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25 July 2012

5 essential tips for contact centre complaints handling

Those of us who've had responsibility for complaints management at one time or another will have experienced a full spectrum of complainant behaviour. From tears to anger, humility to assertiveness; those dealing with complaints will see it all at some point in their career.

For many, this is one of the motivations for taking on a customer service role - making a real difference to the customer who's had a particularly raw deal. Being able to sort out a problem and see a fellow human being move from anger to gratitude is something that reminds us why we took on the job in the first place.

It can be an emotional experience for people at the front line of complaints. The rewards are equally matched (and frequently outweighed) by harder times that test personal resilience. 

What are some of the essential tips that help the customer service managers and their teams cope with the complex challenges of complaints?

Here are five tips for you and your teams to discuss at your next team briefing. They'll help you manage your personal performance from the simplest to the toughest of complaints.

1: Customers are human too: respect their feelings and situations

We often hear the phrase "put yourself in the customer's shoes". This is more than just a catchphrase when it comes to complaints management - it's a make or break first contact rule.

Brushing up on your interpersonal skills - particularly around active listening - will help you give the customer the space they need when they contact you with their complaint. We've all experienced the angry customer seemingly on a raging tirade about their problem the moment you've picked up the call.

Empathy is more than just a word, it's an attitude that'll come through in your voice and tone. Giving your customer the time to explain, to let their emotions dissipate and make sure you're having a rational, adult conversation will help - you need to reason with them, not argue with their emotions.

Your first reaction to a complainant, like no other 'moment of truth', has the potential to cause a customer to either defuse or explode.

Tip 1: Active listening skills are essential for building rapport with a complainant.

2: Understand people's reasons for complaining

People have a range of motivations for complaining and you can't assume every customer's motives are the same. If you've followed tip 1, you'll probably have started picking up the clues of what's affecting this particular customer. They're an individual. Their feelings are unique, even if the situation is one you may have seen before.

Behavioural research [Richens (1982)] has identified six common motivating factors for customers typically complaining. You need to understand the individual circumstances - whether it's complaining to solve a problem, or wanting to make it right for the next customer. Understanding what the customer wants to happen is critical to a successful resolution.

Tip 2: Keep your assumptions to a minimum. Ask the customer what they're looking for that will successfully resolve the complaint in their view.

3: Manage your own reactions - it's professional, not personal

All this empathy can be tiring! It's a skill, and a challenging one at that. This is why complaints management can be such a rewarding step in your career development.

You'll need to learn how to manage your own reaction to all sorts of tough situations. It might be a simple procedural issue, or a complex and sensitive complaint with serious emotional impacts on everyone.

If you're facing a persistent complainant, they can be a whole different situation and test your emotions to the extreme. Research by Lester (1984) has identified a typically higher incidence of threats of violence, retribution and suicide from persistent complainants, so there's no limit to what you might be faced with.

Tip 3: Understand your own behaviour and reactions. What do you need to cope with complex and emotional complaints and manage your own wellbeing?

4: Prepare your support networks - how do I solve the tricky problems?

Many complaints, whilst individual, may not be a surprise to you. Your organisation should have a way of dealing with complaints and resolving known problems. Being familiar with the policies and procedures that are in place to help you is vital to handling complaints effectively.

For the tricky complaints, where do you go for help? What if you need to escalate a caller to your supervisor or another senior manager? How can you get hold of them when you need to?

Make sure you have the tools, referrals, support tools and networks in place so you're ready to give the complainant as smooth an experience as possible.  

Remember the six P's: prior preparation and planning prevents poor performance.

What about you? What support do you need to cope with your own emotions? What's the support network you have in place - be it personal, professional or emotional.

Research by Bell & Luddington (2006) has shown that complaints can have a negative impact on customer service staff's commitment to customer service. The support networks you have in place are the way you'll keep a positive culture of customer service from being eroded by the negative impact of complaints.

Tip 4: Be prepared! Remember the six P's. Have your networks, processes and personal coping strategies ready in advance of dealing with complaints.

5: Don't let the last customer's problem become the next caller's concern

Closely related to tip 3, this is an important point to re-state. The concept of 'emotional contagion' has been identified in research as a known factor affecting customer service staff [Dallimore, Sparks & Butcher, 2007].

Essentially, customers can transfer their anger to the customer service staff member they're speaking to - who in turn transfers its impact to the customer they deal with next.

When you've finished dealing with a difficult customer, think about how you'll prepare yourself for a new caller with a completely different situation.

Tip 5: Pause. Don't let the last customer's situation inadvertantly spill over into forming the next customer's first impression.


  1. Hi Jason, Good resume of the exposure that a retailer can expect to have. However the most important thing we must never forget is that there is a category of customers whose main concern is to cross swords with the service provider even for minute things. The more someone reacts to their complaint, the more they will be motivated to prolong the "debate". Just had one lady who even wrote the the Governor of the Bank of Mauritius because 5 cent coins are rare in the country. So long, was a pleasure to share this with you. Happy christmas.

  2. Hi Jacklin. Thanks for the comment. You raise a good point here about persistent complainants. They behave in a different way and there's some great research out there analysing persistent complainants specifically.

    For the contact centre, having a specific process that recognises the characteristics of persistent complainants is something I'd recommend under point (4) - having an appropriate support network.

  3. These are great tips. I especially like #3. The general population tends to have an emotional reaction when they are complaining. It is up to the CSR to keep it professional, even if they "feel" that the customer is attacking them personally. Thanks for sharing!

  4. YES! Customers are human too. Sometimes a little too entitled but everyone makes mistakes. Great tips, I like to believe that every confrontation/touch point can be shaped into a positive experience. Thanks for sharing.

    Gena F | Vantaggio HR

    1. Thanks for the comment Gena. It's a good point, so much of the customer experience is within the control of the advisor and their attitude to the situation. You can read more about that in some other posts on my blog about employee attitude.