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083 - How to handle complaints

What to do when someone complains and how to turn it into a positive. As a vegan you probably hate conflict – but just because your company is on a mission to create a better world, don’t think that you are going to be immune to customer complaints!

When you receive a complaint, you need to first find out exactly what the customer needs (which in many cases is nothing more than an apology and knowing they have been heard) and then make a change to your procedures to stop the same thing from happening again in the future. And if you get it right, you can actually turn a complaining customer into a champion for your business!

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Episode transcript:

Hello and welcome to episode eighty-three of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe. And if you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.
And in today’s session we’re talking about complaining, or rather how to handle complaints from customers in your business – and this topic was actually suggested by one of our Vegan Business Tribe members Yolanda Soryl from Christchurch in New Zealand. And Yolanda is an amazing person, and a bit of a rock star in early-years education. Not only does Yolanda provide early-years literacy teaching resources and courses for parents and teachers through Yolanda Soryl Literacy, but she is also the President of the Christchurch Vegan Society (who’s reach extends far beyond Christchurch) and has been vegan since the 80s – so she is a remarkable person to know. And I love it when a member sends a suggestion for the podcast because – you know – I put one of these out every week so we’re always looking for things to talk about!
So we’re going to go into a lot of detail about why you might receive a complaint in your business and how to handle so that you can turn a negative experience into a positive one.
But before we dive into that, first I want to give a shout out to another one of our Vegan Business Tribe members, because I am recording this on the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year and our members Ian and Cathy Haywood were actually performing at the Summer Solstice Festival at Stonehenge here in the UK this morning. Of course, Ian and Cathy are better known as BFriendly and this was the opening gig of their Peace Love Reggae tour which will be taking in many of the vegan festivals around the UK including Vegan Camp Out. So if you want to see where you can catch them just go to their website at (and that’s ‘B’ as in a capital B and then ‘friendlymusic’ .com). And you can also catch their latest single, The Sunny Day Song, on Spotify and Youtube.
And while I’m doing shoutouts, also just a shoutout to our membership site at – and I know that a lot of you are signed-up already, and Lisa and I are truly grateful for that because the only reason we can keep putting out this podcast for free every week is through the support of our members. So if you are a regular listener and you want to support the work we do, whilst at the same time joining the most amazing community of vegan business owners around the world, then head over to – click on the join button on the homepage and you will see EVERYTHING that you get when you sign up as a member. Trust me, if you are serious about growing your vegan business then we’ve got all the resources and support you could ever need.
OK, so let’s get started with today’s session. And in a way, when we talk about how to handle complaints we’re actually talking about problem-solving. Because the whole function of your business is to solve problems for people, and you might solve that problem through a service or by selling them a product – or even just solving the problem of that person being hungry if you sell food. And in return, you get paid for solving that problem. But what happens when your company BECOMES that problem?
Now, I know that as vegans we hate conflict and we can take criticism about our businesses very personally because to us it’s more than a business. We’re on a mission, we’re trying to bring about change in the world. And sometimes we think that the fact we’re doing that should mean that we’re exempt from criticism. And we do actually see that a lot in the vegan sector. If our company delivers a sub-par service then, that’s OK – because ‘the animals’ right? We’re doing our best, but we’re not doing this for the money, we’re doing this for the animals, so if we mess up – well, give me a bit of slack because I’m an ethical company trying to do good.
And do you know what, some of your customers WILL let you get away with that. Some customers will genuinely align with your ethics and realise that you are on the same mission, so if you mess up then they will let it slide, they won’t complain, they won’t ask for a refund or a discount. But let me tell you, they will probably never use you again either. They will certainly never recommend you to anyone. 
This can be a genuine concern in the vegan sector. There is a compulsion, and a valid one as well, that as a vegan company we want to use vegan suppliers. If you need a website then you want to use a vegan web design agency. You want to use a vegan copywriter and PR agent, you want to use a vegan virtual assistant, you even want to use a vegan accountant – and we’ve got members at Vegan Business Tribe who do all of those things! But a company or supplier just being vegan shouldn’t be enough of a reason on its own for you to use them. I’m vegan, but trust me, you wouldn’t want me re-wiring your house. You wouldn’t want me catering for your party of twenty either, although Lisa could probably give it a good bash. Just because I am vegan doesn’t mean I’m competent at doing a task. But again, we will always give our fellow vegans the opportunity to do the job first – if we have two potential suppliers and one is run by a vegan and one isn’t, we’ll pick the vegan one every time. And if that company messes up because you took them on just because they were vegan, and you didn’t properly interview them for the job to make sure they were up to the task first, then you end up putting up with their poor performance a lot longer than you should, because they are vegan right? You don’t make a fuss when they miss your deadline, you are overly lenient, and when you do eventually complain you are so over-compensatory that it takes you an hour to write the email. 
