A-Z of Handling Furious Customer Complaints when Selling Online

The more you sell, the more complaints. Nothing personal. Oscar Wilde remarked that, ‘the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.’ It’s the same on the web. If you plan to run an online business, you better get ready to deal with the complaints.
We’ve sold more than $600,000 of goods in three years. On good days, we do $4,000. Most days it’s about $2,000. That’s each day, every week, every month. We’ve learnt a few things. The #1 lesson I learnt is… take real good care of your customers and they’ll come back, and come back again, and come back again. Believe me, this is much better than chasing down new customers.

customer-complaint-letter The more you sell, the more complaints. Nothing personal. Oscar Wilde remarked that, ‘the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.’ It’s the same on the web. If you plan to run an online business, you better get ready to deal with the complaints.
We’ve sold more than $600,000 of goods in three years. On good days, we do $4,000. Most days it’s about $2,000. That’s each day, every week, every month. We’ve learnt a few things. The #1 lesson I learnt is… take real good care of your customers and they’ll come back, and come back again, and come back again. Believe me, this is much better than chasing down new customers.
chinese for sale sign

Taking Care of Repeat Customers

Remember, they made the effort to get out their credit card and buy your product; now it’s your turn to help them over the finishing line. Sometimes the smallest thing can trip up the best of us.
It’s like this. The more you sell, the more complaints you’ll get. Instead of worrying, think of it as a backhand compliment. What’s important is not that you get customer complaints, but how you respond to the complaints and ensure that you can bring angry customers back into the fold.

How to Respond to Customer Complaints

A – Action
Is there’s anything worse than getting an email—reading it once, twice and a third time looking for the answer— and thinking, ‘so what do I do next, tell me?’ Give the reader a specific Call to Action.
In other words, let them know what they should do next. Don’t leave them hanging there.
B – Blame
Accept it, you’re going to get blamed. Selling digital products online is simple (in theory) but can get problematic when you factor in the issues with deliveries, returns, chargebacks, refunds, lost order and technical glitches.
We’ve had customers confuse a zip file with a virus. Their computer said ‘unknown file format’ as they had no WinZip (or equivalent extraction software) on their PC. So, they thought it was a bug… and posted the complaint on Facebook. That helped!
C- Context
Give Your Side. Help the reader understand YOUR position. For example, why your product may have malfunctioned or how they can help you understand their situation more clearly. Was it an upgrade or a new license?
D – Direct Line
Include your contact details. Make yourself available if they want to talk to you. Don’t try to screen them out by giving them the reception’s phone number. You want to do interact with your customers, right?
Include your email address, direct line number, and cell number. Don’t hide behind voice-mail or the secretary. Sends out all the wrong signals.
E – Enthusiasm
Use positive language. Be careful with your tone. This is why reading aloud makes such a difference. Use positive words and phrases to stress the key points. But tone-down over-zealous or excessively optimistic phrases. And remove all those clichés marketing phrases. Don’t talk about best practices when responding to a complaint.
F – Focus
Keep it simple. Address one topic in each paragraph. Don’t confuse the reader, or yourself, by mixing multiple topics together. Prioritize the most important points.
G – Grateful
Show some appreciation for effort the person took to write you, especially if they have already written to you more than once. These may be long-standing customers and it makes sense to keep their business.
H – Headings
Separate your letter into logical sections. This also makes it easier to scan the key points. Most of us read only the sections that interest us, the rest we filter out. Using headings to help people find the relevant information fast.
I – Information
Don’t be a fault-finder (you know, that type of attitude) but see if the person made any mistakes that need to be addressed. For example, if they saw they couldn’t download the product, ask why?

  • Was it a technical issue?
  • Are they behind a firewall?
  • Did the zip file give an error message?

