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22 Customer Service Experts Reveal How Call Center Reps Should Address Complaints About Bad Customer Service


The Team at CallMiner

July 30, 2020

woman frustrated on phone
woman frustrated on phone

No company wants to receive complaints about bad customer service, but even companies that strive to create exceptional customer service will occasionally disappoint a customer. In many cases, those complaints first reach the ears of a call center rep. That’s why patience, empathy, and active listening skills are among the most important skills every call center rep should have.

Still, responding to complaints about bad customer service can be difficult, even for your best call center agents. That’s why it’s important to train your call center representatives on effective conflict resolution techniques and leverage the right technologies to support ongoing coaching and training. CallMiner Eureka Coach, for instance, provides automated performance scoring to make it easy for managers to identify coaching moments, and issues alerts to provide guidance to agents with annotated call examples. Eureka Alert provides real-time insights while calls are still in progress, helping agents to de-escalate emerging issues to proactively prevent formal complaints.

Speech analytics solutions like CallMiner Eureka help to improve the customer experience by consolidating intelligence from not only what was said, but how it was said, along with intent and emotional intelligence to provide actionable insights quickly. Armed with this data, your call center gains valuable insight into what makes your customers tick so you can develop the most impactful, meaningful responses for every interaction, quickly resolve customer complaints, and improve customer satisfaction and retention.

Download our white paper, Reduce Churn and Increase Customer Satisfaction with Speech Analytics, to explore how speech analytics can help your company improve customer satisfaction and reduce churn.

To learn more about how call center reps can effectively handle customer complaints about poor customer service experiences, we reached out to a panel of customer service experts and call center professionals and asked them to answer this question:

“How should call center reps address complaints about bad customer service?”

Meet Our Panel of Customer Service Experts & Call Center Pros:

Laurie Guest, CSP


Laurie Guest, CSP is an author and keynote speaker.

“Customers call to complain for two reasons – to be heard and find a resolution to a problem…”

A strong call center rep knows how to deliver both. It’s inevitable that sooner or later you will disappoint a customer and the phone will ring with a complaint. It could be a misunderstanding, a time you fell short on a promise, or a flat-out mistake that could have been avoided. No matter what the reason, being prepared and learning some specific skills can help you better handle the situation. Here are four steps to move the customer from angry to heard.

  1. Accept the anger. Try not to take the demonstration of anger personally. Most of the time, people do not know how to express displeasure pleasantly. Some people assume they will get better results with rage than with polite dialogue. Be sure to truly listen without interrupting.
  2. Ask questions. This step reminds me of the old saying to “gather your facts.” It is a fundamental rule by which we should all live. There is always more to the story. By asking questions, you can uncover hidden facts to help you put the puzzle together. Ask questions like: - What were you told? - When did you call? - Do you know to whom you spoke?
  3. Restate the problem and ask for confirmation. If you have successfully followed the previous steps to determine the problem, you should have a basic understanding of the complaint. Now is the time to summarize the story. Remember to present the recap from the customer’s perspective. In other words, if you know a part of the story is not accurate, you can insert such bridges as “and you feel, Mr. Smith” or “your impression was…”
  4. Develop solutions. Start tossing out suggestions to solve the problem. If it’s a simple scenario, one solution often suffices. Other times, multiple options are necessary. Say something like, “We can do (insert option A) or we can do (insert option B); which of these is best for you?” Then, stop talking and wait for a response. You often will find that the customer will choose one of the options provided, and you are well on your way to resolving this situation. When faced with a customer who will not respond to any of your suggestions, try this statement: “What can we do to make this situation better?” Occasionally, the reply is a third option you may not have thought of but can easily provide.

When these four steps are put together successfully, your call center team will have a seamless, consistent approach to dealing with complaints.

Dan Bailey


Dan Bailey is the President of WikiLawn.

“Unfortunately, some customers will complain about things that…”

Don’t require disciplinary action, like the fact that an employee followed a company policy the customer doesn’t personally agree with. This is why calls are recorded and monitored, so it’s not the customer’s word against the employee’s.

Sometimes there’s a gray area, and all employees have off days. I personally believe the idea that the customer is always right is very harmful, and I’m more inclined to listen to and have compassion for my employees. If they’re in the wrong, they’ll be corrected, but I always seek to understand why the complaint happened.

Rex Freiberger


Rex Freiberger is the President of Superlativ and GadgetReview.

“It’s always beneficial to reassure the customer as soon as possible…”

Speak to them from a place of authority and hear them out. Let them know you’ll be handling the matter internally, and that if it’s something you can change, you’ll do so.

After the customer has had their say, though, you need to listen to the rep who took the call. See if the story differs and use any logs or recordings to interpret what actually happened. Appease the customer, but let the rep know that you’re not just throwing them under the bus.

