TDmonthly Magazine!
November 2013 | Vol. XII - No. 11


Retailers: How To Handle A Customer Complaint in 6 Steps

Have you ever tried to make a customer complaint but been unable to?

That happened to me when I was recently speaking in Boston. I woke up to find a 4? cockroach swimming in my bathroom toilet. On my way out of the hotel later, I stopped by the front desk to let them know.

Before I could finish, the woman said, “Do you want a discount?”

“No, I thought you’d want to let housekeeping know.”

“Well we can give you a free breakfast.”

“No, that’s OK, I would have thought…”

“It’s no bother…”

I didn’t even care if it was a bother!

Having worked in hospitality I know the rooms manager would have wanted to know about a cockroach doing the backstroke in a guestroom toilet – It wasn’t about getting a free breakfast.

And what is this obsession with free as the only way to deal with a customer complaint?

That isn’t where you start, even if it might be where you finish.

Here Are The Retail Doctor’s 6 Easy Steps To Handle A Customer Complaint:

1. Shut up. I know that might sound gruff but when a customer is angry, the last thing they want is someone to jump in and offer a solution. They need to get it off their chest for whatever reason; something ruined their day, they're frustrated, something didn’t work as expected – you name it. To diffuse their anger and possible continuation of their frustration when they meet a friend and tell the story or in a letter to a supervisor, let the customer get all of their complaint out.

2. Don’t second guess. Part of my retail sales training is to be in the moment. You don’t want to offer your opinion of your customer’s complaint until you understand what it is they are complaining about. If you’re unsure if they are done, ask the customer if they have any other concerns. Then keep listening while looking in their eyes.

3. Ask what they want. It can be as simple as an apology. It can be as complex as a replacement for an item purchased a year or more ago without a receipt. Whatever it is, before you jump in with both feet, stay an interested observer and discover what it is they want from you.

4. Tell them what you can do.
While they might want the moon – most people are reasonable. Now’s your time to shine. Know your boundaries. If you can easily give a refund – do it. If they paid with a credit card they probably know they can simply contact their issuer for a refund – and get it. Don’t ruin your own day just because you have a sign behind the counter. Be the good person.

However, don’t roll over if they don’t have a receipt and it could be theft – give them store credit with proper ID. Be clear and say what you can do, not what you can’t. Customer service training is crucially important for anyone who might handle a return. If they happen to say, I’m not authorized to do a refund, that would be the store manager, that as much as tells the customer they will get a refund. If that’s the case – why is the customer having to go through the hoops? Trust and train those who will deal with customer complaints so the customer only has to deal with one person and only once.

5. Ask if they were satisfied.
When the situation has been resolved, at the end of the transaction simply ask the customer if they were satisfied. It may seem unnecessary but it opens the door for them to get rid of any leftover resentment, ask a question or offer a compliment. You as a retailer end up a winner no matter what they say as they’ve given you one more chance to create an exceptional experience that they can tell their friends about – and it isn’t just they got their way.

6. Share how you handled it with your crew. Training how to deal with customer service complaints isn’t a learn once and it's done type of learning. Every interaction is different so use the nuances, the exceptions and the positive outcomes to train at your next store meeting or store huddle before you open.

There are only a handful of customers who enjoy threatening, swearing and throwing a tantrum to get their way. Most customers don’t want to complain or create a scene. What they want is satisfaction, and to know that coming back to your store to get that satisfaction is indeed satisfying.

Image from Thad Zajdowicz

Bob PhibbsWriter's Bio: Bob Phibbs is the Retail Doctor®, a best-selling author and speaker who has helped thousands of independent businesses compete. His new book, The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business has received praise from both Inc. magazine and USA Today and can be found at your local bookstore or ordered at He and his work have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Entrepreneur magazine. Questions? Contact Bob at This article was reprinted with permission of the author, Bob Phibbs, aka The Retail Doctor®. Read more articles by this author


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