Sometimes, people won’t get you the information up front, so you have to gently coax it out of them. I knew someone, (Business Consultant was their job title) who couldn’t open a zip file. He didn’t know about right-click. So, we showed him and then it worked…
J – Jargon.
Remove all jargon, clichés and phrases that have crept into your email. Instead, improve your writing by using direct, clear communications. Clichés smack of laziness and reflect poorly on your abilities to respond. It also implies that you’re unable to communicate with any confidence. Why? Because you have to resort to clichés to describe the product.
K – Keyboard
Learn to use your keyboard so you can type your emails (and letters) faster. I took a touch typing course in my teens and it’s stood to me ever since. I knew a woman in San Diego who could touch type 100 words in a minute; pretty impressive to see her running over the keyboard. I’m not nearly there but can type at a good rate, especially before lunch. After that, my energy goes down.
L – Lists
Use bullet lists. Identify the key points. Use short sentences. Number the steps if you want the reader to perform actions in a sequence, for example, when opening a bank account or doing something online.
M – Mix
Vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. Alternate long and short sentences. Then read it aloud and see how it sounds.
N – Needs
Address their needs. Discuss their problem (i.e. the root of the problem) rather than your products. Don’t ramble on about your ‘commitment to quality’ and customer service. This winds them up even more. Get to the point. Explain how you can – and will – fix their problem.
O – Opinion
Ask a reliable friend to read your response to the complaint. You’re not looking for compliments! Ask them, ‘what are the three things they dislike most? The third thing is usually what they really don’t like. The first two were the sugar-coating, but watch out for the third one…, that’s usually the problem.
P – Positive
Be Positive. Open the letter with a short, positive introduction. Strike the right note from the start. Don’t over-do it. Work on getting the right balance.
Q – Quick
Give yourself a target for responding to customer queries. For example, I respond to every email within 24 hours. Auto-responders don’t count. Though I do have an auto-responder, it’s to acknowledge that I got their email and to give them other ways to contact me if it’s an emergency.
R – Refund
If you offer a 30 day refund on your site, and a person requests the refund, just give it. You’ve made the promise, now honor it. I know there’s nothing wrong with it and their taking advantage of your refund policy… that’s part of business. Move on. One suggestion though. If you notice that one specific product is always getting complaints, then look into it immediately. Maybe the problem is on your site.
S – Shoes
Put Yourself in Their Shoes. Don’t be aggressive, especially if they sent you a nasty letter. Stay calm. Be sympathetic to their situation, acknowledge their frustration and refer to any previous queries they may have made. Don’t start writing letter without mentioning any correspondence they’ve sent you or conversations you’ve had in relation to this business matter.
T – Tables
Use tables to represent data. Balance the ‘text to images’ ratio. Provide labels for each table. Using alternating stripes to add a dash of color to the document, but don’t over-do it.
U – Users
No one wants to be called a User. This term creeps into many IT letters and emails. Don’t refer to the reader as a ‘user’. It’s a horrible phrase. No-one wants to be called a user. In technical documentation, it may be acceptable but in business letters, avoid it. Refer to them by their name, where possible.
V – Verbal
Avoid using condescending language or adopting a patronizing manner. This will infuriate the reader even more. Avoid hackneyed phrases such as, “As I’m sure you’re aware…” or “As you must know…” Once again, put yourself in the reader’s shoes.
W – White space
Avoid large, dense paragraphs. No-one likes large blocks of text. Use white space to emphasize the key points in a document and help it to breathe.
X – Xenophobia
You don’t know who’s on the other side of the email. Before you start blaming the outsource dept, remember the person you’re dealing with may have ties to that part of the world. Keep it professional. Don’t include ‘jokes’ that you and your buddies thought funny. What’s funny to you may be very offensive to someone else.
Y – Yell
Don’t shout at the customer. Writing in UPPERCAPS to get your point across is a red flag to a bull. Don’t do it EVER! I know I broke the rule, but you get the idea. This is a sure-fire way to start a flame war.
Z – Zen
Your letter is meant to answer a question. Don’t fudge things and get all zen-like and mystical. I’ve sent complaint letters to companies and received very cryptic, obscure answers that sounded like a riddle from Harry Potter.
Do you know what error message D5152 means? Well, that’s two of us.

Four More Takeaways

  1. Read it aloud. You’ll ‘see’ the mistakes when you read it aloud. Improve the text until it sounds natural and easy on the ear.
  2. Use the Active voice. Avoid using the Passive voice. Use the Active voice as it makes your letters sounds more confidence and helps avoid ambiguity.
  3. Stay on track. When revising your letter, remove all extraneous information. Small words of warning, though — don’t be too curt. If you perform too much surgery on your letter, you may inadvertently cut out its heart! Carefully do it. Study the masters. Look at how Bob Bly, Brian Clark and Seth Godin do it. Try to get a balance.
  4. Remember who you’re writing to – Always write with the reader in mind. I have a photo next to my PC of customers I’ve dealt with over the years. Your customers are real people – flesh and blood just like you – and deserve to be treated as such.

You don’t need to follow all twenty-six of these points when responding to customer complaints. But, knowing when, where and how has helped me immensely.
Which is the most important point? … ok, here’s my secret.
Imagine the customer in your mind’s eye. They tried to buy something from your site and it didn’t work. Something went wrong, maybe on the last page. Now, they’re upset, tired and angry with themselves. They did their best and it didn’t work.
Ok, can you see them sitting there, waiting for your answer?
They are decent people like you and me. Al they want is a little help. Hit Reply and start helping them out!
One last thing: give them the benefit of the doubt. If they say it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Work with them to find out why.
What are your thoughts?
What’s the first thing you do when you get an angry letter from a customer? Do you have a system you follow? Do you use a checklist? I know I missed something. Please share it below.
About the Author
Ivan Walsh develops web businesses that generate long-term returns. Subscribe to his free newsletter before you go! You’ll be glad you did!

5 thoughts on “A-Z of Handling Furious Customer Complaints when Selling Online”

  1. IvanrnrnPersonally, I feel that Social Media can make the technical writers’ job more interesting. Rather than traditional Help systems and user manuals, it calls for interactive documentation and even customer-participation in documentation. rnrnI agree with Gina that businesses are more inclined to have Video Tutorials or tours *along with* the traditional documentation, which is a good sign for our community. Writers would have more involvement with actual users of system, and as Gina said, user feedback should make the job more interesting and of course challenging as well.rnrnBRrnVinish

    1. Social Media can make the technical writers’ job more interesting. Rather than traditional Help systems and user manuals, it calls for interactive documentationnnMe to, Vinsih!nnThe move towards video, coupled with the availability of broadband, should see documentation move beyond words and into other media such as streaming media and video blogs. nnI find this very exciting as it lets you show people how something works, rather than just describing. nnRe facebook, for example, I think there are ways to use this channel to build u2018bodies of knowledgeu2019 where technical writers and consumers can learn/exchange ideas. Twitter is fine for link sharing and quick tips but Facebook allows me to go a bit deeper. nnIf search was better across Facebook, then it could be really useful. Right now, I feel a bit limited by the ways groups are structured (i.e. to see whatu2019s going on within a group you have to join first) whereas BBSs are often more open. nn<businesses are more inclined to have Video Tutorials or tours *along with* the traditional documentation, which is a good sign for our community. nnWeu2019re using video blogs over here to show employees how internal processes work (as an example) and the feedback is very positive. They can also download them as MP4s and take them home or watch on the metro. nI also can see how video with help reduce costs, such as tech support, as consumers can learn from the videos and then try the product. nnStats show that very few people (less than 4% I think) read the user guide before calling tech support. nnWhich begs the question, u2018why are we even writing it?u2019

  2. I think that Gina has it exactly right. We (technical writers) need to change our ideas about who participates in developing documentation and about where technical documentation resides — as well as where it comes from. nnMany writers (I think Kristina Halvorson might’ve been the first) have described a new role: the content curator, who aggregates all of the content, filters it, and sends it out using a variety of media. Anne Gentle, in Conversation and Community, mentions another new role: the community manager, who gathers all of those new participants and makes sure they understand their roles.

    1. Technical writers need to change our ideas about who participates in developing documentation and about where technical documentation resides — as well as where it comes from. nnHi Larry, nnI’ve seen projects, where users were encourage to write their own documents. Not sure how it panned out, to be honest. I think the aim was to bring users into the content creation lifecycle so they would flag/prioritize material that may have been overlooked. nn<Many writers (I think Kristina Halvorson might've been the first) have described a new role: the content curator, who aggregates all of the content, filters it, and sends it out using a variety of media.nnI think this type of role will be central to how companies distribute content, especially when documents are written/updated in real-time and getting delivered to multiple devices. nnNot sure about the name curator though. Dunno why. I guess this reminds me of librarians somehow whereas this role (to me) is more like a Control Tower role, i.e. like at airports, bringing docs in and out of the system when and as needed.nn<Anne Gentle, in Conversation and Community, mentions another new role: the community manager, who gathers all of those new participants and makes sure they understand their roles. nnYep, Anne does a great job. nnThink technical writers can offer a lot to Social Media as they understand how to distill information and stay focused, whereas others such as sales writers can be guilty of rambling a little and waffling on. nnDebbie Weil also does some great work re Corporate Blogging, another largely untapped area.

  3. Hi there all,rnrn”Weu2019re using video blogs over here to show employees how internal processes work (as an example) and the feedback is very positive.” This is encouraging to hear. It also indicates that the videos blogs you created are useful and concise. I’ve heard mixed reviews on some videos at a place I worked, but honestly I think it had to do with them being overly lengthy for the topic at hand (and also somewhat poorly done). People do like to “be shown,” how to do something–and videos are great for this!rnrnThank you Larry for the kind words! It seems that flexibility in our field is a job requirement and becoming more crucial for success. rnrnrn

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