Dealing with Customer Complaints

As any retailer can tell you, if you handle a customer’s complaint well, you can strengthen your connection to that customer. Handle it poorly, and you may never see the customer again. So it’s important to equip our employees to handle complaints effectively. At Zingerman’s, we teach staff to follow a simple recipe that we found leads to good results almost all of the time — Zingerman’s 5 Steps to Handling Customer Complaints:

    1. Acknowledge the complaint.
    2. Sincerely apologize.
    3. Make it right.
    4. Thank the customer for letting us know about the problem.
    5. Document the complaint.

But not every unhappy customer complains in person. Some customers write a letter or, more and more these days, send an e-mail. The way those written complaints are handled is just as important to an organization’s reputation for customer service as handling complaints well in person. The truth is that not all apology letters are created equal. Who hasn’t received one of those form letters that acknowledges your complaint but gives you absolutely no satisfaction that you’ve been heard or that anything will be done about it? A poorly executed apology letter can leave the customer feeling worse than before they lodged the complaint, while a well-written letter can really patch things up. And apology letters aren’t just for complaints that arrive in writing. Often, an apology letter is an appropriate follow-up to a situation that was handled in person but would benefit from a little more attention. We teach our staff to deliver the best service in writing that includes several tips for writing apology letters that I thought might be useful for others as well.
Time is of the essence.
When an apology letter needs to be written, write it immediately — certainly by the end of the day and sooner if you’re responding to an e-mail. People are always pleased with a prompt response and tend to become more annoyed if they feel they are being ignored.
If you took the complaint, write the letter yourself.
Typically, the person who first hears the complaint has the best overview of what the problem was/is and can respond most effectively. However, if the complaint was resolved in person and you’re just doing some additional follow-up, it’s a nice touch to have a manager or owner write the letter.
We teach that apology letters coming from Zingerman’s should include:

    1. Acknowledgement.
    “I understand how disappointing it must have been …” “Wow. We really messed up …” “It sounds as if we totally missed the mark …” “Clearly we didn’t deliver the experience you were expecting and that we expect ourselves to deliver …”
    2. An apology that accepts responsibility in the first person.
    “I’m so sorry.” “My sincere apologies …”
    3. Your explanation of what you have done, are doing or will do to make things right, including how you will follow up.
    4. A sincere thank-you.
    “Most customers don’t take the time to complain — much less to write a letter or an e-mail; they just tell their friends about their bad experience.” “We are truly grateful to have the opportunity to turn the situation around.”
    5. Document.
    Write up a Code Red (the form we use to document complaints here at Zingerman’s. Visit for a free sample.) The more data we have about what happened, the better able we are to head off such problems in the future.

Make it real. Make it personal.
This isn’t a form letter so make sure it doesn’t sound like one. Use your own voice and write from the heart. If the customer’s style is formal, yours should be as well. If their style is more casual, yours can be as well. However, don’t be too casual, especially with e-mail. You don’t want to come across as if you’re taking the situation too lightly. When in doubt, be more formal. A short, to-the-point response may be appropriate for a short, to-the-point letter or e-mail. But a long, detailed explanation from the customer requires a response that shows you have also given the situation both time and thought.
Do not make excuses. Ever!
Customers usually don’t care why the problem happened; they just want to know what you’re going to do about it.
Give the customer a way to contact you with feedback.
Whether it’s your phone number or e-mail address (preferably both), be sure to include a way for the customer to reach you. Asking for specific feedback in your letter is a good idea: “I hope that you’ll use the enclosed gift certificate to give us another chance. And I would very much appreciate you letting me know how we do on your next visit.” “If you can let me know when you’ll next be in the store, I will arrange to be there so we can sample the olive oils together and find something that can replace the one you loved that we haven’t been able to source.”
Follow up. We’re not done until the customer is satisfied.
Just writing an apology letter or e-mail isn’t enough. And you can’t always count on the customer responding to your letter. It’s important to be sure the problem is actually taken care of. If you’ve sent a gift certificate and invited the guest to return to give you another chance, make a note to call or e-mail them in a few weeks to see if they’ve been in and, if so, how their experience went. If you sent an apology e-mail but got no response, send one that says something along the lines of, “I just wanted to touch base and make sure you received my earlier e-mail. Is there anything else I can do to help you feel better about shopping with us in the future?”
Have someone else read your letter or e-mail before you send it.
It’s a good idea to have someone read over any letter that’s going out to a customer, but having a second pair of eyes review an apology letter is especially important. It’s a reliable way to make sure there are no typos or grammatical mistakes. Equally important is making sure that excuses or a defensive tone hasn’t crept in. Often, we don’t realize that a particular turn of phrase sends a different message than what we truly meant to convey, but someone else is able to pick that up.
Know when to pick up the phone.
The written word is very powerful, but there are times when you can get to the crux of an issue much more quickly by having a conversation. If you need additional information about what happened, if the customer is especially upset or if you are got bogged down in a cycle of back-and-forth e-mails — pick up the phone and call. Writing an apology letter should never be used to avoid an in-person or on-the-phone apology, if one of those options would actually be more effective.