How to Handle a Complaint Professionally
I've handled a few complaints in my life- more like a few thousand, having spent time in the restaurant and Human Resources industries. One thing I've learned for sure, you don't mess up people's food or resources.
It's easy to get upset, even panic, when faced with complaints. While maintaining your composure is half the battle, the most important aspect is resolving the issue. I'd like to give you some professional tools by discussing types of complainers and why people complain- more importantly, how to handle them.
- Angry upon entry: This person is complaining before anything has gone wrong- they are not happy before walking in the door or requesting your service. They will nitpick and look unhappy about everything. Maybe they've been "screwed" in the past. In reality, the coming of Christ to whisk them away to the pearly gated promised land isn't going to make them happy. They would complain about the shade of green on money if you handed them a million dollars. Knowing you can't please this person will make your experience with them a lot more manageable.
Handle it:They are negative by nature so be neutral, not too happy, cheery, or eager to please, but don't fall prey to being as negative as them either. Did I mention, they are most likely paranoid too so if you are being too nice, you'll alert them. It may seem like they want to be fussed over, but they don't. Most of the time you can get by with just intently listening to this person- sometimes they just want to be heard, which means you get to hear about all their prior bad experiences, etc. It's almost as if you need to gain their confidence so just be competent and follow procedures exactly.
- Second chancer: A justified complaint: The mistake has been made and complaint launched. This type of person with a complaint is one who feels wronged, sometimes rightly so, and wants reassurance the problem is corrected or will never happen again. Maybe this person will state "last time I ate here, my fish was cold" or in a business environment this would sound like "the last person who did this to me..." or "the last time I did that, it didn't work" etc. Myself and one other person took over positions in a quickly deteriorating Human Resources department and boy did we have to put out some fires we didn't start. However, it was a great learning experience.
Handle it: Only one option- gain trust. This person will want to see a manager or someone else to back up your acknowledgement of the problem. Also, extra paperwork (for business environments) to show, even a screen print of actions you took to resolve things on the computer, or something signed to give them assurance. Most likely the problem didn't occur in one day, it was probably a long precession of events that led up to mistakes made, and worse, when things first started going wrong, this person wasn't kept in the loop about it. Extra communication, keep them on your radar, and taking immediate action are very appropriate means of resolving any issues with this person. In the future. Let people know about anything concerning them, even if you believe you can handle it- keep communication open. In restaurants, be honest about why food is taking too long or other mistakes made when they happen. In business, keep people in the loop about their accounts and/or any arising issues.
- The Hinter: You know the person is upset or unhappy but they will not tell you. Sometimes they don't want to make a fuss and they will hint instead.
Handle it: Give them a chance to make their complaint. Ask them a specific question pertaining to what you think the problem may be. "Does your steak taste ok"? Or have someone else ask them casually, and most importantly, leave it in their hands. They may genuinely not want to bother complaining so simply ask them to let you know if they need anything else or have any questions.
- Mad man: The whole restaurant or 2nd floor accounting department knows he's upset because you can hear this person ranting a mile away. They will try to get others involved and make a scene.
Handle it: Absolutely necessary to be professional with this person. Say things in a neutral, not sugar-coated, tone and ask them to lower theirs so you can understand them. Direct them to a closed door office if that's available- taking someone else with you is safer too. Otherwise, calming the person is the only thing possible, but do not tell them directly to "calm down". Repeat to them what you believe they are saying to you. Make them sit down or stop yelling before you agree to acknowledge their complaint- "if you stop yelling I could better understand what you want". Make it about them and treat them humanely.
Perhaps some of you are familiar with Denny's - a formerly popular restaurant open 24 hours a day. My first serving job was graveyard shift at a Denny's. I was the go-to person for handling big issues or complaints reaching a boiling point. I knew that some of these people were mental cases, but did I ever let them know I thought that- no way! I treated them with human respect, keeping my voice monotone and acting as if I was approaching a wild animal- never let them sense fear or doubt. If you're on the phone with this person, tell them you can't hear them and that will make them stop long enough and think 'why can't this person hear me when I am yelling?' It's kind of reverse psychology. After you get them to calm down, handle the complaint according to policies.
- Faking for freebies: Some people just want something for free or to get special treatment so they will fake a complaint. They watch you closely, gauging your expertise and competence- looking for a way to pull the wool over your eyes. They'll probably ask a lot of questions too, waiting for you to slip up.
Handle it: Know your business and/or product whether you are serving food or selling steam cleaners. If you do not at least appear intelligent about your job, fake complainers will take advantage. I've actually been known to subtly let these people know I am onto them in some way- maybe treating them sickeningly sweet or answering anticipated questions, and my favorite is impressing them with an overabundance of knowledge when they ask their first question. If you are caught in this situation and they've made their complaint, going to your supervisor or manager and letting them know you think they are trying to get something free, etc can alert them to the situation and let them handle it from there.
Other things you must know
- Listen- first and always. Listening is sometimes all the action you need to take. I mean really listening, passing no judgment or suggestions onto the other person. I would say 90% of complaints I've handled, were handled only by listening. By listening I get to know the person and I know how to remedy things in the future.
- Be informed- always. Easy!The more you know, the less mistakes will occur, but being informed before passing judgment on a complaint is helpful too. Know what you CAN do when someone complains. Can you offer free food? Can you access their personal info on the computer or files to fix things. Being capable and knowing what you are capable of are key.
- Apologize- always. Simple apologies are best. I've heard some wacky over-the-top ones like "my blackberry had a malfunction or glitch so I didn't get your message and I've had such a bad week. I just got back from vacation and nothing is where it's supposed to be". Yes, I've heard this when I was making a complaint to a company and this came from the CEO! Yikes! Not professional and there wasn't one simple "I'm sorry" in that long explanation. This is not the way to handle a complaint professionally. When apologizing don't go into unnecessary detail. People don't need to know your personal business, they are only concerned about their needs/complaint being handled. Don't apologize excessively either.
- Understand without arguing- The biggest part of the complaint equation is being professional. You can't get emotional or argumentative. If you do find yourself getting this way, here's what you can do; stop communicating with them about the complaint and think of someone who this person would relate to that you work with and have that person talk to them. Honestly, in my entire working life, I have only met two people that I could not talk to no matter what I tried- it would only get upsetting for both of us. The remedy; having someone the complainer related to or respected take over anything to do with them. It's not giving up or failing, it is doing what's right to get things solved, nothing personal.
- If you are unsure...ask the person exactly what they want or what they would like to happen. I've seen the following scenario happen a million times in restaurants; something wrong with food item, server takes it back and gets new one. Customer doesn't want a new one, they don't want anything or they want something entirely different. Server obviously took matters into their own hands- A+ for action, but D- for not asking the person what exactly they wanted. Often a complainer can solve their own complaint for you- just ask.
- DO what you can. Don't do what you shouldn't. Don't break any rules to make someone happy. If people try to sweet talk you into doing something against policy, then simply explain your job is not worth their request.
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