Frank Gomez

Frank is an Outbound Communications & Outreach Manager at First Contact.

“Call center reps can apply a 3-step process to addressing complaints about bad customer service, using the acronym: AIM…”

Acknowledge. An unhappy customer wants to be heard. Apply active listening to ingest the information presented by the customer and repeat the facts back to them. Giving the customer a chance to talk through their issue and acknowledging the facts gives them a chance to vent their frustration and provide them with a sense that someone has heard them.

Identify. The human touch goes a long way! Acknowledging not only the facts, but also how the customer feels as a result of bad service can give the customer the sense that they have an ally on the other end of the phone.

Manage. Manage the expectations. The customer is looking for action, so phrases such as: “There’s nothing I can do,” “We were only following company policy,” or some other canned response designed to get the customer off the phone won’t help. Even with limited options, always lead with, “Here’s what I can do…” Much of what follows those words depends on the level of empowerment and autonomy given to the CSR (managers, take note), but you want to communicate willingness and an ability to grant the customer some form of recourse.

Andrew Tillery

Andrew is the Marketing Director for MAP Communications.

“Complaints about bad customer service need to be taken seriously…”

Businesses lose a staggering $62 billion annually because of bad customer service. A majority of customers say just a single negative interaction can convince them to never do business with a company again. The #1 reason these customers switch brands is that they feel underappreciated and don’t believe the company cares about them.

Call center reps can combat complaints and improve customer retention by maintaining a positive attitude, tapping into their ability to empathize, actively listening to the customer, handling issues efficiently, and maintaining a readiness to go above and beyond in their efforts.

Reuben Yonatan


Reuben Yonatan is the Founder and CEO of GetVoIP.

“Call center reps should address complaints about customer service by…”

Acknowledging the complaint, showing empathy, and giving assurances. You can do this by using the pronoun “I,” making sure your tone sounds genuine, and addressing the customer’s specific concern. For example, say something like, “I will definitely help you with renewal,” not “We will look into that.”

Shem Mandajos


Shem is the CMO at Tankarium.

“Call center representatives should come from a place of wanting to help, and they should make that evident to customers…”

While sticking to set scripts can be helpful, being genuinely concerned with solving customer concerns helps customers feel valued.

Having a friendly chat with customers and letting them vent all their frustrations is smart, especially if nothing went right for any of the services they received. Customer service reps must not take any complaints personally because the customer’s frustration focuses on the entire company rather than them.

Michael Podolsky


Michael Podolsky is the CEO and Co-Founder of

“Poor customer service is a common problem in different companies…”

Many businesses do not take it seriously, but the loss of clients and even the loss of their best employees happens for exactly this reason. In the best scenario, these companies have a call center where customers can address their complaints. But what happens next? How should call center representatives handle these cases?

First of all, it’s about time and reaction. A prompt response guarantees faster issue resolution. The call center representative should contact the management (or responsible department) immediately providing them the answers to the following 4 Ws:

  1. Who is complaining?
  2. What’s the issue?
  3. When did it happen?
  4. What solution does the consumer suggest?

Secondly, they should stay in touch with the consumer. Since they are the ones who received the client’s complaint, it’s their responsibility to manage the next steps. Call center representatives need to keep consumers updated on their case because they are the only source of information.

Finally, encourage the company to solve every issue as soon as possible and make sure that the customer is satisfied in the end. It won’t just resolve the problem, but it will also help your brand strengthen the customer’s loyalty instead of losing them.

John Moss


John Moss is the CEO of English Blinds.

“First of all, it is important to remain calm and polite and mentally depersonalize yourself from the complaint itself…”

Taking the complaint personally (even if it is directed at you personally) will not help either you or the customer; and being unable to depersonalize effectively in a role of this type inevitably results in loss of job satisfaction, increased stress, and an increased likelihood of leaving the business.

Ideally, passing the complaint on to a supervisor or even another rep is usually the best approach, both ensuring depersonalization and also making the caller feel that their complaint is being taken seriously and handled with the appropriate gravitas.

When it comes to handling your section of the call itself, making the caller feel heard and respected is important. If you feel their point is valid, it is totally fine to tell them this and particularly to apologize. However, if this is not the case, it can be hard to get your point across without escalating the situation, and so it is wise once more to pass the call on and/or direct the customer to the company’s formal complaints procedure. Of course, you should also advise your manager and make a note of your own version of events, too.

Nikola Baldikov


Nikola Baldikov is a Digital Marketing Manager at Brosix.

“The first step in addressing poor customer service complaints is expressing sympathy and understanding…”

Often, customers are simply looking for someone to acknowledge their difficulty. This doesn’t mean immediately “taking a side” on the issue, but rather expressing that you are sorry that the customer has had an experience that affected them negatively.

