What Are Customer Complaints? | A Complaint Is a Gift Book Cover

What Are Customer Complaints? They’re Gifts

I mentioned authors Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller in a post a few weeks back entitled The Nicest Customer Service Complaint of All. Barlow and Moller are the authors of the popular customer service book called A Complaint Is A Gift.

In some ways, the title says it all.

A Complaint Is a Gift flips the traditional approach to complaints, viewing them not as hassles but as gifts that organizations should welcome. As the authors point out, our organizations can gain from complaints in many ways, including understanding what is important to our customers and getting ideas for improvements or new products/services.

This is a concept I absolutely love!

What Are Customer Complaints?

In the book, the authors offer this explanation:

“In simplest terms, complaints are statements about expectations that have not been met. They are also, and perhaps more importantly, opportunities for an organization to reconnect with customers by fixing a service or product breakdown. In this way, complaints are gifts customer give to businesses. Everyone will benefit from carefully opening these packages and seeing what is inside.” *

Sure, Adam, that sounds great in a blog post, but let’s be real, complaints… well, they suck.

And that is the essence of the challenge.

Inherent in most complaints is the accusation that either our organization or, more often, the person representing our organization, has failed the customer. No one likes to be told they are not doing a good job, and the natural tendency is to view complaints from an unreceptive and even distrusting frame.

However, how an organization views complaints is a fairly strong indication of how they will handle complaints.

What Are Customer Complaints? | A Complaint Is a Gift Book CoverAre complaints annoyances? Are they part of the cost of doing business? Or are they gifts?

If a complaint is treated as a gift, team members are more likely to approach the complaint with a constructive and sincere attitude.

One of the first challenges of reactive customer service is to get team members to control the defensiveness that is the natural reaction for most humans when confronted with anger or an accusation. Reframing how our teams view complaints is an important part of overriding this common reaction.

Customer Silence In Not Golden, Complaints Are

The most important point about complaints is that they are an opportunity. Complaints are gifts because they are not silence. Silent attrition, when customers leave but never say a word to the company, is a huge issue in many businesses. According to Andrea J. Ayers of Convergys, companies, as an average across industries, lose 12% to silent attrition. In the credit card industry, the number is 43%! cite

A complaint is an opportunity to bond, to learn, and to recover. It is an opportunity that silence does not provide.

Techniques for handling complaints are not a secret. The authors address an 8-Step Gift Process in the book, and it is fairly standard customer service advice.

The magic is not found in a secret formula for handling complaints but in changing the attitude of our organizations. The opportunity is in helping our teams readjust how they perceive and receive complaints, helping them to understand that a complaint is not a problem to be dealt with but a gift to be embraced.

How does your organization view complaints?

* Barlow and Moller. A Complaint Is a Gift. Digital edition. 2008. Page 75.

About 

By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

    Find more about me on:
  • googleplus
  • facebook
  • linkedin
  • twitter
  • youtube
113 replies
  1. Erica Allison
    Erica Allison says:

    So very true! I could not agree more with this whole post. I would much rather have a complaint than a client leave in silence and I never know what I or my team did to make that happen. Sure, sometimes things just happen. But for the most part, if we’re all doing our best to meet expectations and the expectations are clear for both parties, complaints should be minimal.

    “In simplest terms, complaints are statements about expectations that have not been met.”

    I recently had the most wonderful of complaints from a client. It was hard going through it, but it opened my eyes to what I had done that did not meet their expectations and to how I need to do a better job on the front end of client engagement of recognizing unrealistic expectations or when a client just isn’t a fit. In this case, they were gracious enough to write me a letter detailing how I had not met their expectations, along with their check. That was tough! But, like I said, it was a gift. I wrote them a sincere letter of appreciation and returned their check. If you’re not satisfied, you don’t pay. Simple as that.

    In this case, there wasn’t really the opportunity to make it better or meet the expectations. It was more a case of internal reflection for me and a better litmus test for clients that are a match for ADG and what we do. I still think it was the best gift I’ve received all year and keep the letter in my desk drawer where I can take it out from time to time to remember what is important and what isn’t.

