faith, retail, Uncategorized

Pain, Suffering and Inheritance: The Tricky Art of Handling the Customer Complaint


At my job I (Ben) often get to handle customer complaints. Whether I’m any good at it may best be answered by those doing the complaining. As with all things, you get better with practice. So this little Saturday morning homily is not a seminar from an expert, just observations from someone on the learning curve.

First, it’s important to distinguish exactly which kind of complaint you’re dealing with here. I think there are two main categories: Justified and Unjustified.

Justified scenario: You have provided poor service. You or someone you manage has slighted the customer through rudeness, oversight or incompetence. Examples: You overcharge someone or leave an item out of their bag. You screw up their food order. You insult their personal appearance, their taste in literature or their appalling lack of fashion sense. You serve them undercooked wings and give them food poisoning and hire Jeremy Piven as a spokesperson. Etc.

Unjustified scenario: You have provided reasonable, maybe even exemplary, service but it is unequal to the customer’s desires (however unreasonable those may be). You moved mountains but didn’t walk on water. You did not have the book or CD or piece of clothing she wanted. You did not make a plane arrive on time. You did not not cook a meal that was as tasty as the one he had years before and has committed to memory with incomparable nostalgia. You did not prevent a hundred other people from rearranging their schedules so as to not impede the pre-made plans of your disgruntled customer’s Saturday. You did not murder in cold blood the person in the Toyota Camry who stole your customer’s spot even when he clearly saw it first and had his turn signal on to indicate this fact. You are incapable of making someone’s spouse finally forgive her or father love him more. You cannot personally bestow unto him or her the peace that passeth all understanding. Etc.

Both scenarios require the same basics in the tool kit: The ability to listen, empathize, apologize, make restitution. Every customer, regardless of scenario, wants to be heard. But from henceforth, I will address only the second category of complaint, the Unjustified.

The Unjustified Complaint always results from the customer not getting what she wanted. The sooner you acknowledge this and apologize for this fact ( “I realize you wanted x, and I’m sorry we couldn’t deliver x for you”), the sooner you arrive at the fork in the road. The customer will either be disarmed by you cutting to the chase (and may even come to her senses and say, “You’re right, my complaining is pointless”), or — more likely — she will redouble her efforts because you are trying, sincerely, to be direct, kind and understanding. Most angry customers hate this.

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,” say the Proverbs. “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” That last part sounds a bit like retribution, but Eugene Peterson translates it a little differently: “Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.”

This is really the only way I know how to deal with an Unjustified Customer Complaint. The customer has pain to dispense, and you give him back kindness.

This is of course the hardest path to take. You (I) want an eye for an eye. It doesn’t take long in retail to wonder if you have a bull’s-eye pinned to your chest. Even if you manage to avoid repaying an unkind customer with unkindness, you still have the problem of inheriting it. The Unjustified customers will win this battle nine times out of ten. They will resort to name-calling. They will spit bile and condescension. They will say, to use one example from my week, “I will do everything possible to take my business away from a store run by a bunch of flippin’ morons.” (Use your creativity to substitute other words for “flippin’.”)

What next? If you give into temptation, you will unload this venom on someone else. Maybe someone you manage, maybe someone you love. Then everyone’s miserable.

To borrow a spiritual analogy, it’s part of what Christians believe about Jesus dying on the cross. When handed injustice and persecution, Jesus took it but didn’t give it back. You don’t even have to believe that the symbolic weight of that injustice is “sin” or subscribe to the idea of atonement to agree with the basic transaction there. Something stopped at Jesus and went no further.

An Unjustified Customer Complaint isn’t persecution (or, obviously, crucifixion), but it’s the meager spiritual offering I could make this week, and I tried to receive it without passing it on. I resisted saying to that customer, “Well, your mom is a flippin’ moron. Sha-blam!” But just barely. You start where you are.

Enough preposterous spiritual/retail analogies for a Saturday. Especially a day off.


6 thoughts on “Pain, Suffering and Inheritance: The Tricky Art of Handling the Customer Complaint

  1. I have a little experience with this, so I think I know where you’re coming from.

    Basically you’re saying that you are a lot like Jesus (mainly the being crucified part) because you didn’t tell some old lady to go f&@k herself after she bitched about you not selling Sparks Notes.

  2. I would like to file a complaint with the VoreBlog… I come here for its offering of all things Utah Jazz. It has been at least a week since the last Jazz post. MORE JAZZ!!!!

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