The next step is to gather all the facts from the customer. This is the customer’s chance to air their grievance, a process which can be quite cathartic. It also allows you to get the information you need to follow up on the issue and identify what actions, if any, should be taken. After this step is done, the remaining responsibility you have as a call center rep is to outline the process going forward. This step will likely involve telling the customer that you’ll reach out to a supervisor with the information they’ve shared for further action. A customer service rep shouldn’t be expected to solve all problems on the spot, but you do have a responsibility to outline a clear process and set expectations.

Derek Gallimore

Derek Gallimore is the Founder of Outsource Accelerator.

“Bad customer service is something we hope that our clients will never get to complain about…”

Unfortunately, complaints about poor customer service still happen. I always suggest a proactive approach when it comes to situations like this. If your agents are well-trained, emphatic, and dedicated, customers are much less likely to criticize and complain.

Further, the best way to deal with bad customer service complaints is acknowledging the customer’s issue, learning more details, and apologizing. Let them know that their voice is heard, that this situation is something you’re not taking lightly, and that you’ll do anything in your power to not let anything like that happen again. Also, a caring and compassionate voice and tone go a long way. Since you’re only talking via phone, choose your words carefully and use the appropriate tone for the situation.

Nancy Friedman


Nancy Friedman is the Founder and Chairman of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training.

“Call center reps can help most of the callers with the Telephone Doctor’s ASAP Technique…”

It stands for As Soon As Possible. Here’s the four-step ASAP technique for helping customers:

  • A: Acknowledge and apologize immediately. Delay of an apology creates mistrust. And don’t use the “I know how you feel” statement. That’s useless.
  • S: Sympathize rather than empathize. And don’t overdo it. Too much sympathy can sound very insincere. Again, “I know how you feel” is a useless statement in empathizing. No one can feel how anyone else feels.
  • A: Accept the responsibility for the company, the issue, or the problem. The caller feels it’s yours anyway. But the next step is critical.
  • P: Prepare to help. Use your name, as well as the customer’s name. and simply state you’re there to help. Begin the process – and assure them you’ll be with them throughout if you can.

If we could only go from A to P, it would be very easy; however, we need to sympathize and accept to make the entire process work.

The ASAP Technique is fairly fool proof – if done in order. The customer wants acknowledgement, so apologize, and not by saying, “I’m sorry.” “I apologize” is the better phrase to use. They need you to take responsibility for the situation and start the repair process.

Jesse Silkoff

Jesse Silkoff is the Co-Founder and President of MyRoofingPal.

“My team interacts with many customers every day online and over the phone…”

I’ve found that one of the best ways to address bad customer service complaints is to avoid getting them altogether! We have a very in-depth training process to work with customers and many documents outlining common questions and issues. When the odd complaint does come through, we look at it as a team and decide how we can adjust our process to make sure that issue doesn’t happen again.

Neil Roach

Neil Roach is the owner of Boxroom Office.

“Each complaint was, for me, an opportunity to turn things around…”

What I learned was this.

The best way for call center reps to address complaints about bad customer service is to follow two simple steps:

  1. Apologize
  2. Take ownership

By the time a customer gets to the point of wanting to make a complaint, they’ve usually been transferred to multiple departments, spent unknown amounts of time on hold, and often without hearing that tiniest scrap of empathy: “I’m sorry.”

Then, do everything in your power to resolve their issue. If that’s not possible, explain to them why.

Taking ownership of an issue is the best way to deal with it, especially if you didn’t do anything to cause it.

The truth is most call center businesses try to come up with clever acronyms and processes for what should happen when dealing with complaints, when all that’s needed is “I’m sorry,” and “Let’s work on this together to get your issue resolved.”

Randy VanderVaate


Randy VanderVaate is the President and Owner of Funeral Funds.

“Call center reps should address complaints about bad customer service by acknowledging and agreeing with the customer…”

“I completely understand,” “I can see why you’re upset,” “I can appreciate your frustration,” “This should have never happened,” and “I’m so sorry you had this problem. I will accept responsibility for getting this corrected for you,” are great phrases to lower the emotion of an upset customer.

Always let the customer voice their complaints and calm down. Repeat the main points of the complaint to uncover the facts surrounding the customer’s complaint.

Don’t interrupt the customer while they are talking! The call center agent must show genuine empathy and understanding of the customer’s complaints during this exchange.

The solution to their problem may be an easy fix, so don’t forget to ask the customer what the ideal outcome is for their complaint. Assure the customer that you will deliver the solution, and don’t forget to follow up to make sure the agreed-upon solution is delivered as promised. Afterward, follow up with the customer to make sure that the complaint was resolved and that they are happy with the solution.

Addressing bad customer service is vital to ensure customer satisfaction, loyalty, and long-term profitability for a company.

