Eric Karjaluoto

How to Deal with Customer Complaints

TL;DR: Many issues can be resolved (easily) through a few reasonable steps. We start by listening and being respectful. Once we understand the problem, we offer an explanation and propose how we might make it right.

I am not a customer service expert. That said, I often find myself in a support role. Sometimes I respond to questions and complaints about our B2C products. At others, I help our clients navigate prickly situations. In doing so, I’ve noticed some patterns. I’ve also identified an approach that helps resolve most consumer complaints. Here it is:

1. Listen to your customer

Most of us are emotionally invested in what we build. This can make it hard to accept criticism of our products—especially if the customer is yelling. Even so, if you sell a product, such interactions are inevitable.

Your first priority is to be calm and receptive. Breathe in, stay positive, and let your customer vent their frustrations. Resist the desire to fix the situation or make an excuse. Just listen.

2. Repeat back what you heard

This next part is a bit of a trick, but it’s a nice one. People like to be heard. When you echo their words (or body language) they feel valued. So, once you understand their concern, repeat it to them. I suggest starting with something like, “OK. Let me see if I understand what happened…”

If you’ve heard them correctly, they’ll say so—and you’ll be a step closer to diffusing any anger/frustration. If you misheard, they’ll tell you. This is equally useful. It helps ensure you’re informed before you start offering solutions.

3. Acknowledge their situation

It takes courage to complain about a company/product. Often, such criticism results in conflict—and few enjoy that. Recognize that your customer cares enough about your company to reach out with their concerns. They’re giving you a chance to make it right.

Phrases like: “I understand why you’re unhappy” or “that shouldn’t have happened” offer a good starting point. If it wasn’t actually an issue, you might try saying, “Oh, I see what happened here…”. In either event, you need to respond with empathy.1

4. Explain what happened

If your customer’s concern was the result of an error/issue on your behalf—and you know the cause—explain it.2 Plainly note what happened, even if your answer shows your flaws (this is part of being human). Most will appreciate your honesty and humility so long as you take ownership of the issue.

If you don’t know how the issue came to be, explain that you’ll investigate and get back to them. Provide a time frame if you can, but avoid offering anything else, until you have a firm grasp of the situation. “I’ve never seen this before—let me look into it,” is a fine response when you need more information.

5. Propose a method of resolution

Once you understand the issue, you can assess how to respond. For example, Campnab users sometimes set up a scan with the wrong dates. In these situations, we reset the scan for them. Sometimes the issue is more complex. They might feel mislead—or believe they suffered personal harm.3 These situations are trickier.

I’m of the mind that what unhappy customers want most is to know that you take their concerns seriously. For this reason, I often tell them how we plan to prevent their bad experience from happening again (to them or our other customers). Doing so indicates that their feedback matters—and will make a difference.

You might change the ingredients in your product. You could rewrite your website text so it’s clearer. Perhaps you’ll rethink how your app functions altogether. Sometimes your willingness to take their concerns to heart, and make appropriate changes, is enough.

6. Offer some form of compensation

No one wants to pay for a mistake, but the cost of not paying is often higher. Refunding your customer is a one time cost.4 Refusing to do so might keep costing you—in the form of one-star reviews, bad word-of-mouth, and ongoing conflict.

Conversely, offering a refund or complimentary product without investigating the issue is also perilous. It indicates that you don’t care about the issue—or that it happens so often you readily hand out freebies.

When it comes to compensation, ask yourself what’s fair. This might be a straight refund. Or, it could be their money back plus complimentary service on-the-house. Sometimes, it takes a personal apology from the founder and a special gift that shows how important they are to you.

I’ve come to appreciate customer complaints. They help us understand where we’re lacking—and even inform our product roadmap. Lots of business-folk think they need a survey to understand how customers feel. I find complaints more telling.5

Complaints also allow us to show that we’re decent people doing our best. Any time I can get on the phone, or help someone via chat, I do. Attracting new customers is costly. I’d rather keep a customer than have to find a new one.

So that’s it: Stay open, be honest, and do your best to help.


  1. You should be empathetic, but avoid faking empathy. Pretending you care—especially if you’re unwilling to do anything about the situation—compounds the damage.
  2. An explanation is different from an excuse. The former illustrates that you’re informed and willing to level with them. The latter can seem like you’re avoiding responsibility.
  3. If your customer suffered in some way from your product/service, there may be legal ramifications. I can’t speak to those situations, as I have no legal expertise (aside from watching many episodes of Street Legal).
  4. Shelkie (my business partner) taught me the value of being quick to offer refunds. He noted, “I’m not fighting with anyone over $15.” So, in the rare situation that someone is unhappy with Campnab, we refund them. This immediately changes the tone of the discussion.
  5. Our client, Saltspring Soapworks, takes customer feedback to heart. In fact, they even credit those who’ve spurred changes to their products.

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