    Great post, Adam! Thanks!
    Erica

    Reply
    • Kaarina Dillabough
      Kaarina Dillabough says:

      Wow: handled with grace, professionalism and wisdom Erica. But then, I’d expect nothing less from you, my friend. The medicine can sometimes be tough to swallow, but it’s good for us…even when it tastes bitter. Cheers! Kaarina

      Reply
      • Erica Allison
        Erica Allison says:

        Awww, thanks, Kaarina! I did the only thing I could do…the optimal solution that I could live with and look back on with pride. I’m grateful that the letter was sent. It was a great lesson and truly a gift!

        Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Love the story Erica! And great to see you!

      I think viewing complaints as gifts is even more telling in a agency/client environment or a B2B environment when one customer can be such an important percentage of business. It extends, of course, to all business, but when a client could be 5 or 10% of revenue, we want to encourage as much dialogue (and if necessary as many complaints) as possible, because it is a lot better than them slinking off in silence.

      Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      They had to be Blue Devil fans because Tar Heels are too snooty to share their feelings. 😉

      A letter is great feedback, especially if the client is willing to discuss it with you. It provides some concrete “evidence” you can use to review your work and try to more accurately assess weak spots.

      Reply
    • Diane Sheiry
      Diane Sheiry says:

      Erica,
      I know I am across town but I have to write this so that I do not forget. “A Complaint is a Gift” when it came out turned my world around. The writer is not the best keynote that I ever heard but she was and is the reason that I am still in innkeeping. Read the book. Diane

      Reply
  2. Kaarina Dillabough
    Kaarina Dillabough says:

    Like many things in life, when we get defensive and expect a battle, nothing good can be gained from it. When customers complain, they’re providing valuable nuggets of information from which each person can gain. I haven’t read the book, but thanks for pointing us in that direction. Complaints are an opportunity to do it better next time.

    What say you #TeamBlogJack? Cheers! Kaarina

    Reply
  3. Brian D. Meeks (
    Brian D. Meeks ( says:

    This is my first visit to your blog. I really like the subject, as I have often held a company in higher regard after they’ve handled a complaint of mine, well. It is amazing how one feels when they’ve been taken from angry and disappointed to happy and satisfied.

    I’ve worked in positions where I had to handle complaints from very angry people and I don’t recall ever taking it personally. I never considered that to be an option and really just wanted to help the person feel better and resolve their situation.

    Often, the person complaining just wants to be listened to and even if the solution is easy, it is best not to interrupt. Wait until they are done and then let them know you have an idea, We could do x, would that solve the issue?

    By asking for their approval of the idea, they feel empowered, which is usually 180 degrees from where they felt before calling.

    Great customer service makes great companies…and makes for a great post. Well done.

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Glad to have you hear Brian! I’ve seen you around the playground here and there.

      Kudos to you for separating the complaint from yourself. Most people can be trained not to take complaints or anger personally, but it is definitely not the default reaction for the majority, which is one reason great customer service is so rare.

      You’re so right though, most of the time just listening is most of the battle!

      Reply
    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      Absolutely, Brian, I agree with you on the personal experience level: I will forever recommend Kenwood (or was it Bamix?), when my handheld mixer gave out on me after a year of admittedly hard use, I sent it back to them with a very innocent question and they replied by sending a brand new one! Love them!

      But I have also learnt my lesson: when I have a complaint, I try to be as nice as possible, do not accuse the company of anything, well, in short, keep the emotional side out of it and ask them for their view of the problem and how they would like to solve it.

      And Kaarina and Adam will confirm it: listening is the most important thing and shows respect for the customer.

      Reply
      • Adam Toporek
        Adam Toporek says:

        Responding to your other comment Barbara, since it was already to many levels deep for a response. Glad to get o know you as well, and glad to have you hear for this auspicious occasion!

        I like your comment about being nice when complaining. Being in customer service can be very challenging. While it is our job to handle it, it is still nice when customers make the effort to be nice even when displeased.