Yaniv Masjedi


Yaniv Masjedi is the CMO at Nextiva.

“The most important thing is that call center reps don’t argue with the customer…”

They could be complaining about someone the rep knows. The most important thing is for your call center reps to know to remain professional and help the customer file their complaint.

The goal is to process the complaint, resolve it if possible, and pass it up the chain if necessary. A lot of the time an angry customer can be turned into a happy customer if they are helped by friendly, professional staff.

They can either end the call thinking the specific person that annoyed them was having a bad day or end the call annoyed at your entire company.

You should have processes in place to handle customer service complaints so that your reps aren’t put on the spot. When people are thrust into situations they haven’t prepared for, they are forced to get creative. That means you are gambling with your company’s image because you didn’t spend the time training the call center to deal with complaints.

Dennis Vu


Dennis Vu is the CEO and Co-founder of Ringblaze.

“It’s actually very simple…”

Most modern business phone systems have the option of call recording. When a customer complains about a customer service rep who has supposedly treated them unfairly, the manager can just sit back and play the recording. It’s actually fairly easy to do this, and you can immediately find out who’s actually at fault.

Recording customer support calls is beneficial for many reasons, and this is just one of them. The most important thing to know is that the customer should be warned beforehand that the call is being recorded. Depending on where you live and operate, you may not even have to let your customers know that they’re being recorded. Recording calls is the easiest way to solve disputes with unhappy customers.

Michael Reddington, CFI


Michael Reddington, CFI is the President of InQuasive, Inc.

“The sheer volume of calls many call centers handle makes customer complaints inevitable…”

Handling these complaints can be a stressful experience. Here are a few tactics for satisfying customers, managing the stress levels of the conversation, and reducing call times:

  • Avoid the temptation to defend yourself, the representative and your company.
  • Focus on the issue, not the person.
  • Avoid saying “I understand” and “I’m sorry.”
  • Demonstrate your understanding and focus your response on the solution.
  • Avoid over-committing to what the organization can do.
  • Follow up with the customer after the conversation.

Sanem Ahearn


Sanem Ahearn is the Head of Marketing at Colorescience.

“There are a few important things call center reps should do to address complaints about bad customer service…”

Acknowledgement – The first thing any call center representative must do is acknowledge what is being said by the customer and let them know they are here to help. Accept that the customer is correct in what they are saying and ask what can be done to take care of the issue right now.

Inform – Prior to handing off the customer to another representative or coworker, be sure that you are educating them on the situation so that the customer does not have to repeat everything again.

Pathos – Customers can tell right away when a representative is not happy to help, so it is important that you are expressing emotion and a willingness to aid in whatever way is necessary. Customer service is a two-way street that works best when both parties share a mutual understanding and respect for each other to get the job done.

Following these steps cannot guarantee zero complaints but will surely assist with improving your customer service ratings.

Natalya Bucuy


Natalya Bucuy is a content marketer at HelpSquad.

“When customers complain about bad customer service, one advice call center agents often get is to show empathy…”

That is a terrific piece of wisdom, except sometimes over-empathizing can do more harm than good. When does this happen? When agents are so focused on being overly polite and seemingly understanding, they overuse the empathy script. They use canned, scripted responses that lack sincerity.

The solution, then, is to prioritize authenticity over empathy.

Yes, it’s important to be empathetic, but it is more important to show the upset customer that the agent really cares and is not just using a script designed to appease a complainer with many repetitions of “Thank you,” “Sorry,” and “I understand.”

Personalize your responses. Find a point of connection to the customer. Relate to the customer on a human level. Remember, people want their problems solved and addressed, but they also want to be heard. And not by a script-reading robot, but by a genuinely understanding human being on the other side of the customer service line.

Lee Davis


Lee Davis is the director of telesales at HealthMarkets.

“A call center rep should not immediately handle a complaint about poor customer service…”

Whatever the complaint is, I recommend it be elevated to an on-floor manager to handle. Our reps are trained to do this, and it seems to be a recognized best practice among other organizations. That said, I think the best way to respond is to first empathize and then actively listen to the complaint. In my experience, most calls like this are de-escalated by simply listening to the caller, showing concern, and communicating an actionable response.

Tim Reitsma


Tim Reitsma is the Co-Founder of People Managing People.

“If you’re a call center agent and hear about poor customer service, you should first trace the call back to the agent at fault…”

You can then make sure the problem is addressed and communicated. It’s best to handle the situation before other customers have the same issue with this agent. It may also help to tell the customer that you’ll be coaching the agent involved in the poor experience.

Make sure you apologize to the customer. Saying “I’m sorry” and specifically addressing where the last agent fell short could make the customer feel better. Customizing your response should ease the customer’s frustration; they don’t want to feel they’re being read a script.


How does your company train call center reps to address complaints about bad customer service?

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