Economically handling customer complaints


“Even though the percentage of complainants who behave unreasonably is relatively small

(generally between 2-6%) they still use up a disproportionate amount of resources, time and

energy from a company resulting in high stress to staff members.”

~Australian Parliamentary Ombudsman  (2009)


Bad Service is always a key topic. Although my opinion is that service from South African private enterprises has improved considerably over the years, it can still do better. The fact is that although we are service providers, we’re also consumers who rely of service from other suppliers. So we should as often as possible put ourselves in the customers shoes. A happy customer only spells out better profits.


A general internet service company’s procedure for handling complaints has four stages.


At first, the customer gets a very cordial hearing, as the problem is most likely wrong setup in the router or software. You simply go through the router settings and reset passwords. If it is upstream network downtime, it is merely a heads up that a certain part of the network/service is down and your technical team has to look into rectifying it. In most cases, the customer is advised to study any instructions that came with the equipment/service and/or told that the apparent malfunction very likely temporary.

If it seems serious, the advice is to be patient whilst you seek an update from the upstream provider or return the hardware for repairs/exchange. Customers who persist are told the ticket has been escalated so that “we can look into the problem more seriously.”  It is found that most times the ticket is simply overlooked, and no action is taken unless the customer presses the complaint. About half do not as by then the service is back up and running.


“He who will not economize will agonize.”


At the second stage, customers who actually press complaints are asked what would satisfy them, then offered a minimal adjustment. The amount never exceeds the company’s profit. There is no attempt to judge the merits of a complaint unless that offer is refused and the customer shows real determination—for example, by threatening legal action.


That leads to the third stage, where a superior from the main office would step in, examine the complaint and the facts, and try to satisfy the customer with no more than he or she would be likely to win in court.

“We all wish we had a HELP button on our keyboard where by pressing it will fix all our computer problems. Unfortunately this is a feat impossible to achieve.”

~Mohammad Patel, O-Tel Telecom

If that fails, the fourth and final stage is to ask the company’s legal counsel for advice on minimizing total anticipated costs, including legal fees.


The rationale for all this is that it is economically necessary to be somewhat evasive in handling complaints. It is via experience to know that many complaints are either caused by the customer’s failure to read and follow directions, or are unreasonable or fraudulent. A legitimate complaint should be rectified soonest, as it most likely will affect other clients.


If your network and infrastructure is maintained adequately, you will have very little problems. It is the suppliers responsibility, not yours, to resolve any major problems resulting from defects in the service.  Your end is to ensure that your device, equipment and last mile connectivity is working and uptime always up-kept.

Customers whose complaints have substance are likely to press them. Since not only satisfying every demand for an adjustment but even examining every complaint’s merits would be too expensive, the first two stages try either to get the customer to drop the matter or, if necessary, resolve it at minimal cost.

These procedures has kept litigation to a minimum and resulted in very few interventions on customers’ behalf by the state’s Consumer Affairs Division. Management should think this indicates the policy is reasonably fair.

Tips and Advice in Handling Customer Complaints

1. Actively encourage feedback from customers – including complaints if they are dissatisfied.

2. Establish a clear complaints-handling procedure; ensure that all employees who come into contact with customers understand it.

3. Be polite and sympathetic; listen to what the customer has to say.

4. Take ownership of the complaint; give your name as a contact even if you will have to involve others in resolving the complaint.

5. Establish the facts; consider whether any internal investigation is needed to gather further information.

6. Record the details of the complaint, including when it was made, customer name and contact details. A support ticket system is ideal for this.

7. If possible, deal with the complaint immediately; if necessary, agree a deadline for getting back to the customer.

8. Carry out any necessary further investigations.

9. If the complaint has potentially significant legal consequences, contact your legal adviser.

10. If there is a long delay, keep the customer informed of progress.

11. Once you have established that the complaint is justified, make appropriate restitution; apologise for your error.

12. Be prepared to reject unreasonable complaints or unreasonable demands, but in a positive way: explain what you can offer.

13. If appropriate, take internal action to prevent the problem recurring: for example, training staff or improving systems.

14. Follow up by contacting the customer to check that the complaint has been satisfactorily resolved.


Do’s & Don’ts


Encourage feedback.

Be polite and sympathetic.

Take ownership of any problems.

Deal with complaints as quickly as possible.

Address the underlying causes of problems.



Be defensive.

Pass the buck.

Make excuses.