        Reply
  4. Kaarina Dillabough
    Kaarina Dillabough says:

    Great points Brian:) When I work with a client and their employees, one of the first issues we deal with is: “dealing with customer complaints” or “angry customers”. We do a lot of role-playing with various scenarios, emphasizing the need for employees to: a) take a breath and smile b) realize the angry/complaining customer wants to be heard – no interruptions, no trying to “solve” the problem…at least at first c) Ask “how can I make this right for you?” and allow the customer lead way to the resolution.

    As “customers” of this blog, I have no complaints! Now I’m looking for my #TeamBlogJack to continue to the convo. Cheers! Kaarina

    Reply
  5. Vidya Sury
    Vidya Sury says:

    A happy subject after my own heart, #TeamBlogJack – err… I meant Adam! A major part of my corporate career was in Sales and of course, customer service was a critical aspect. We called our goal customer delight – and in turn, we were grateful when complaints were verbalized, because it meant an opportunity to make them happy. New recruits never understood this as they allowed their egos to come in the way of their thinking, but eventually, Training managed to cure them. (Xerox was reputed to have one of the most respected sales training programs)

    My goal was always to generate referrals, because early on in my career I realized I was not made for hardsell. I usually adopted a ‘consultancy’ role as I could never convince anyone about something I didn’t believe in, or knew wasn’t true. This may have lost me small battles, but I was lucky with the wars :-).

    It takes courage to handle customer complaints. Angry customers are like children. They must be pacified before they are woo-ed back.

    Great post, Adam. Good to be here. Thanks to Kaarina for the shoutout.

    I am on the verge of saying Hail #TeamBlogJack !

    Reply
    • Kaarina Dillabough
      Kaarina Dillabough says:

      You can definitely say hail #TeamBlogJack, and thanks for joining in. Not only is it our hope excellent comments and dialogue, but to have some fun along the way too:) To courage and #TeamBlogJack – ing:) Cheers! Kaarina

      Reply
    • Brian D. Meeks (
      Brian D. Meeks ( says:

      I’m the same way, I don’t like hard selling, but I’m very comfortable with solving people’s problems. Sometimes the answer is that the product they’re looking it is NOT the right answer. The simple act of telling a customer today that they should look elsewhere, gives me the confidence to show how much I believe the product is the RIGHT answer for the next ten.

      Honesty can be very liberating.

      Reply
      • Vidya Sury
        Vidya Sury says:

        You know, Brian, that was the prime reason I survived in the same market with three different companies over several years. Funny thing is – an old customer would call for market advice – as though I was really their consultant. What a compliment that used to be! And there was nothing more enjoyable than sitting in on a rainy afternoon and collecting referrals 😀

        Yes – honesty is very rewarding!

        Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hi Vidya, great to have you here, even as part of an invading #blogjack force! 🙂 I love your point about training, because it really is key to this issue. The “gift” analogy helps reframe how teams view complaints, and that is a great first step in getting people to depersonalize.

      Reply
    • Brian D. Meeks (
      Brian D. Meeks ( says:

      I’ve not done a blogjacking before, but I think one of the points is to run amok a bit. I decided to take advantage of the Vidya Sury recently posted..Who Knew? and sneak out to read a blog I’ve never visited.

      It was AWESOME. The pictures were great and the writing delightful. Okay, that is all, back to the blogjacking.

      Reply
    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      Vidya, I saw you mentioned Xerox, have you ever worked for them? I was the only woman on their all men sales force, can you believe that? But it was lots of fun, especially when I was asked to teach them the basics of EDP and I was always one step ahead!

      Reply
  6. Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman says:

    “Excuse me, will you get me the manager please; I have ‘gift’ for him.”

    The type of industry has an impact too. If it’s a min wage, McDonald’s type job some of these kids could give a flip.

    In my industry, more time can be taken on the front-end and doing a better job of hiring for culture. With a proper customer service model in place, it truly can make it a ‘win’ opportunity.

    Reply
    • Brian D. Meeks (
      Brian D. Meeks ( says:

      I worked at McDonalds for many many years and you are right, most people don’t care. I always did, but it is just my nature to be friendly. I wanted the cheeseburgers to look like the ones in the commercials and the fries to make people want more.

