Biz 101: This Christmas, Deck the Halls, Not Your Customers

For the customer service sector, the holiday season is crunch time. With more shoppers, more sales, more shipping, more advertisements and more product demand, there’s a lot of potential for something to go wrong. At the same time, shoppers’ expectations are never higher. They don’t just want to check every item off their lists; they expect their shopping experience to be fun, festive and full of good cheer.

Ron Kaufman, founder of the global service education and consulting company UP! Your Service, admits the holiday shopping season does seem like a minefield of potential customer complaints. But he’s also adamant that, handled sensitively, complaints can be a catalyst for improving customer satisfaction and capturing new business.

“During this time of year, you’ll be interacting not only with your established customer base but also with a new batch of individuals who are shopping for other people—and it’s a foregone conclusion that despite your best efforts some of them will be dissatisfied,” notes Kaufman, author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet (Evolve Publishing, $24.95). “You have two choices. One, treat the complaining customer like he’s a pain in the neck. Or two, appreciate each complaining customer and use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.”


One Equals Many

Kaufman explains that one complaining customer actually represents many other customers who had the same problem but who didn’t complain. (They just badmouthed your store to their friends—or to the entire Internet—and took their business elsewhere.)

“By using a customer complaint to uplift your service, you not only transform that shopper’s experience from a negative one to a positive one, but you turn him or her into an evangelist for your operation,” Kaufman notes. “Furthermore, you gain valuable insight into what many other customers think about your store, and most importantly, how you can improve your service.”

Here are eight tips from Kaufman for effectively handling customer complaints during the holiday rush:


  1. Thank them for their complaint. Give positive recognition by saying, right off the bat, “Thanks for reaching out, especially in the middle of your holiday shopping.”

“Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort and suggestions,” says Kaufman. “Always keep in mind that the customer didn’t have to shop in your store at all. He could have simply taken his business to your competitor. When a customer gives you the opportunity to recover their service, be grateful.”


  1. Don’t be defensive. It’s easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line. Customers with complaints exaggerate situations, they get confused, and yes, they may even lie about how things took place. It’s tempting to just say, “No! That’s not what happened. You’re wrong!” But getting defensive will lead only to more problems.

“When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher,” Kaufman says. “When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying, but you do have to agree to hear them out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.”


  1. Acknowledge what’s important to them. Kaufman teaches that service providers must find a complaining customer’s value dimension (or what’s important to them). Even if you think the customer’s complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your staff didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value.

“What the customer wants is to feel right,” explains Kaufman. “When you agree with their value dimension, you’re telling them they are right to value this specific thing. For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. You might say, ‘Absolutely, you deserve quick, efficient service.’ Or if a customer says your staff was rude, you might say, ‘We do agree that you should be treated with courtesy and respect every time you come to our store.’

“When you validate what a customer values, you aren’t agreeing with them that your service is slow or your staff is rude,” he adds. “You’re saying, ‘We agree with you on what you find important and what you value. And we want to deliver in those areas’.”


  1. Use judo, not boxing. In boxing, you go right after your opponent, trying to punch him to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else’s motions to create a desired result. You use another person’s speed and energy to spin him around and then end up together on the same side.

“When you show a customer you understand what they value, you’re catching them off guard with your own movement,” explains Kaufman. “They don’t expect you to tell them they’re right. Suddenly, just as you might do in judo, you’ve avoided a defensive confrontation and you can spin them. In judo, you’d spin them to the ground. In customer service, you use the opportunity to show the customer that you’re now both on the same side and you can work together.”


  1. Educate your customer. Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they ask about their specific situation. Provide additional, useful information. “If they ask a question you can’t answer, tell them you’ll find out the answer and get back to them,” says Kaufman. “Then actually follow through. Contact the customer with the answers they requested. Even if they haven’t requested an update about their situation, get back in touch with them anyway. These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions, ‘We care about you. We value your business’.”


  1. Even if you can’t help, apologize. Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. Even when the customer has a point, it’s not always within your power to completely rectify the situation. But the customer is always the customer, and you should apologize for the inconvenience they believe they’ve experienced.


  1. Recover. Even if you feel your staff did everything right, show the customer you care about them by making them an offer. Retailers worry they’ll get taken advantage of if they give vouchers or discounts as part of their service recovery, but the reality is that almost never happens. “Offer the customer something and then explain that you’re doing so ‘as a gesture of goodwill’ or ‘as a token of our appreciation’,” says Kaufman.


  1. Give serial complainers an out. Some people just love to complain. These kinds of customers complain not so that they can become satisfied but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate them from your operation.

“The holidays tend to bring out the absolute worst in never-satisfied serial complainers,” Kaufman notes. “They’re the people who gripe that your store’s free-with-purchase giveaway is too ‘cheap,’ for instance, or who personally attack employees for not doing what they want, even though your store policy has already been politely explained to them multiple times. It’s difficult to deal with this type of customer even under the best of circumstances, but in the midst of the hectic, stressful holiday retail season, serial complainers are an especially strong drain on your staff.

“To handle them, keep your wits about you,” he instructs. “Don’t let their lack of manners bring your manners down. Don’t let their bad mood infect yours. And in advance, work out with your staffers when and how to support each other when a serial complainer shows up. Being served by you in tandem with a colleague or two will cause many serial complainers to back down or at least calm down.

“Finally, just before the complainer departs, let them know you are genuine about welcoming them back and wanting them to be happy. Most people—including serial complainers—will reflect on their behavior later in the day and feel awkward or even ashamed. You want their final memory of you to be powerful and positive.”


Last But Not Least

“Your customers are not your enemy,” says Kaufman. “It’s sometimes hard to remember that when you’re involved in a tense complaint situation. But they’re essential to your business and you really are both on the same side. Your customer wants the products you provide, and you want to continue to provide them. When you treat complaints as opportunities to build loyalty, you can create customers for life and uplift your entire company in the process.”




Ron Kaufman, founder and chairman of UP! Your Service, has helped companies worldwide build a culture of uplifting service that delivers real business results. He is the author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet (Evolve Publishing, and 14 other books on service, business and inspiration. To learn more about UP! Your Service, go to For more about Ron Kaufman, go to

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