Handling Complaints. – Sunday, 12th April 2015 at 4Hoteliers

Handling Complaints. – Sunday, 12th April 2015 at 4Hoteliers.

Handling Complaints.
By Caroline Cooper
Sunday, 12th April 2015

I’ve had a month of complaints! No, not in the way you might think, but helping a number of clients establish the best way to handle complaints, whether that be through staff training, gathering feedback to establish the cause or establishing systems to prevent them in the first place.

It seems counter intuitive, but as a business we should welcome complaints! WHY?

Because the alternative is we’re left not knowing when the customer isn’t happy.

Obviously prevention is better than cure.

But of course you’re not always able to pre-empt problems and won’t be able to avoid all complaints. Accidents happen, things get missed or events occur that are totally out of our control. So what can you do to lessen the impact on your customers’ experience and limit the potential damage to your customer relationships and your reputation?

Aim to spot problems as early as possible. Listen and observe. You can often sense there’s an issue long before you get told directly. And of course it’s far better to resolve a problem there and then than have a negative review posted on line.

Empower your team

Give your team the skills and authority to deal with complaints as they happen. Encourage them and train them how to ask for feedback and just as importantly how to respond when they get complaints or negative feedback.

This is far better for the customer because it gets a quicker solution, far better for the team member because they’re able to deal with it which gives them pride, and far better for you because it means you don’t have to always been involved. This doesn’t mean to say that don’t want to hear about complaints particularly if there are common recurring problems that need to be resolved.

Don’t assume because you’ve told people how to do something they will be able to just go out and deliver it consistently.  It’s all very well knowing what to say, but you know how sometimes when you come to say something the words just don’t trip off the tongue as you might hope!  Let your team practise in a safe environment, based on different scenarios.

Agree with them their levels of authority so they know just how much leeway they have in offering the customer/guest compensation, and at what point they may need to involve a manager.

Observe how your staff handle complaints and give them feedback after the event on what they did well, what they could do more of, and give the appropriate support and guidance on areas where they need more help.

It’s all too easy when we hear of a complaint to blame someone in the team for the problem. Put the team first and they’ll reward you with avoiding problems.

Below a little 5 stage checklist you may find useful in handling a complaint effectively irrespective of the cause.

I use this structure when training and together these form the acronym LEARN which is easy for team member to remember.

The way you handle the situation is what your customers will remember and if you can go above and beyond to resolve the problem, even when it’s down to a third party, customer error or even an act of God, it’s your resolve of the situation they’ll remember, not the cause.

Learn from Complaints (5 stage checklist)

Here’s a little 5 stage checklist you may find useful in handling a complaint effectively irrespective of the cause:

  • Listen
  • Empathise
  • Agree on an acceptable solution
  • Resolve the problem
    Next steps

Let’s look at each stage in more detail


It can be easy to get defensive when you receive feedback, particularly when you feel it is not justified or you totally disagree with it.

But something must have triggered their perception.  So listen to what your customer is saying.

Listen without interrupting to allow the customer to get it off their chest. Whilst listening think about your reaction; your body language, facial expressions or tone might all give negative messages back to the customer.

Getting irritated or angry you will only make the situation worse. It may be the 100th time you’ve heard this complaint, but your customer does not know this, so be patient as you listen. Stay calm, maintain eye contact and listen. Ask more questions if you need to in order to clarify. Focus on facts, but look to understand how they feel too.

It is useful to reflect back to the customer your understanding of the issue. Summarising their points using their words can show you’ve understood correctly, and it reassures the customer you have all the facts.

Maybe the problem was caused by the customer, but never accuse. This only makes the problem worse. No; the customer isn’t always right, but your goal should be to leave the customer positive and wanting to do business with you again; not to embarrass them, teach them a lesson or score points.

Show Empathy

Acknowledge and show you understand how the customer feels and show your concern, even if it’s not your fault.

The least you can do is to apologise (even if you’re just apologising that they feel that way).

Try to look at the situation from their perspective:

  • they might be frustrated because they’ve had a wasted journey
  • they may be disappointed for their child who can’t get what was promised for their birthday treat
  • they might be angry they’ve spent a lot of money on something that has not lived up to their expectation
  • they might be embarrassed as their special treat for a loved one has been a disappointment
  • they might be feeling anxious because they don’t yet have everything they need for an important meeting or event

Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you might feel in their situation. Your tone of voice is very important when responding. If you are overly calm you may come across as not being concerned or even patronising.

If you are in the wrong, be bold, and own up. Your customers will thank you for being honest and this all helps to keep the trust.

The very last thing to do is make excuses. Frankly your customers don’t care about your staff shortages, that your suppliers have let you down, that the ‘x’ machine is broken, your company policy, or that no one else has complained. Nor are they interested in hearing “that’s nothing to do with us; it’s down to the organisers / council / landlord….etc.”

Irrespective of whose fault it is your aim should always be to do what you can to have the customer go away happy.

Agree an acceptable solution

Getting it off their chest might be all a customer wants and a simple apology is all that’s needed.

But others will be seeking a resolution. So focus on looking for potential solutions.

It’s important to strike a balance between being positive but showing concern. Use positive language that demonstrates your desire to resolve it. Such as: “Let’s see what we can sort out for you.”  “I’m sure we can get this sorted.”  “If I do ___ would that be acceptable?


Of course, having agreed a resolution do what you say you’ll do. If you can resolve the problem there and then (which is always preferable) do a check back to ensure the customer is now happy. If it is something that can’t be resolved now, or the action will need a follow up, confirm when this will happen and who will do this.

Find ways you can go the extra mile to compensate in some way for their inconvenience.

Next steps

You obviously want to avoid a recurrence of the issue, so take whatever steps are needed to resolve the same thing happening again.

And the final stage is to get reassure customers by showing how you are going to avoid the problem in future, so you can re-establish trust. A customer is unlikely to want to come back if they think they are going to encounter the same problem next time.

I use this structure when training and together these form the acronym LEARN which is easy for team member to remember.



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