How to deal with customer complaints

When a customer complains to you or your staff, it can be a difficult situation. Having to admit fault – especially if the fault isn’t actually yours – is not an easy thing to do, but in an increasingly digital age, where one interaction can quickly balloon on social media, it is often more beneficial to retailers to simply comply with what the customer is saying.

For Anil Patel, from Chislehurst Costcutter in south-east London, it is worth losing a small amount of money replacing a damaged item, for example, than risk losing that customer’s long-term business. “We try to resolve it as much as we can,” he says. “If they step out of the shop and the bag breaks and the bottle of wine smashes, we’ll simply give them a new one free of charge. You don’t want to lose that customer for the sake of a £10 bottle of wine.”

He does the same if a customer complains about products going off or mouldy, but it is important not to let yourself get relentlessly taken advantage of. “If it becomes a habit – we have one customer who does this a lot – then we calmly tell them there’s an address on the packaging, there must be something wrong with the product, and politely encourage them to contact the supplier,” says Patel.

Ultimately, your store’s reputation and the long-term custom of your patrons is more important than winning any argument.

As the old saying goes: ‘Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?’

“My view is, stuff your principles, think about the long term,” says Steve Bassett, from Londis Abbotsbury Road in Weymouth, Dorset.

It’s also important to remain calm and reasonable in the face of aggression. Realise that you can’t please everyone, and always try to diffuse any situation. “You can’t get angry and you can’t add fuel to the fire,” says Patel.

Think about the long term

If a customer complains about a product, it is almost always worth backing down to them and following the mantra that ‘the customer is always right’, according to Steve Bassett, from Londis Abbotsbury Road in Weymouth, Dorset. This applies even if you know they’re in the wrong, as with a customer who came in several times complaining about off milk.

“I want the lifetime spend of that customer,” he says. “You can refuse to refund a customer over some milk they say is off, but the downside is you’re losing a customer who spends £10 a week with you. Over a 10-year period, that’s a huge amount of money.

“You’ve lost £5,000 when you could have just swallowed your pride. It’s hard when you know it’s not your fault, but there’s no point cutting off your nose to spite your face and make a point because people will just shop elsewhere.”

Steve Bassett of Londis Abbotsbury Road in Weymouth

Stick up for staff

While it’s important to take customer complaints seriously, it’s equally worth remembering they aren’t necessarily in the right. Barry Patel, of Nisa Local Marsh Farm in Luton, says you need to get both sides of the story, particularly when a complaint is levelled against a member of staff.

“If it’s a staffing issue, we go to the supervisor to find out what went wrong, we interview the staff and look at CCTV. We get a second or a third opinion. It could be 50-50 in terms of blame,” he says. He ensures customers give him contact details so they can be reached to help with resolutions.

“We recently had a one-star review online because the customer came to our post office just after our closing time and we wouldn’t take their letter.

The staff explained what had happened, so we mentioned to the customer that we have to adhere to these times that are set out because the postman won’t wait and we can’t make exemptions.”

Barry Patel of Nisa Local Marsh Farm in Luton

Respond quickly online

A complaint on your premises is something that, by its very nature, needs to be dealt with on the spot, but retailers should also be swift to counter any complaints that appear online.

David Sellers, who runs three Nisa stores in Yorkshire, says he rarely gets complaints, but has had some come through on Facebook Messenger, and he prioritised responding as quickly as possible.

“You’ve got to nip it in the bud, take the complaint on-board and address it quickly,” he says. “If you ignore it, then it can quickly snowball into something much bigger, especially online. It’s the same in any industry – people get more annoyed when they don’t get a response. It can turn into a Facebook fight, which you want to avoid, because that can bring out the trolls.”

Sellers handles online complaints himself, rather than bringing his staff into it.

David Sellers of Nisa local stores in Yorkshire

Don’t take it personally

Customers will complain for any number of reasons, but it is essential that you don’t get angry yourself or take anything personally. “You’ve got to hear them out, resolve it as best you can and make sure they leave satisfied,” says Anil Patel, from Chislehurst Costcutter in south-east London. Recently, a customer at his store said something to one of his staff members during a particularly busy time when the store was trying to get deliveries in and lots of customers were trying to shop.

“The staff member didn’t like it,” he says. “He just went downstairs, got his stuff and went home for the day. The customer came back a couple of weeks later and apologised to my staff member, but we’d forgotten all about it.

“If you carry that complaint with you, you run the risk of being aggressive to the next person. By going home, the staff member avoided upsetting anyone that day.”

Anil Patel of Chislehurst Costcutter in south-east London

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