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Blog Customer Experience

The Bitter Truth about Handling Customer Complaints: 6 Brands that Learned It the Hard Way

Mathew Maniyamkott

31 May 2019

10 min read

There are companies which are considered the best in terms of servicing their customers and there are businesses whose customers profess how much they hate being their customers. This is a typical phenomenon you get to see in the comments section of the social media handles of the much-hated companies. Some of these companies go to any lengths to keep their customers satisfied while others are guilty of serious inaction. Brands like Ritz Carlton, Hilton, Amazon, Zappos are some of the names that tower above their peers when it comes to servicing their customers.

Here is a 6-step process on how to handle customer complaints:

The old axiom that says “the customer is always right” might not hold true always, but that doesn’t mean your customers will be alright with getting treated wrongly. There are a lot of mistakes you should avoid in customer experience and things that you can do when handling customer complaints.

Customer complaints are the schoolbooks from which we learn.

Handling Customer Complaint #1 Always Empathize

Listen to the concerns of your customers with as much attention and empathy as you would listen to your child who has an important question to ask you. Replying to them with respect and attention creates a bond between you and the customer and it tells them that you will do anything in your position to solve the problem of the customer.

Handling Customer Complaint #2 Apologize Immediately

Sure, not every problem can be solved with an outright apology. But there are many instances where an immediate apology (even if the fault is on the brand’s side) can reduce the tension that is caused.

Handling Customer Complaint #3 Offer Solutions

Always focus on how you can solve the problem of the customer as this will help cut down your customer churn rate. If you can do anything to immediately alleviate the problems faced by the customer, then you would have done a great service to your brand as immediately addressing the problems of the customer lessens the rage they may possess if the mistake was on your side. Customer feedback tools come in handy at times such as these.

Thank your customers for complaining and meaning it. Most will never bother to complain. They’ll just walk away.

Handling Customer Complaint #4 Get the Facts Right

After you listen to the voice of the customer, take the initiative in understanding the facts. You can employ online survey tools to run a survey that’ll help to gauge the level of damage that has been done. Do not give scripted replies to your customer’s questions as it will irk them more. Use it as an opportunity to build a genuine conversation and make sure that the customer trusts you after the end of this transaction.

Handling Customer Complaint #5 Keep Your Calm

Remember when a customer is agitated and demands an answer from you, it is never personal, they are unhappy with the company’s products and you are the brand’s ambassador to them. Any action by you against the company’s policies can make your employer look bad and it is could balloon into a case of bad PR too. Be professional in your approach and don’t get defensive.

Handling Customer Complaint #6 Don’t Make the Customer Go Around

Most customer service agents are notorious for sending the customer from one staff to another or from one email thread to another and are notorious for keeping the customer on hold for a long time too. There is nothing more disrespectful than this. A complaint should be handled by only one customer service agent and you should always ensure that a customer doesn’t get passed around like a commodity.

Here are 5 brands that treated its customers wrongly and paid for it badly.

1. Uber

One of the world’s fastest-growing startups, Uber is a life-saver for millions around the world that helps us hail a cab from the convenience of our mobile phones. But a spate of strategically flawed moves and bad handling of PR has made it look like a villain. An ex-Uber employee published an essay about the culture of sexism and harassment at Uber- this is where the issues began to happen to the company if you look at it in a chronological order. A highly-viral video of Uber’s then CEO berating an Uber driver sparked a row. There were a lot of sexual harassment cases filed by customers from different parts of the world too, which added to the hatred and the subsequent mismanagement of all of this meant that Travis Kalanick had to unceremoniously resign.

mismanagement of complaints by Uber CEO and management

How did Uber handle all of this, including customer complaints?

Travis Kalanick had to apologize publicly. For lacking in corporate responsibility, the company even lost its license to operate in London. A lot of its executives resigned from their jobs including Travis. The customers had no means to contact a CS executive immediately thus making the customers angry for its apathy.

What should Uber have done to handle the customer complaint better?

Setting aside other factors like corporate compliance, sexual harassment issue, and Travis’ public gaffe because it does not come under the purview of this article, there is so much that Uber could have done in terms of its customer service. Set up a team to handle such harassment cases. Make sure there is a separate call center dedicated to that and create processes so that a complaint is forwarded immediately to the law enforcement authorities as well.

Making sure that there is a phone number using which a customer riding in an Uber is able to immediately connect to a representative from the company in cases of an emergency. Uber should also tie up with local service agents who can handle any kind of emergencies. This will not increase the customer’s trust with the brand, women will feel safe getting on an Uber. Before they get into a contract with a driver, not only should their credentials be verified, they should also be given sensitivity training that covers cultural, gender and stereotype issues.

2. Bank of America

Molly Katchpole, a 22-year old graduate, started a petition against BofA, which received more than 3 lakh signatures. What happened here? Bank of America decided to charge its users $5/ month to debit cardholders who use their cards to make purchases. That is as much as $60 in a year, an extra charge that will only be exempted if you keep a minimum balance in your account or you have a premium account.

The reputation of banks is not exactly philanthropically strong, they are known to ‘swindle’ the money of its customers. In fact, this decision was not implemented yet and it was only an internal memo whose contents were leaked which caused such a furor among its customers. A market research study by American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) says that customers are moving from larger banks to smaller banks, and to introduce a fee like this in such a situation might not have been entirely thought through. After a lot of backlashes, they finally decided to drop the fee.

Bank of America is accused of ‘swindling’ the money of its customers.

The sad reality is that this outburst from its customers didn’t stop them from introducing other fees later in the year. Some of this fees included a charge for not engaging in online banking or not keeping a minimum balance as stipulated and so on.

What does it mean to its customers?

Because of this practice of introducing a varied set of fees, even as small as $5 (which is a lot for many), they lose the trust of their customers. Why? Because the charges that are levied are based on actions that don’t hold water. For example- debiting payment from a customer just because they do not use its online banking services is ridiculous. Also, penalizing a customer for not keeping a minimum balance in their accounts is cruel because of not being able to keep a minimum balance is a reflection of them being short on funds. Burdening them with a fine is not right.

What could BofA have done better?

First of all, do not introduce charges for such flimsy reasons. Handling customer complaints by creating a problem in the first place is not a smart business decision. Sure, there are a lot of charges that are levied which go unnoticed even to the discerning eyes. But this is a time and age when information travels faster than light, it is imperative that they take measures to scuttle the spread of the news when they know it is affecting their brand by recanting on the decision immediately.

No wonder that during the Occupy Wall Street movement, activists organized protests against corruption and greed by writing an anti-foreclosure message in front of a Bank of America branch in chalk.

3. United Airlines

The fact that someone spent their time and effort in creating a blog titled “” is a reflection of how this airlines company treats its customers. There are hundreds of horror stories about traveling on United Airlines on the Internet. These are just customers who wanted to vent while a large proportion of them would just put such bad incidents behind them. A simple google search would also reveal United to be one of the most attacked airlines and the ones that many users decided not to use at all after experiencing them.

United Airlines is notorious for their poor customer service

One of its most ‘popular’ horror stories was when David Dao, a passenger, was dragged from the aircraft as he refused to leave when the airline suggested him to leave. His face hit an armrest during the struggle and he was seen with blood around his mouth. Passengers posted a video of this incident on social media and it became viral as expected. Before the confrontation, the airline offered travel vouchers to passengers to vacate their seats for the airline’s employees who needed to travel to the same destination. Three passengers who were selected for involuntary removal complied except for David, for which he was dragged and humiliated.

How did United’s CEO react?

In what can be considered a disgusting reply, Oscar Munoz, the then CEO of United Airlines issued a statement that justified his removal and commended the crew for following established procedures, a remark that didn’t go down well on social media. United’s stock points tumbled too.

What should they have done instead?

Immediately issue an apology even if the fault was on the passenger. What happened was no way to treat a customer, especially someone who paid to be on that seat. The authorities who acted that way needed to be sacked immediately, because it was no small misdemeanor. It required strict action to be taken. They needed to be sacked. A team should have been constituted to train its entire workforce on treating customers right.

David Dao should have been properly apologized to by the CEO, that too in person. There is no way that the apology would milden the very public blow to Dao, but that is the least they could do. A very public apology and the right compensation discussed immediately and not after a long drawn battle in the courts.

4. Foxconn Technology

Responsible for manufacturing and assembling consumer electronics for some of the world’s biggest brands, Foxconn is also infamous for its ‘sweatshops’ that it runs in Shenzen, China, where a spate of worker suicides that occurred to the poor working conditions gained global notoriety. The way the workers committed suicide and the ensuing response from Foxconn’s management speaks volumes about the way it treats its employees. Employees committed suicide by throwing themselves out of the building they worked from. Management’s response- they installed safety nets.

Faxconn management handled employee suicides and failed miserably

What could Foxconn do instead?

Start by treating its employees better, as simple as that. This is just a blatant display of corporate hegemony, greed, and abuse. There are no excuses for it. There is no way the public can make them change their behavior. The company should act morally right and not repugnantly. The incredible negative publicity and the negative feedback loop that came of it didn’t help much with the sales either.

5. The New York Times

You would think that one of the world’s most reputed publications would steer clear of gaffes. But everyone makes a mistake once in a while. What happened? NYT sent an email to its millions of subscribers that they were offering a discount to renew their subscription. Sure, a discount is something that makes customers happy. But in this case, the email which was only intended to about 300 of its customers who had stopped subscribing, was sent to its entire email list of more than eight million people.

As expected, loyal customers were livid that their loyalty wasn’t rewarded but discounts were being doled out to customers who had decided to drop out. It is a given that people who have been paying for a long period of duration were not rewarded will not like the fact that their loyalty is being taken for granted.

NYT email gaffe that gone wrong

What could NYT do to save their face?

The first thing that NYT should have done was apologize to its other customers. Thankfully, that’s what they did. It was a genuine gaffe. You cannot blame them for trying to persuade the people who just quit on them. They had to take measures to bring them back into their fold and like any other business, they did so by offering their product at a cheaper rate.

They just need to be careful the next time they send their emails. Also, they can initiate a rewards system where they offer their long-term customers a special something that they will cherish so that they feel valued and appreciated.


It is all right to falter at times although causing physical harm and attacking customers based on a plethora of variables is essentially unforgivable. These are the brand’s employees (who are also normal people just like you and me) and their personal transgressions, sometimes, is considered as that of the doings of a brand. At times, it is magnanimous of us customers to forgive and forget. But if the response of the brand is rude as well, then there is a lot of backlashes that can be expected.

With all that said, the only point that we are trying to make here is to apologize and then work on resolving the problems of the customer. And to always be proactive to avoid committing the same mistake in future, god forbid!

Mathew Maniyamkott

Guest Blogger at SurveySparrow

Regular contributor to various magazines. Passionate about entrepreneurship, startups, marketing, and productivity.

Everything about delighting customers.
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