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The Smart Way To Handle Complaints From Employees Or Customers

How To Handle Complaints From Your Employees Or A Customer

Facing painful situations with staff? Want to avoid losing a valuable client? — Here's the smart way to handle complaints from employees or customers.

Oh, boy. They're out there. That issue that you're hoping your employees won't bring up. That question that you're afraid an important customer will ask. Maybe even worse: some problem lurking in the shadows that you don't even know is a problem yet.

What if something like that pops up at the annual meeting or the feel-good company retreat? 

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There are, no doubt, a number of approaches you can use to defuse and/or resolve one of these situations. Many of them will draw upon your industry expertise and years of experience—and of course, the nature of the complaint or conflict. 

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A problem occurs, however, when we think that our experience or knowledge is totally adequate to address the situation. Well, of course, we say to ourselves, I'm the head of this department (VP of Sales, etc.). Naturally, I need to apply my expertise to effect the correct results. (If that last sentence made you cringe just slightly—good!)

Thinking along those lines is weak because it leaves out a whole area of your brain as well as part of your humanity: your emotional intelligence. And if the problem is specifically a complaint, there's a very good chance that it's the one type of intelligence that's needed.

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When people complain about a situation, there's a very good chance that they are emotionally involved, i.e., they are unhappy. All the technical and administrative expertise in the world won't address that situation. In fact, offering the person some remarks concerning data, procedure, and rules can make the situation worse.

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Here's an example from my work at The Genard Method. I was conducting a full-day training at a data management firm. Everybody on the client-facing side at this organization—and I mean everybody—was a Ph.D. They were all brilliant data crunchers, and did a great job on the projects they were hired for, most of them from prominent corporations. The problem came when it was time to present the data and deliver their recommendations. Basically, they were data people and lacked the speaking skills to connect with their non-data-people clients, explain things in the client's terms, and persuade them of how they needed to change some of their business practices. Hence, the concentrated training in spoken communication skills.

What Was Lacking in This Team Leader's Approach?

The exercise I had given the team was this one: each person had to write down three of the worst questions or complaints that they might face. Basically, that is, those they would personally have the most difficulty dealing with. Then, I handed each person's questions to another member of the team. Then one by one, each person stood and was asked ONE of their own "awful" questions and had to address it on the spot. Instructor- and peer-critique followed.

The team leader's question was this one: "Our team does a great job for the company. But we all know that upper management never gives us enough credit. What do you propose to do about this situation?

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The leader then gave her opinion as to the correct company procedures to be followed in a situation like this. It was really a marvelous example of how she and her staff could expertly process data and quickly come up with a solution. Unfortunately, it lacked the one ingredient that was needed to address the complainer's state of mind: emotion. This, I thought, was remarkable, given that it was the team leader herself who came up with the question!

Acknowledge the Emotion First, Then the Issue

In situations like this, the first thing that must be done is to acknowledge the person's emotional state. A primary reason someone raises a complaint like that one, is because their unhappiness is not being addressed. You really get a sense of that when you hear a comment like this one: "I've been dealing with your lousy fulfillment department for twenty years! When you are going to make the changes you keep promising us?" 

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Now, you can immediately see that, unless you personally been sitting at that desk for 7,300 days, the problem is not your fault. What the complainer is doing is called venting, i.e., aiming at you because you're the target right in front of them. In a sense, what they are really saying is, "Would YOU please listen to this awful situation I keep going through with your company? I've been saying this for years and years and nobody ever even acknowledges my frustration!" 

It should be obvious that your response needs to start out something like this: "I'm terribly sorry to hear that. I can understand why you're frustrated. You shouldn't have had to deal with bad fulfillment practices, and I apologize. I want you to know I'm going to look into this right away. Tell me some more concerning the issues you've been dealing with."

Then you can bring in data or case studies or other customer experiences—but even more important, what you think can be done about the situation based on your high standards and those of the company. And it shouldn't sound like a rote repetition of a meaningless mission statement, either. That's the kind of response I outlined to the team leader at the data management company, with the rest of the team listening.

People who complain aren't saying: "There's a problem with procedures here that good business practices require you to solve." They are expressing a cri du cœur, a cry from the heart. And what it's saying is: "You (or someone before you) have made me unhappy." Laying out one's emotions requires some show of humanity in return, not a recital of business expertise.

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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking and overcoming speaking fear. His company, The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching  and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speakingwas named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in videoconferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership Presence. Contact Gary here. 

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