Poor handling of customer complaint results in frustration for customer and employee

Dear Joan:

A customer called to complain about something I did and talked to someone who used to be my supervisor.  I have been promoted and we are now on the same level. 

When this person came to me to tell me about the complaint, she refused to tell me who complained.  I feel that withholding this information eliminates all possibilities of me being able to make amends with the customer.  It also eliminated the option of me being able to explain my side of the situation as I had no idea who she was talking about. 

I did the active listening thing but left the conversation feeling very frustrated and betrayed by my coworker.  There has been a history of conflict between the two of us in the past and this situation seems to be another form of control. 

 Thanks for any insight on this matter. 


I don’t blame you for feeling frustrated. She gave you the criticism without any means to resolve it, which isn’t constructive or useful to you, or to your customer. Furthermore, when the customer works with you in the future and you don’t say anything, he or she may think you are blowing off their complaint instead of addressing it. In addition, if the problem is a result of a flaw in the process, or procedure, it won’t get permanently fixed and you’ll hear more complaints in the future. 

Sometimes customers complain to a random company employee and expect that complaint to be turned into a solution, regardless of whom they told. Some people are afraid to complain directly to a company employee, for fear it will provoke a bad attitude, or even worse service in the future.  

Even if the customer requested confidentiality, your peer should have made a good faith effort to assure the customer of your desire and willingness to handle the complaint in a professional manner. Although I hope your peer is a mature professional, the fact that she chose not to tell you who complained suggests that she may have even sided with the customer against you, either subtly or overtly.  

Perhaps you can revisit the subject with your peer and explain your concerns as well as the potential problems it causes. If she resists, you should emphasize the fact that the customer may expect you to bring it up or fix the problem. If her reaction is to say, “Oh, no, I told the customer I would take care of it,” explain that it erodes your credibility with that customer to not address it directly. If she continues to resist, let it go but tell her that if you ever hear a complaint about her, you will tell her, so she can take proactive steps to resolve it and maintain a healthy relationship with the customer.  

This reminds me of the related mistake managers make when they hear a customer complaint about one of their employees and rather than send the complaint back to their employee to fix, the manager takes the problem away from that person and solves it for them. 

In some cases involving the employee may not be feasible because of urgency or skill level, but managers should strive to at least involve that person, so he or she learns how to handle something like this next time. The manager can reassure the customer they he or she will stay involved but should take the opportunity to say, “Sally is very customer focused and I know she would want to make this right and I don’t want to take away that opportunity. I will stay involved but I’ll have her resolve this. She is closest to the problem and I am confident she will do a good job for you. How about if I call you back in a few days to make sure this problem has been handled to your satisfaction?” 

Giving the problem back does several things—it makes the person take responsibility for the situation, it empowers the employee to fix it rather than feel guilty or angry about it, the employee learns how to handle problems like this in the future, and it gives the employee authority in the eyes of the customer.  

If someone with more authority takes every problem away from the employee, the customer learns to bypass the employee and go directly to the manager for everything. Then the employee is irrelevant, and the manager becomes the complaint department and go-to person.  Employees feel undercut and lose commitment and ownership.  

How to handle customer complaints should be a clear-cut process that is well-understood by every person in the company. Perhaps it’s time to have that discussion in your organization.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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