Lisa and I have been there. We once received a vegan gift box that had a non-vegan product in it, and after letting them know in an email we received a single-line reply: Thanks for letting us know, we’ll discontinue putting that product in the boxes. No apology. No offer of a refund or a replacement for the non-vegan product. Not even a discount voucher for a future order. Now, the thing is I wasn’t actually wanting any of those things but it’s also unlikely that I would buy from them again either. 
Knowing how to handle complaints in your business means having the tools to turn an unhappy customer into a happy one. And it’s not just the difference between losing a customer and keeping one, it’s the difference between having someone out there who is a walking negative advertisement for your business and services, telling everyone what a bad experience they had, vs creating a new champion for your brand because of how well you handled their complaint or corrected what went wrong. 
Because it’s not always going to be your fellow vegans ordering your products. In fact, we know that the biggest market for vegan products – from food to services – is non-vegans. So you won’t be able to rely on playing the ‘vegan card’ with many of your customers to smooth over any mistakes. So when the day comes that someone makes a complaint to your business – and it WILL happen at some point if it hasn’t already, especially as your business grows – then how do you handle it, and handle it well?
Well the first step is to remove your emotions from the process. And I know that this is easier said than done! We get so emotionally involved with our businesses that any complaint, and especially one where you don’t think you were at fault, can seem like a personal attack. It’s not. A complaint is purely a process, it’s a cause and effect. No matter how personal the complaint seems, or how out of proportion, just think of it like a blinking red light on a dashboard or a notification on your phone. Something hasn’t worked and that complaint is bringing your attention to that fact. So there’s no need to bring negative emotions into your immediate response to receiving a complaint, instead, bring a sense of curiosity.
Now I know, again, easier said than done, but it’s good to exercise this self-restraint. If you engage with a complaint with negative emotion you will either not give a response at all (or one so inadequate that you will create someone negatively advertising your business for you) or even worse you will fight back and go on the attack! And the worst thing you can do is get into a virtual brawl with a customer, rolling around on the floor of your virtual shop just because you thought they were wrong!  
But also, if you come to a complaint with an emotional response then you are in danger of over-compensation too. You will give someone a huge discount or refund that completely wipes out your profit margin whilst completely missing what the person was actually wanting, which was maybe just to be heard. So when you get a complaint, put the emotions to one side and go into fault-finding mode. Your job is to work out what went wrong, what needs to be done to put it right and then what process can be put in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again for someone else. So how do we do this?
Well, the very first thing you should do when you receive a complaint is to apologise to the person who sent it. Regardless of if you agree with it or not. Now, you ARE going to get complaints that you don’t agree with. You are going to get complaints just because your customer was having a bad day. You are even going to get complaints where someone is just trying it on to see what they can get. It doesn’t matter. If someone has felt strongly enough to get in touch with you and complain, then they have had an experience that was negative to them. It doesn’t matter if you think that negative experience was justified or not, to them it was real and through their eyes, your company was the cause of it. And often, people who complain are looking just for an apology and nothing more. Your company being sorry that they have had a bad experience is all they want, they are looking for recognition that they have been listened to or that their email has been taken seriously. And often this is the time for you to step out from behind the screen and be a person, not just a business.
In my experience, the best thing you can do when you receive a complaint is to offer the person a phone call to talk through their experience. Now, this is actually a really good filtering tool to work out how much of a complaint the customer actually has! If they are willing to give up more time to talk with you on the phone then there’s probably something here that genuinely deserves your attention. If they don’t think it’s worth their time then they will decline but still feel you are taking their complaint seriously enough to offer a call. 
If the complaint is from one of your regular customers who you deal with a lot then don’t even make the offer, just call them as soon as you receive the complaint. We apply our own emotions to people’s words when we communicate by email, so getting on the phone with someone – especially if you already have a relationship with them – will likely mean you can resolve something in a few minutes that might have turned into a long game of email tennis full of misunderstandings and finger-pointing.
