6 Types of Customer Complaints

June 21st, 2016
Steven Howard

Customer Complaints Are Good. Here’s How To Handle Them.

As we all know, customer complaints will happen. While elimination of customer complaints may be a desired state, in truth this is nothing other than an illusionary goal.

And besides, the true goal should be the elimination of errors, mistakes, and other factors that cause customer dissatisfaction. If you eliminate customer complaints, without eradicating the errors producing the displeasure and discontent for your customers, you will effectively wipe out a very important channel of customer feedback that can be critical in helping your organization make needed improvements.

Since customer complaints are a given, I find it useful to break these down and to categorize the types of complaints that are most often received. For me, the following six categories work best for identifying and classifying types of customer complaints:

Informative — when the customer informs you that a mistake has been made. This is usually done to help you prevent making the same mistake again.  In this case, the customer is dissatisfied, but not enough to request that remedial action be taken or an offer of compensation made. Often it is about a “little thing” and typically is about something that is too late to change or fix (or something that the customer has already fixed). For instance, a comment made when paying the bill at a restaurant such as the vegetables were a bit undercooked today or a statement made when checking out of a hotel such as housekeeping didn’t put any hand towels in my room last night.

Corrective — when the customer informs you about a mistake and expects corrective action to be taken (often immediately).  This type of complaint is made as the customer is dissatisfied and wants to have this dissatisfaction eliminated through some action. As a rule the customer is looking for the mistake to be fixed and the situation remedied, rather than for some level of compensation. In other words, when a customer calls housekeeping or the hotel operator to complain about missing hand towels, they are looking for someone to promptly deliver the hand towels to the room. In such a situation they do not expect to be upgraded to a suite or have a discount applied to the room charge. Promptness of resolution, in these situations, is key.

Experiential — when the customer relates to you their personal experience or experiences with your products or services. This type of complaint is often hard to judge, particularly in the early stages of the conversation. The customer may simply be explaining their situation and trying to find out if this is a normal occurrence. On the other hand, they may be communicating what happened as an indication that their expectations were not met. Sometimes they may even just be “blowing off a bit of steam” and, once having gotten the situation off their chest, may be ready to move on to more important things. However, sometimes they are not ready to move on and want you to focus on what has happened to them. The best thing to do in this situation is to actively listen and then re-classify the experience into one of the other five types of customer complaints.

Unsatisfied — here the customer complaint is focused on their perception that your products or services did not meet their expectations. And thus they are unsatisfied with their purchase or with your service performance. In this case, both corrective action and compensation are probably demanded. Interestingly, the compensation is sought in “payment” for the customer’s time in seeking a resolution and for taking the time to explain the problem to you and your staff. I highlight this last phrase for it supports what we wrote in Complaints Are Good —customers who complain are customers who care. But by caring, and by taking the time to care and complain, they expect some sort of compensation, which can take the form of a discount, a free gift, the provision of some extra level of service, or even a coupon for a discount on a future purchase.

Societal — here the customer has found the actions of one of your staff members to be unbecoming or unacceptable. What the customer is usually seeking are two things: a) an apology and b) punishment or reprimanding of the staff. As this type of complaint is another form of dissatisfaction, both corrective action and some level of compensation are normally sought.

Conflict — this occurs when the customer has “had it up to HERE” and has now become your organizational or personal enemy, either overtly, subvertly, or covertly. Obviously, you have a major problem on your hands and in such situations it is best to escalate this matter up your management hierarchy as quickly as possible for a resolution (however unlikely) or for containment.

By categorizing any customer complaint into one of the six categories above, you will be in a better position to craft an effective solution and remedy that not only resolves the issue from your customer’s perspective but one that also helps you build stronger bonds with that customer.

There are two modes of complaints, and understanding the differences between the two will also help your staff handle customer complaints more effectively.  These modes, and the characteristics of each, are:

Informal — almost always delivered to the frontline service person or one level above and delivered orally in an informal manner such as a chat or a short phone call to a manager, supervisor, or the call center. If sent by writing, this mode of customer complaint will be found on a customer comment card, a service delivery questionnaire, or a short email.

Formal — if delivered orally in a face-to-face situation it will usually be done one to two management levels above the frontline service person, in a serious tone dictated by the customer. If delivered in writing, it will typically be sent as a letter to a customer service supervisor, store manager, or other middle management level. If delivered orally via the telephone, the customer will likely request to speak with the call center supervisor or to a customer service manager.

One of my personal marketing cornerstones is that preventing customer complaints is better than resolving them. Such prevention, however, must come through quality products, services, procedures, processes, policies, and staff. This does not imply that you should prevent customer complaints from being fully voiced and understood.

When something goes wrong, it is best to hear about it. Only the problems your organization hears and knows about are fixable.

A lack of customer complaints is not necessarily a sign that your organization is performing extremely well. It might actually be an indication that your customers no longer care enough about you to complain, or do not feel it is worthwhile any more to complain, and instead are taking their business elsewhere.

The mantra for this week, and every week, is simply customer complaints are good!

Key Point: whether delivered informally or formally, most customer complaints can be categorized as informative, corrective, experiential, unsatisfied, societal, or conflict.

Taking Action: whenever you receive a customer complaint be sure to thank the customer for their feedback and use this situation as an opportunity to re-dedicate your staff to eliminating the problems, errors, mistakes, and other factors that cause customer complaints rather than trying to just eliminate the complaints themselves.

Start a log of all customer complaints received in the next month. What percent are delivered formally? Informally? How do the informal complaints differ from the formal ones?

Categorize these complaints into the six types of complaints outlined above. How does your method of handling each type of complaint differ? Why? Where can improvements be made?

Analyze your method of handling complaints. When is compensation offered to customers? Is there a noticeable pattern? Is this done consistently and routinely? Why or why not?


This article is excerpted from our book Powerful Marketing Memos, available at Amazon in paperback ($10.88) and Kindle ($3.88) formats.

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