Retail Management

9 Dos and Don’ts for Handling Customer Complaints

Published by in Retail Management

Let me tell you a story from when I was a lowly sales associate in a mall store for middle-aged ladies who like cardigan sweater sets.


It was a Tuesday morning – not the most exciting time to work at the mall – when an older, married couple came in. I offered to help them, but given the amount of grumbling and the surprisingly angry vibes for a Tuesday that I was getting, I mainly left them alone. (Sometimes, folks, it’s just not worth it.) After a while, they came up to the register with two t-shirts, which I rang up with a sunny smile. I announced the price to them – full price.

Instantly, Mr. Angry Vibes* growls, “Those are on sale! There’s a 30% off sign near them!”

They weren’t, and there wasn’t.

Mrs. Angry Vibes’ eyes got big and scary.

So I gently explained that the 30% off signs around the store referred to the select merchandise they were specifically on top of and apologized for the confusion. Then I offered to take 15% off if they opened a store card.

Mr. Angry Vibes was not sedated. “Well that’s ridiculous! Who would pay $45 for two t-shirts! You ought to give us the sale anyway, young lady! How dare you charge us full price for these!”

Mrs. Angry Vibes punched the air after each sentence to drive the point home.

“Welllll, I can’t really do that, sir.” I tried weakly. I’m not the hottest in situations where I’m being yelled at. “Let me get my manager and see what she can do.”

Getting the manager to get you out of trouble is the best part about being a sales associate.

Unfortunately, Crazy Brenda was the manager on the floor that day. The sales associates called her Crazy Brenda because she was known for going off the hinges regularly and yelling at everyone who worked there.

Crazy Brenda came over, and she was definitely feeling it that day. The next thing I knew, she and Mr. Angry Vibes were yelling at each other across the register about how stupid the store was (or wasn’t), how stupid Mr. Angry Vibes was (or wasn’t), and whether or not Brenda should ever pass on her genes, with Mrs. Angry Vibes karate chopping every point home.

The Angry Vibes start moving out of the store and down the mall hallway, still in a yelling match with Crazy Brenda, although it had moved to the topic of Mr. Angry Vibes calling up corporate and informing them about Crazy Brenda (which he never did).

Finally, the Angry Vibes walked into JCPenney and disappeared forever, leaving behind only a traumatized sales associate and a seething Brenda (who proceeded to make us all clean the windows as her revenge on the Angry Vibes).

Fortunately, our windows were on the ground floor.

Fortunately, our windows were on the ground floor.

*All names have been changed.

This is not the way to handle customer complaints.

If you’ve been running into a lot of problems similar to this lately – where customers and employees end up in a yelling match about sale prices (or something), it’s time to make a change. So here are my dos and don’ts for handling customer complaints. Follow my tips and, in no time, you’ll be handling customer complaints like a pro, instead of like Crazy Brenda.

Do: Listen.

Sounds obvious enough, but not listening is a classic rookie mistake. So many times, when a customer has a complaint, the sales associate will hook into something the customer says initially and work with that, without ever finding out the real problem. The other problem with this, as a great manager I had once pointed out, is that most times, when a customer has a complaint, they want the chance to, well, complain. Letting the customer vent can be very soothing for them.

How do you listen well? Practice active listening techniques by:

  • Listening without forming a response before they’re done speaking. Once you’ve formed a response, you’ve stopped listening.
  • Offer open body language. It lets them know you’re listening and can actually help you listen better, too.

Don’t: Dismiss the complaint as not-a-big-deal.

Every complaint is a big deal. Even if someone is upset because there is a tiny smudge on a product that is invisible to everybody but them, it’s a valid complaint, and you need to treat it as such.

Do: Use the company’s policy as guidelines, not as hard-and-fast rules.

When dealing with a customer (even a happy one), company policy can often hamper retail employees. As a result, company policy should be used to guide employees through difficult situations, but employees of all levels should be allowed (and trained) to make final calls on specific situations.


Consider my story about the Angry Vibes. They wanted a discount on the t-shirts. I had the ability to give it to them, but the company told me I shouldn’t. It’s possible I could have turned the situation around and bought a lifelong customer had I just given them what they wanted. However, because my company insisted that only managers could make those kinds of decisions, I had to call Crazy Brenda over, and you know the rest.

