Everything is going along nicely, and then, just when you don’t need it, you’re faced with a big mental, maybe even emotional, slap – a complaint about your work, your service or your products.
Whether the complaint is in writing or in person, you feel skewered by the person’s accusation. All these factors can make it worse: angry eyes, aggrieved tone of voice, palpable irritation (if not downright hostility), stony silence, email rejection, dismissive text, and so on.
It’s natural to feel attacked and even become defensive (especially if you didn’t cause the issue). It’s human nature to take it personally and react defensively to complaints.
We can’t change the complaint itself once made, but there are ways to transform complaints into congratulations.
Listen carefully – because you must. It’s top priority because you need to know exactly what happened and understand why and how you might be able to fix the problem. Ask the complainer about the problem. Don’t say “I hear you”; let that other person speak/vent, and note exactly what the nature of their problem is. Remove all barriers to listening i.e. focus on them not your feelings or other issues at work. Try not to interrupt or sound too busy, or if face-to-face, don’t glance at your phone/screen. Control your expressions and body language so they are open and express “I am listening”. If it’s an email, explain you really want to understand what went wrong and get the details so you can help solve the problem.
Acknowledge – keep your tone positive, caring, but address their concerns. This might mean summarising what they just told you to ensure you understand, or to clarify key issues, but do so succinctly and with care. An angry person is may perceive this as obfuscation. Complainers are often aggrieved because they feel a problem is not being acknowledged. So acknowledge that there’s a problem, injustice, oversight, error or ambiguity you now realise has created the situation.
Take responsibility – the complainer wants to see some action. Redress is frequently what they’re seeking. The action may take many forms, but importantly, make sure YOU are doing something to move things along. This doesn’t mean flicking the problem to someone else, unless that person really can sort matters. We’ve all been confronted by faceless providers, who’ve perfected the “do nothing” response. Don’t be one of these, it just adds to the frustration. Make it your personal mission to get things rolling.
Solve the problem – by analysing and prioritising what can be done. The problem may sometimes be solved more easily than expected by taking the time to work out what went wrong. Demonstrate that you’re doing all that you can to get the issue sorted, efficiently and effectively. You may need to consult with people in authority, other contacts and colleagues – explain what you are doing and why and when you will have an answer, as these referral actions are perceived as remedial. The complainer will begin to feel their load is being lightened (by you), and their intense or cold frustration will melt.
Follow up – assuming you’ve got to the bottom of the matter, and found a way to solve that person’s problem or issue, or at the very least pointed them in the direction of the people/technology/timesaver that can, it’s a good idea to follow up soon after and see how matters transpired. The complainer will likely be grateful and if it is not solved, it is better that you find out proactively rather than receive an escalated complaint!
When YOU make a difference, you’ve earned congratulations – theirs, or perhaps your own inner pat on the back. You’ve made life smoother once more, for you and others.
Surprisingly, some of our most vocal advocates may have originally been complainers!