      I think it comes down to one thing…I had good parents.

      Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      You’ve got some really large accounts; I would definitely think it’s a gift whenever they are not silent about their displeasure. And you’re right, in some industries, it’s a challenge to find people to take this view.

      Reply
  7. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    You are so right, Adam, it is a question of attitude. Great post!

    I remember from my days in sales that when we had to deal with a complaint all of a sudden everybody disappeared or tried to shove it off somewhat. How I wish I could go back and thank those customers for their trust in our company and for thinking that we were capable of meeting their expectations.

    Reply
      • Barbara
        Barbara says:

        I did, Kaarina, I was nearly kicked out after 6 months because I did not meet their expectations! HA! Just because I refused to hard sell and my boss only saw women in the light of staying at home wives and moms. But in the end I won all the competitions (sorry for the bragging)!

        Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Thanks for the comment Barbara. I think the authors mentioned in the book a similar point, which is that complaints (well, most) are an act of trust. The customer believes in the organization enough to give it a chance to fix the issue.

      Reply
  8. Kaarina Dillabough
    Kaarina Dillabough says:

    You’re unfortunately right about the not giving a flip, Bill, but all the more reason we need business owners to instil a “speed of the leader, speed of the game”, caring, receptive model.

    It breaks my heart to see “kids” thrown into positions with lots of responsibility but no authority, little training in “customer service” and a bar set low in terms of expectation.

    Oh, and by the way…did your ‘gift’ arrive? I’m trying to roust up a good ol’fashioned #TeamBlogJack here, but it’s not yet working:(

    Reply
  9. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Kaarina, I am really glad that you as an old “customer” to Adam’s blog have no complaints, being a new “customer” to your blog, Adam, I rely on you supplying free samples to test out everything.

    Bill, you with the language skills, you know what “gift” means in German? I’d better watch out with my range of business then!

    Reply
  10. Brian Vickery
    Brian Vickery says:

    Interesting that I see a Tar Heels / Blue Devils discussion going on in the comments – I’m getting ready to do a college road trip with my youngest daughter, and we are hitting UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, UVA and Georgetown. Might have to make a few vlogs of our experience 😉

    Regarding the complaints, I absolutely agree with the post…and I’m more than willing to tell people that complaints are customers opting-in for engagement with us. It not only gives us the opportunity to resolve their issues – versus losing the quiet customers – it helps us improve our products/services as well as the relationship with that particular customer.

    Having said that, I also come from the software development side. Any “creator” of solutions is a perfect candidate for falling in love with the very solutions we create. As a result, we can take quick offense when someone complains about “our baby”. It took years for me to shed that defensiveness and the “you are obviously doing it wrong” mentality.

    Back to college – Hook ‘Em (although we had a painful loss this weekend to WVU).

    #TeamBlogJack…umm, ok 😉

    Reply
    • Kaarina Dillabough
      Kaarina Dillabough says:

      Yay! You’ve now been drawn into the #TeamBlogJack world Brian. This is where we descend upon an unsuspecting blogger, post respectful relevant comments and then run a little amok with levity, “inside jokes” if applicable and fun and frivolity. You being a leader of #HecklersHangout with Margie, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the intent:) Great to see you here, and hope to catch up with you Thursday evening too:)

      Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Nice to see you hear Brian!

      “I’m more than willing to tell people that complaints are customers opting-in for engagement with us” That’s great way to phrase it, and you make a good point about creative enterprises — I think sometimes designers forget that they are designing for others not just for creative expression.

      Reply
  11. Brian D. Meeks (
    Brian D. Meeks ( says:

    In the spirit of BlogJacking, I’d like to bring up something completely unrelated.

    On July 15, a Korean group, PSY posted a video, “Gangham Style”. When it hit 300,000,000 views it was the all time most viewed video in the history of YouTube.

    Are you kidding me? After less than two months? It is in Korean!!!

    We live in a great age when a semi-popular artist in a country of 50 million people can take the world by storm, simply through the power of sharing. The video is over 400 million views now, with dozens of parodies that have multi-million views, too. My mom, who is 71 has heard of it.