(To be completely honest, I probably wouldn’t have given them the discount anyway, because they were not nice to me. Shopping tip: Being nice to the salespeople will get you a lot more than being mean.)

Don’t: Try to argue.

Remember Crazy Brenda? Don’t be Crazy Brenda.

Customers will complain about some pretty stupid stuff. You are going to want to explain their stupidity to them. Resist.

Just imagine you're here instead.

Just imagine you’re here instead.

A woman once complained when I put her pen on the desk in front of her instead of handing it to her directly because she was busy. I really, really wanted to tell her that was ridiculous – why would I stand there with a pen in my hand, now unable to ring properly, for who knows how long, when I could just place the pen on the counter until she was ready to take it? But instead, I held it all in, told her I was sorry, and vented to my coworkers later. She became a returning customer.

Do: Ask questions.

Ask your customer as many questions as it takes to get to the bottom of their problem. Customers will appreciate that you’re working hard to get them the right fix.

Don’t: Ask questions that the customer has already answered.

That said, you can ask too many questions or the wrong ones. If you ask a question the customer has already answered, whether because you were following a script or because you weren’t listening closely enough, you are wasting the customer’s time. Which tells them that they are not important to you. Which tells them that you’re not their committed advocate in solving their problem. Which tells them it’s them vs. you. And you never want to be on the other side of the customer complaint.

Do: Go the extra mile in solving the problem.

Don’t just solve the customer’s problem, proactively prevent the next one. Or resolve the current problem in a way that doesn’t just fix it like it never was, but really flips it into an awesome moment for the customer.

For example, not that long ago, my monthly Dollar Shave Club never arrived. It was likely that one of my neighbors stole it, as the packages at my apartment were strewn on the ground for anyone to take. I emailed DSC after about a week and asked them if I could have my razor shipment replaced. I was willing to pay for it, since I didn’t consider the neighbors stealing to be anyone’s fault but the neighbors. However, I received this awesome email instead:

DSC is awesome

Kat from DSC solved my problem quickly, and even offered me more for the future. That was the moment DSC really won my undying loyalty. (I know – to a razor company! But that’s what great service does.)

And I know, Dollar Shave Club is only eCommerce – but you can use this tip (and all these tips) on any channel. Good service is good service.

Don’t: Be impatient.

When someone has a complaint, pause everything else and focus on your customer. Take the time necessary to get the fix right. Don’t rush it and risk making the customer feel like an imposition.

Do: Be efficient.

By the same token, no one wants to take hours to have their problem with a company fixed. Make sure to fix the customer’s problem with as little work and time involved for them possible, much like DSC did for me.


These nine dos and don’ts are my favorite tips for handling the tricky situation of a customer complaint. If I had to boil it all down to one rule, it’d be this: DO: Treat your customers like someone you genuinely care about. If you follow that rule, customers will know you care and you’ll get the results you’re looking for.

Treat your customers like someone you genuinely care about.

Looking for Point of Sale software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Point of Sale software solutions.

About the Author

Cara Wood

Cara Wood

Cara Wood is a marketing associate at Capterra and a graduate of Mary Washington! When she's not hard at work at Capterra, she can be found horse-back riding, reading and just generally having a good time at life.


Pingback by How to Deal with Difficult Customers During the Holidays on

[…] Why they’re a problem: This is a problem because it can really eat into your bottom line. Additionally, this customer is often known for proudly sharing how to “get around” your prices with other customers. Next thing you know, you’re losing ground on how many people pay full price. And, as outlined above, this customer runs the risk of becoming the angry customer. […]

Comment on this article:

Comment Guidelines:
All comments are moderated before publication and must meet our guidelines. Comments must be substantive, professional, and avoid self promotion. Moderators use discretion when approving comments.

For example, comments may not:
• Contain personal information like phone numbers or email addresses
• Be self-promotional or link to other websites
• Contain hateful or disparaging language
• Use fake names or spam content
Your privacy is important to us. Check out our Privacy Policy.