Difficult Customer Complaints

What are difficult customer complaints? All complaints hurt, especially when you care deeply about your business or organisation. The more you care, the more painful it is. When we are hurt, the natural reaction is to either hit back or run away. Both will make things worse in the long run. And when customers’ behaviour deteriorates, conflict escalates.

Turn complaints into complimentsA much better strategy is to turn them into compliments. This not only gives you something more productive to do than moan, but it also creates loyal customers, more profit and even happier staff.  My “SALAD” method usually works to turn complaints into compliments.

But, it’s not always that simple. As a nurse working in Accident & Emergency, as a midwife, a business owner, manager and a mediator, I’ve come across situations where a simple formula doesn’t work.  These are what I call difficult customer complaints, which inevitably happen if both sides are not at their best. The human bit of the brain is shut down and the animal takes over. (more on anger)

When It’s Hard to Make a Calm Complaint

Many of us have never been in a situation where our life is threatened. However, the intense physical and emotional reaction that this creates in all humans can be caused by taking away or threatening status, fairness, control, freedom or our loved ones safety. Here are a few other situations where cause for complaint might end up in agression or violence.

  • On special occasions where things matter more
  • Use of mood altering substances
  • Pain
  • Anxiety/Fear
  • Pre-existing stress or Anger
  • Recently Suffered a Major Loss
  • Uncertainty
  • Poor or non-existent communication

When Customer Complaints are Hard to Handle Well

It’s a lot harder to do it when we

  • can see that the customer is so angry/upset/drunk etc that they can’t listen
  • feel threatened or offended by the customer
  • are tired, hungry or unhappy
  • think it might be partly our fault but don’t want to admit it
  • know it isn’t our fault but the customers
  • short-staffed
  • are pretty sure it was one of the other staff
  • can’t do anything to change what they are complaining about

What People Try First

Most organisations have customer complaints handling procedures. Yet, on many occasions what start out as a minor issue rapidly escalates into a major incident, because of one of the factors above. So what can be done to avoid this and to manage difficult customer complaints?

Stop the customer complaining inappropriately

Places where customer complaints have escalated into physical and verbal abuse frequently respond with warning signs.

Customer complaints Sign warning that we will not tolerate physical or verbal abuse

While I firmly agree with the sentiment, I don’t think posting the sign actually has many effects on the problem.

If someone feels hurt or angry, the thought might be “They obviously care more about their staff than me, so I will have to show them I matter.”  Or “who the hell do they think they are…”

It assumes that the only reason that people react in that way is by choice. However, most people behave in a way which they think will meet their needs. It is better to think about how to prevent the cause of the behaviour than to only focus on threats and punishment.

Provide Procedures and Scripts for Staff

Procedures help, but what really matters is the way in which people interact. The kindest script in the world said in a sarcastic manner will have exactly the opposite effect. If the people handling the complaints are not in the right environment or mindset, even the best procedures and policies won’t work.

Starting with the reason for the problem is not a good idea. First, acknowledge their pain/frustration/discomfort. Then accept that is their view and their reaction, even if it seems unreasonable or disproportionate. If you don’t start there, they won’t calm down.

Managing Difficult Customer Complaints Well

Remember that what you look for, you usually find

Do a reality check. If you or others are in danger, protect first.  No danger? Try and make life easier for the other person. Take a few breaths and try and be objective.

When we look for anger, we approach people differently than when we expect to see pain. People act to meet their needs. If we can help them meet their needs or even just listen to what they need, the response will be quite different than if we react to their behaviours alone.

First Aid 

We know what we should do–it’s common sense and kindness.  Basically,  this is your first aid kit for difficult customer complaints. Just three things to remember!

  • Protect What is Important 
    Ask what is the most important thing here? Safety? Policy? Easing Pain? Keep that uppermost in your mind.
  • Prevent Harm
    What can I do to stop things getting worse? What can I do to make things better?
  • Restore
    Small gestures of kindness–a word, bringing a chair or a glass of water, giving information or even just saying “It is hard. I wish I could do more.”

Change the Environment

Look at the list of things that make us the worst version of ourselves. If I am getting grumpy, my family know it is because I am hungry. I take biscuits for participants when I mediate not just to stop people getting “hangry” but because it illustrates our common humanity, makes them feel I care about them and normalises the situation.

What can be changed now? Is there anything that makes life easier or a bit more human?


Add human touches–research has shown that architecture, decor and furnishings can calm or enrage people.

Useful Articles and resources

Tammy Lenski has some great tips on “difficult people”

Taming the Tiger Within (Free Audio Book)

Just Listen by Mark Goulston

Conflict First Aid by Nancy Radford