor the system corrections to ensure new habits have been implemented for the long term improvement. Remember, people are people and sometimes have problems that are not associated with YOUR business, but take out their frustrations at your business. If you find this is the case, a sense of personal attention to the individual, patience and understanding will go a long way to improving this type of customer complaint, following the active listening portion of your investigation. I agree, complaints are opportunities to become World Class ! Take them seriously.

    Submitted Jan 19, 2006 3:51 AM

  5. .Karen P. says:

    I recently opened a hair salon and while I am maintaining, when a customer is dissatisfied I go out of my way to repair and re-do any thing that is unsatisfactory, and hope that they will return. My question is in giving away my service and usually product am I setting myself up for future complaints in order to receive free service etc.? In the end can this wind up costing me more than I will gain by going the extra mile?

    Submitted Jan 19, 2006 9:35 AM

  6. .Hasan L. says:

    Hello Karen, Thank you for posting and welcome to Embark Community Connection! The situation of having to go back and re-do is both common and very frustrating. What could you be doing in terms of collecting and documenting the complaints received and then using them to improve the delivery of the service? A complaint that goes undocumented and does not lead to an improvement in the product or service is wasted. Alternately, if that complaint leads to a systemic improvement in the delivery of the product/service then the extra effort you made at the point of sale is leveraged both for the customer’s satisfaction and for the future benefit of the company. Please refer to the article "Coaching Insights - Key Frustration Process" for more info on creating systems from frustrations.

    Submitted Jan 19, 2006 6:38 PM

  7. .Hasan L. says:

    Hello Antonette,

    Welcome to Embark Community Connection. The situation you described has multiple "red flags", but the primary area of concern is leadership. A business leader that is overriding the "rules of the game" is not only detrimental to employee’s sanity but to the company’s bottom line. One way I could see you having a positive impact on this situation is by leveraging your 3rd party objectivity to bring this situation to his/her attention. A complaint or even just a comment from an internal employee might be misconstrued as a direct challenge to the leader’s authority. But you have an opportunity to show the president how bad this situation looks from an outsider’s perspective.

    In our coaching practice one of the most valuable things we do for our client’s is showing them what is true.

    Submitted Jan 19, 2006 6:52 PM

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