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How to Handle a Complaint Professionally

Updated on March 16, 2012

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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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    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 5 years ago from The Great Northwest

      THanks htodd

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 5 years ago from United States

      Interesting post...Thanks a lot

    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 6 years ago from The Great Northwest

      THanks midnight oil!

    • Midnight Oil profile image

      Midnight Oil 6 years ago from Isle of Man UK

      Love the photo - Mrs Angry !!

    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 7 years ago from The Great Northwest

      thougtforce~ you are right about you being the messenger, that is the case for a lot of people's complaints- things that you have no control over. Thanks for reading thougtforce!

    • thougtforce profile image

      Christina Lornemark 7 years ago from Sweden

      I totally agree with you and this hub is useful for everyone who works in public jobs.I have previosly worked in health care and now I am working as inspector of environmental law. Both occupations means to deal with the public in all possible situations, and to meet all kind of people. But now I also have to make them do things that can be both expensive and involve a lot of effort in order to make them follow the laws. The main thing is to make people understand why, and listen to their complaints. And as you say, dont take the complaints personally, in my case I try to make them understand that I did not write the laws, I am just a messinger, and if it leads to argumentation, cancel the meeting and come back another day!

    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 7 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Tom Rubenoff~ Great to see you! This hub is all about spending time in the trenches, so to speak- major time working with the public. Thanks for the comment and compliment.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States

      This hub is full of confidence and professionalism. Very nice!

    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 7 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Martie~ great to see you! I love that sign. That should put a smile on people's face even if they're upset. I love the "please use the stairs". I feel like telling some people to go punch a punching bag or run a few laps and come back to talk to me. Thanks for vote up!!

      charmstotreasure~ i usually have a great sense of humor, but the angrier a complainer is, the more they take that as patronizing them. trying to make little of their situation. How emotional people get depends on where you work. Certainly if a complaint is over the phone, they can't harm you, but when I worked in restaurants where the safety of myself and customers is at stake, we had to put those fires out quick. I think what you mean also is let people get it off their chest, so to speak, then begin to help. You certainly don't need to mother anyone, although some people like a lot of follow-through, but it depends on personality type. Thanks for the comment!

    • charmstotreasure profile image

      charmstotreasure 7 years ago

      It helps to keep a sense of humor, and do allow others to get and be angry. They have a right to their emotions. Too many CSR try to make people be like Mary Poppins or hang up. Let people have their feelings, and move to help, that's all, not "mother" them.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 7 years ago from South Africa

      I have a notice on my counter: “All complaints to Chief Zerox, room 2099 (20th floor). Please use the stairs.” The picture of the chief is that of a crabby, vicious old man. And keep in mind we don’t even have a 2nd floor. Those with complaints have no choice but to smile for this notice, and then we sort their problem smile-smile out. Great hub, Izetti! Voted up!

    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 7 years ago from The Great Northwest

      ChristophReilly~ on the one hand you are lucky to have minimal experience with public jobs, but on the other hand, it has given me some advatages in my life whenever I have to deal with people so it's a good survival tool because let's face it- people are verywhere.

      fred allen~ I was in payroll for a while and I know about finance prcesses and people- you have some tough work for sure. You have a lengthy process with the customers you deal with- that can be tough. I used to be thankful in restaurants, the people would usually be gone within an hour so I could always count on that. Since there are several steps in your job so if just one goes bad it can make the customer's whole experience bad- yes, very tricky. I'm sure you are good at your job!

      sheila b.~ THanks for the great comment. I often wondered about working at a toll booth. You see stories on tv or movies where one person can hold up the line. I bet that was fun- not!

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 7 years ago

      These are great suggestions for anyone dealing with the public. At one time I worked in a toll booth for the summer. During the really busy times the road was like a parking lot and there was a car every 3 seconds through my lane, yet there were still those who wanted to hold everyone up while they complained.

    • fred allen profile image

      fred allen 7 years ago from Myrtle Beach SC

      I deal with the public everyday. I sell modular homes. The finance process takes an excruciatingly long time. I have dealt with all types of people and all kinds of situations. From meeting and greeting customers to getting them to make a purchase to getting them financing, ordering a home, constructing it on site, there are so many components of the process, that problems can occur in any one of them. Your advice is proven and sound. Great hub!

    • Christoph Reilly profile image

      Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis

      I haven't had to deal with the public much. I was a waiter in an upscale New York for one week. People complained about everything. I didn't like it at all. Didn't have the temperament for it, I guess. Part of it though is that I am very courteous when dealing with people, and I expect the same in return.

    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 7 years ago from The Great Northwest

      thanks breakfastpop- good morning to you!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 7 years ago

      Excellent advice. It should be required reading for anyone who has to deal with the public.