Managing client complaints – Process, anger and apologies

Many firms – particularly since the rapid digital transformation resulting from the Covid crisis – are focussing on improving the User Experience (Ux) and Client Experience Management (CEM). But there are always occasions when things don’t go to plan, errors are made, expectations are not met or there are delays – and clients express dissatisfaction or complain. There are, of course, professional rules and indemnity insurance requirements in this area.  But today I consider the communications skills and techniques that can help you turn an unhappy client into a satisfied and more loyal (and profitable) client. And avoid a formal complaint. So I’ll look at managing client complaints – process, anger and apologies.

Research about complaints

There is a lot of research about complaints. For example:

  • 1 in 26 customers complain – the rest say nothing to you but are likely to share their concerns with many other people which can affect your reputation
  • Research indicates that when a client has a problem resolved quickly and effectively, their loyalty increases – it’s called the service recovery paradox
  • Clients may publish negative posts on social media or online reviews and it is always advised that you address the issue offline and privately
  • The Nottingham School of Economics found that unhappy customers are more willing to forgive a company that offers an apology as opposed to being compensated. In the study, 45% of customers withdrew their negative evaluation in the light of an apology compared to 23% of customers in return for compensation
  • 68% people leave a company because they believe they don’t care about them – only 14% leave because they are dissatisfied with the service

There are a host of soft skills required for effective client communication – and they become more critical when a client is unhappy. The ability to manage emotions (emotional intelligence explainer video) also comes to the fore.

Net Promoter Score (NPS) is adopted by many professional service firms (PSF) to measure client satisfaction. This article shows NPS benchmarks so you can  compare your scores against those for the legal, accountancy and property sectors. 

Complaints handling process

Ideally, you should have a process for managing complaints that includes the following elements:

  1. A strategic plan for client satisfaction and complaints management across all departments and offices
  1. Policies and procedures for managing and reporting complaints – these may form part of your staff manual
  1. Someone with responsibility for over-seeing all complaints
  1. Integration with client listening, satisfaction and feedback systems
  1. Monitoring digital channels, social media and third-party review sites to identify where people are expressing dissatisfaction with your service
  1. Training for staff in complaints handling (as well as explaining policies and procedures and providing communications skills). This should involve empowering them and giving them authority to take certain actions to restore client satisfaction.
  1. Accurate records of complaints and remedial action taken:
    1. For the firm and its departments and offices
    2. For specific clients
  1. Regular monitoring and analysis to identify common themes or trends and a process for addressing them (Service issues, system issues, data issues, people issues etc)
  1. Reporting of complaints and measurement against targets 

Managing dissatisfaction – Seven Steps to Satisfaction

In terms of responding to individual complaints, this is a modified version of a model I have used for many years in professional services and property environments:

  1. Listen carefully (Video on active listening)
    • Thank the client for raising the issue – be genuine when you express this
    • Let them finish speaking – don’t interrupt
    • Don’t get defensive. Avoid challenging their complaint – it’s about their perception of the situation and their feelings – now is not the time to confront them with rationality and facts
    • Repeat back what you are hearing to show that you have listened and check you have understood
    • Acknowledge the problem
  1. Put yourself in their shoes
    • Try to see things from their point of view (Empathy explainer video)
    • Your goal is to solve the problem, not argue
    • Acknowledge and validate their emotions
    • Think about what type of client this is – someone who complains frequently, premium paying clients, clients who are often in contact etc
  1. Ask questions in a caring and concerned manner
    • Elicit all the relevant information about both the technical and emotional issues
    • Use Socratic questioning to get to the source of the issue (e.g. what do you mean by? could you provide an example? could you expand on that? etc)
    • The more information you obtain, the better you will understand his/her perspective
    • Check that you have all the information and understand the problem
    • Explain to the client if you need to obtain other information and agree a time to call back
  1. Apologize without blaming (see below)
    • Don’t blame another person or department
    • Just say: “I’m sorry about that”. When clients hear these words it triggers an instinct to forgive
  1. Ask the client “What would be an acceptable solution to you?“
  1. Solve the problem or find someone who can solve it— quickly!
    • Take responsibility for finding a solution
    • Depending on the severity of the issue, speak to a person in authority
    • Offer solutions or co-create one with the client
    • Confirm the proposed solution is acceptable to the client
  1. Follow up
    • Retain responsibility for getting back to the client to confirm a satisfactory conclusion – and follow up afterwards
    • Record the complaint and action and consider whether there are other actions to take such as revising systems or procedures or alerting others

Rehearse responses to common issues, questions and objections. Capture best practice across the team in techniques, questions and responses. This way you will feel more confident in your ability to manage situations.

Managing anger

Both you and the client may experience anger. Although the anger may be masking other emotions such as fear, shame, confusion, unfairness, disappointment or a perceived ego attack. 

When you feel angry

Your personality may affect how you express and respond to anger. Try to remain calm (perhaps by using breathing or grounding exercises). Don’t take things personally. Rather than see negative interactions as “permanent, pervasive and personal” see them as “temporary, specific and external”.

Be aware that in a conflict situation our “old” brain may be activated to ignite our fight, flight or freeze response automatically. Anger can quickly escalate into aggression. We may be overcome with our own emotions and thus less able to manage the emotions of others. We need to breathe, calm ourselves and allow our “modern” brain to think rationally about the situation. The modern brain houses our ability to problem-solve and make decisions.

Analyse your own anger and grade it on a scale of severity – for example – on a 1 -10 scale of: irritation, aggravation, annoyance, frustration, impatience, displeasure, anger, wrath, fury and rage.

Consider what triggers different emotions and be alert to when you may experience strong feelings.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills will help you recognise and manage your own emotions.

If you suffer from a lot of anger yourself, you can use Williams’ 12 strategies for controlling aggression:

  1. Acknowledge that you have a problem
  2. Keep a hostility log
  3. Use your support network
  4. Interrupt the anger cycle
  5. Use empathy
  6. See the humour in your anger
  7. Relax
  8. Build trust
  9. Listen effectively
  10. Be assertive
  11. Live each day as if it’s your last
  12. Forgive and forget

When others express anger

Emotional contagion can occur – this is where the emotions of one person are “caught” from others.  so be aware of this if you or others are surrounded by angry people. People often respond to anger with anger. Constant exposure to anger may result in an enduring stress response and harm to mental health. You may have to provide training in building resilience  or in techniques such as the stress bucket.

The conflict spiral shows how easily anger can escalate. So be aware of how our own emotions may affect a complaining client.  Distance yourself emotionally – a 2012 study found that when people understood that they didn’t cause another person’s anger they weren’t upset by the situation.

There are various techniques for defusing anger. Many depend on showing respect while remaining assertive. If you watch law enforcement officers you will see that they always address people with “Sir” or “Madam”. People want to feel appreciated. One of my favourite quotes is from psychologist William James who said: “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated”.

Joe Strand MD is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and co-author of “Outsmarting Anger: 7 strategies for defusing our most dangerous emotion” with Leigh Devine. He says you can deactivate another person’s anger by not getting angry yourself. Humour can release tension. Empathy is also important – so ask questions and demonstrate an interest to show “you have value to me”. He also points out that co-operation trumps competition. Group dynamics research has found that while selfish members do better temporarily, altruists win because they are working co-operatively.

Distraction is another approach is use when someone is angry. A 1998 study found that rumination increased feelings of anger, while distraction can decrease them. Diverting attention to something different or laughter can help.

Anger can be passive-aggressive (for an explanation of passive-aggressive see this article on assertiveness. This is where the spoken words are incongruent – not in sync – with the underlying feeling.

Be clear about your boundaries for the tolerance of verbal abuse and know what you will do when these are breached. Always remember to stay safe – leave the interaction if you feel physically threatened.

When someone is angry:

  • Remain respectful
  • Identify the cause of their anger – use questions and listening
  • Use non-threatening body language (NVC – Non-Verbal Communication)
  • Avoid general statements like “I understand how you feel” and use specific, clear statements that rephrase what the person has said. To show you really do understand.
  • Do not judge the other person (in counselling we adopt universal positive regard – UPR)
  • Demonstrate an interest in resolving the situation
  • Help to find a solution
  • Apologise if you are at fault

Apologies and repairing relationships

In counselling, there is a focus on relationship rupture and repair. Where there has been a problem in a relationship, there needs to be positive action to repair it. John Gottman identified the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (signals for the end of a relationship) in personal relationships:

  1. Complaining and criticizing
  2. Showing contempt
  3. Becoming defensive
  4. Stonewalling (delaying or obstructing by refusing to answer questions or by being evasive)

So if we see these behaviours in business relationships we should be aware of a potentially broken relationship. There is further information on broken relationships and apologies.

Making amends is about fixing what has been broken. Forgiveness means letting go of emotional residues and may take time. Reconciliation is an interactive process that requires co-operative effort. It requires new behaviour to be noticed and positive feedback.

In a two minute video by Dr Paul Furey  he offers a model on how to say sorry. He says apologies can: reassure, please, comfort, placate and even impress. But they can also: infuriate, worry, disempower and devalue.

He explains that there are two important steps that are often omitted from apologies:

  1. Truly understand what you apologising for
  2. Ensue the other person knows you understand – so repeat back your understanding of the emotion you have caused

This way you can apologise while remaining the other person’s equal. He also offers a 42 minute webinar on the topic.

There are five elements to conflict (which may be intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup or intergroup):

  1. Interdependence (the behaviour of one party has an effect on the other)
  2. Difference
  3. Opposition
  4. Expression
  5. Emotion

There are many strategies to deal with conflict including avoidance, capitulation, mediation and negotiation (preferably where a win:win solution is sought).

Managing difficult interactions

Other articles that address difficult conversations include:

Resources to help you deal with difficult interactions (

Active Listening (Video) (

Dealing with “difficult” people – Nine strategies for dealing with arrogance (

Soft skills – Dealing with difficult conversations (

Business relationships – Using the drama triangle to resolve conflict (

How the parent, adult, child (PAC) model helps with difficult interactions (

Assertiveness skills – getting what you want and saying “No” (

Mediation skills and strategies – A practical guide by Tony Whatling (

Seven tips for conflict management and negotiation (

Two big guns of communication – face time and reframing (