    Okay, now back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

    Reply
  12. Rebecca Todd
    Rebecca Todd says:

    Great post! On my phone but wanted to weigh in quickly. I was told with the old school sales strategy of “objections to opportunities.” May be trite but I would rather know and have a chance to apologize and take action than have someone be unhappily silent.

    Reply
  13. Ralph
    Ralph says:

    Adam,

    Kinda late to the party here. I see cups on the floor, dishes everywhere, streamers, hats! Something good went on here. I know that.

    Love the post.

    Turning a complaint into an opportunity. What a great idea. I have seen my fair share of complaints and it takes a lot not to take it personally. When I think about it I would rather have that than silence which is what you may get if you simply fight back. Here’s to the golden opportunities, my friend!

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Well, at least you didn’t say empty bottles! Yes, Kaarina threw quit the bash here. I was just the guy in the funny hat waiting for a slice of cake.

      And I’m with you, hats off to golden opportunities!

      Reply
      • Kaarina Dillabough
        Kaarina Dillabough says:

        Well, I thought I should bring in the clean-up crew:) Hope you enjoyed the cake Adam, and the camaraderie and comments. Thanks everyone who took up the challenge to be part of this #TeamBlogJack. Let’s do it again sometime:)

        Great post: great site Adam. Cheers! Kaarina

        Reply
  14. Laura Click
    Laura Click says:

    Totally agree with this premise, Adam! I think that complaints offer an incredible opportunity for businesses to shine. It gives you a chance to turn a complainer into a raging fan if you handle it right. The problem is that most companies retreat or fight back when they get complaints. Instead, if we can just be gracious, let the person be heard and make the situation right, it will go a LONG way.

    Reply
  15. Mark
    Mark says:

    Hi Adam, this is an excellent article!

    If business owners can embrace the mindset you layout here, it could transform their businesses.

    Cheers to you, sir!

    Reply
  16. Davina K. Brewer
    Davina K. Brewer says:

    Holy Blogjack Batman. Basketball and cookies and parties. Heh.

    This, this is why I get annoyed when social media gets cut up by department, all turf wars over who should ‘own’ it; it’s why I get annoyed when ‘delete, ignore negative feedback’ is part of the so-called strategy. “The magic is not found in a secret formula for handling complaints but in changing the attitude of our organizations.” There is opportunity here, to learn – this is free focus group, free research – if companies just realize it, change the way they think. And the magic formula, the secret weapon to me – then, now, always – communications. FWIW.

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Tell me about it Davina — #teamblogjack descended with a vengeance.

      It’s funny… what you say about social media getting chopped up is exactly what people have been saying for years about customer service. The customer experience transcends almost every part of the organization. Kill the silos, etc.

      Reply
  17. Tim Bonner
    Tim Bonner says:

    Hi Adam

    Being out of the corporate world I don’t deal so much with complaints these days, although I’ve done plenty of role plays and complaint handling in my time!

    It’s hard not to feel or get defensive but that won’t ever get a resolution it will just deepen the complaint.

    On the flip side, I recently felt compelled to complain to Yahoo about something and all I kept getting back were automated responses. I finally got a response from a human yesterday only to be told, click on this link here and this might answer your question. This just made things worse! Not the way to do customer service and it was from their Customer Care department!

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hey Tim, Defensiveness never works — that’s for sure. Completely unproductive, yet very natural.

      As for some of the big online services, I have had a number of challenges over the years as well. Most are not setup for human problem solving — and sometimes that is all that will work!

      Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Adrian and I dig into the relationship between customer complaints and customer loyalty. Complaints truly are gifts because often the customer experience is not bad enough for the customer to complain but not good […]

  2. […] What are customer complaints? They’re gifts – Adam Toporek points out what you may have noticed in the online world or in your business. […]

  3. […] I’d suggest reading a recent blog post by Adam Toporek on customersthatstick.com, titled “What Are Customers Complaints? They’re Gifts.” In the post, Toporek outlines some of the concepts that are introduced in a book by Janelle Barlow […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *