You'll ship the wrong product, be late turning in that client report, or the deck you just installed will inexplicably start to warp. Then the angry phone calls or e-mails start.

No one likes having a customer complaint. After all, all of us who run small businesses want to please our customers or clients. We want them happy with our work and products. We want them to keep coming back, buying and sending their friends and family our way, too.

But stuff happens.

Sometimes it's not your fault — the shipping company delays the rush order. Sometimes it is your fault — you or your staff got overworked or sloppy and made a mistake. Sometimes it's the customer's fault — "I know the chairs said for indoor use only, but they shouldn't have been ruined when I used them outside in the rain."

Sometimes no one is at fault. Stuff just happens.

No one likes to hear complaints, but it's far better to have customers actually talk to you than to just leave because they don't leave quietly.

Dissatisfied customers put their complaints (or rants!) on Yelp or some other rating site. They tweet about it and tell their friends on Facebook.

If that's not bad enough, reports of a negative experience are twice as likely to affect another person's buying decision as a good report. An unhappy customer becomes a walking marketing department for your competition. They're sort of a Typhoid Mary, spreading a virus of negative comments about you.

So it's important that you handle complaints well. If you do, you can retain both your customer and your reputation.

What are the keys to handling customer complaints?

1. Listen. It's natural to get defensive when someone criticizes us, so we're going to want to start talking.


First, honestly listen to your customer's complaint, no matter how angry they are or stupid they seem. All of us, when we're angry or disappointed, want a chance to be heard.

2. Return the call or e-mail. Yes, I know you don't want to talk to an angry customer, but they'll only get madder if you don't respond.

3. Treat a complaint as an opportunity, not a confrontation. Only 20% to 50% of all customers with problems will tell you. Those who do are giving you a chance to improve your company and create an even stronger bond with them.

4. Say, "We're sorry." Those are magic words that help lessen anger.

Even if it's the customer's fault, you really are sorry to have an unhappy customer.

You may have to use this phrase a couple of times — "I'm sorry you're unhappy" — at the start of the conversation. And a more meaningful — "I'm sorry we made a mistake" — if you find you were at fault.

5. Don't use the excuse "It's company policy." Customers are frustrated when they're told they won't be listened to as an individual.

6. Don't blame the customer. Even if customers are not always right, they always believe they are.

When you blame customers, they see it as a personal attack. Why go back to a company for insults? Instead, discuss the situation in factual terms without ascribing blame.

7. Give front-line sales and service people authority to solve problems. Don't make customers jump through hoops or have to wait to talk to you personally. Both your employee and your customer will feel better if their problem can be solved quickly.

8. Don't be cheap. Consider the potential lifetime value of the customer, not just the one-time transaction. Saving a few dollars but losing a customer or ruining your reputation is penny wise and pound foolish.

9. Finally, but most important, admit your errors and solve the problem. Every business makes mistakes. You will, too.

So don't take complaints as personal attacks. Just be determined to get to the root of the problem and make it better for the customer.

One of the most important things you can do: If something is wrong, fix it. Give the customer a refund or replacement.

By handling customer complaints well, you can turn a dissatisfied customer into a customer for life.