But the main reason you want to engage with people who complain is because you are looking to turn a negative into a positive. At the very top of your agenda should be trying to retain that customer. Keeping an existing customer is far easier and cheaper than having to acquire a new one. So let this person know they are valued (after all you have taken their money) and that they have been heard. Again, regardless of if you think you are at fault or not, their interaction with your company has left them feeling aggrieved. Your job here is not to convince them that they are wrong and you are right, so hear them out, find out what went wrong, how it went wrong, and if a mistake has been made then work out what needs to be done to put it right if you can.
And it’s important at this stage not to take a knee-jerk reaction, instead find out at this stage what your customer actually wants. If you sell a product and there’s an issue with it then explicitly ask if they looking for that product to be replaced, or are they happy to keep it but they want a discount on their invoice or a money-off voucher for their next order? Giving a partial refund may cost less than paying to have the product collected and a new one sent out and the customer might be just as happy. Or it might be that they are happy with what they got from your company and it’s perfectly fit for purpose but are just unhappy with the process of how they got it and want to vent. And in most cases, you will find that writers of angry emails are far less angry in person! It’s easy to vent through your keyboard at an anonymous email address than it is a helpful person on the end of the phone. 
But you should also have a line in the sand. It’s perfectly acceptable for someone to ask for a product to be replaced if there is a fault with it. It’s also acceptable for someone to ask for a refund if they return the product simply as it’s not what they wanted, as long as you publish a clear returns policy and that’s in line with it. But it’s not acceptable for the person to ask for a refund saying the product isn’t fit for purpose but then keep that product. Even if this costs you money to recover or have it returned, make sure that product comes back and don’t refund until you have it back in your hands. As I said at the start, some people complain because they feel aggrieved but others complain simply to try it on to see what they can get out of you. 
And this applies to services too – in fact, it’s why, if you offer a service, that you should always take a deposit because it’s not a physical object that you can demand back and then resell to someone else. If someone has received the benefit of your time and expertise then they are paying for that time and expertise – not necessarily for the outcome of it. So if someone buys a website from you, but then they get no enquiries for their business through it, they are not entitled to ask for a refund or discount for that website. So be fair, look to resolve any problems, but also let customers know the deal and have clear terms and conditions of sale and make sure that your sales process has the customer agree to them so that you already have an agreed process for disputes to fall back on.
Remember – the primary function of your company, like it or not, is to move money out of the bank account of your customers and into yours. And I know that sounds mercenary, but it’s a reality of business. So once you have that money in your bank account, transferring that money back again goes counter to the primary function of your business and you should do everything to avoid it! It cost you time and money to make that transaction happen – from marketing to product development, so don’t be so quick to offer refunds. Explore every other option first. Can you give the customer something extra instead of giving them money back, or can you offer them a voucher for a future purchase? Did they have a bad experience at your event? Then offer them a place on your next one for free. Offer these kinds of things first before even mentioning any possibility of a refund.
So once you’ve engaged with a complaint, you have apologised, have made sure that your customer feels listened to and you have done what you can to put the situation right, then you need to focus on turning that negative into a positive – both for you and the person complaining. Because although it may not seem like it, receiving a complaint can actually be a great opportunity for your business.
First of all, a complaint can be a real learning experience for your company. You want to provide your customers with a really good, positive experience, so finding out where it can go wrong allows you to put processes and systems in place to make sure it doesn’t go wrong for others. If you just dismiss complaints or give instant refunds without engaging then you miss this opportunity to improve your service. If a misunderstanding lead to someone not being happy then do you need to update your descriptions on your website? Can you expand your frequently asked questions section to make sure that there are not any future misunderstandings? Or do you need to make your terms and conditions clearer to stop you from having wrestling matches with customers after they have ordered and then notice the small print? In the same way that modern cars have so many safety features because each one was added in the response to an accident, your business too should put something new in place every time something goes wrong to stop it from happening again. 
And in fact, you should go looking for complaints to actively improve your business. Most people who have a bad experience won’t tell you about it. They will put up with it or maybe just decide not to buy from you again without telling you. So when someone buys from you, follow up with them to ask what you could have done better. It might be that there was something that didn’t quite warrant a complaint, but it could have definitely gone smoother for them.
But the second reason why a complaint can be a great opportunity is because you can use that pain point interaction with a customer to forge a new kind of relationship with them. As we said earlier, it’s important to make sure you handle a complaint in such a way that doesn’t create a walking negative advert for your company, you know someone who tells everyone what a bad experience they had of your company! But if someone complains it’s often because they care. From experience, if you engage with someone who has complained, and really engage with them, then you might be able to create a new champion for your business instead. So, ask the person for their input on what the business could do to avoid that situation happening again in the future. Ask them if they would be willing to try out the new solution or an improved product or service first before you implement it for the rest of your customers. Ask if they want to be part of your testing panel for future product releases. If this person has expressed an opinion in your business and are vocal enough to shout about it, then use that opinion. And imagine their experience as a customer: they’ve gone from having a negative experience, to then having that experience rectified, to then helping the company come up with a solution to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That person is now not just a happy customer, but they are now super-invested in your company and become a walking positive advert for your business, which is the best result you could hope for.
OK, so hopefully you’ll never be in the situation where you’ll have to handle lots of complaints, but if you get them then don’t automatically think they are a negative reflection of your business. Everyone makes mistakes and, from your customer’s side, everyone has a bad day when they just need to vent at someone. Don’t take it personally. But genuine complaints can really improve both your business and your relationship with your customers.
So let’s just have a bullet-point recap of what we’ve learned about how to handle complaints in your business.
  1. Just because you are a vegan company, don’t think that your customers will let you get away with sub-par service. Yes, we share your ethics but we’re also paying for you to solve a problem. Your customers might not complain, but they won’t keep using you or recommending you either.
  2. Knowing how to handle complaints in your business means having the tools to turn an unhappy customer into a happy one. You don’t want to create a negative walking advertisement for your business.
  3. When you receive a complaint, make sure not to react emotionally. Don’t take a complaint as a personal attack on you or your business even if you don’t think it’s justified – and nothing good will come from getting into a virtual brawl with the person complaining! 
  4. Often, people who complain are just looking just for an apology and nothing more. All they want to hear is that your company is sorry that they have had a negative experience and some recognition that they have been listened to.
  5. Offer a phone call. If they accept then the issue is likely important enough to warrant your attention, if they decline then you can still resolve their issue by email but they will know that you have taken their complaint seriously.
  6. Keeping an existing customer is far easier and cheaper than having to acquire a new one. So so hear them out, find out what went wrong, how it went wrong, and if a mistake has been made then work out what needs to be done to put it right and make them happy.
  7. Find out what your customer actually wants before you start eating into your profits. Don’t feel the need to offer a full refund if the customer just wants to be heard, or might be happy with a discount on their next order.
  8. Also, have a line in the sand of what you will and won’t offer. A customer doesn’t get to say that a product wasn’t fit for purpose but still get to keep that product! Make sure your terms and conditions are clear for how disputes will be resolved and make sure your sales process includes a step where people agree to them.
  9. Use all complaints as a learning opportunity. How can you improve your website listings or FAQ to make sure there are no misunderstandings between you and your customers, or can you improve a service or process to avoid anyone else having the same bad experience?
  10. Can you use your interaction with a complaining customer to actually make them more invested in your company? Ask the person for their input on what the business could do to avoid that situation happening again in the future. Ask them if they would be willing to try out the new solution or an improved product or service first before you implement it for the rest of your customers.
And that is it.
So just to finish off, no I’m not going to invite you to complain at me, but I am going to invite you to engage with us!  We put out this amazing advice for free every week on the podcast, but the podcast is only something like 10% of everything that goes on at Vegan Business Tribe. If you are looking to connect with hundreds of other vegan business owners who share your mission, and at the same time get help and support to grow your vegan business, then you can also sign up as a full member on – just click on the join button on the homepage and you will see all the amazing stuff that you get access to as a member.  Including our vegan Business Academy of member-only content and courses and all our online events on Zoom. But the membership side of Vegan Business Tribe is also what allows us to keep putting out this podcast every week – so if you’re a regular listener and you love what we do, then please do consider coming and signing up with us on the website too.
So thank you so much for listening, do reach out to myself and Lisa if you need support or have an idea for something you’d like covering on this podcast because we always love getting messages from listeners, and I will see you on the next one!

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