The Best Way to Respond to Complaints & Suggestions


Three guys walked into a bar: a partner from a well-respected accounting firm, the general manager of a local retail store, and me.

When the partner complained to the general manager, “It seems like your store never has my size,” the general manager responded to the criticism.

And it was fascinating to see how that response impacted the general manager’s credibility.

Perhaps the next time you get criticism, you will have this same credibility-defining opportunity.

What went through the general manager’s head when he heard that criticism and responded with an explanation? I imagine several questions immediately came to mind:

Is this true?
Is this acceptable?
How do I explain?

Notice that these questions are all an attempt to solve and fix the situation in order to reduce the discomfort of the complainer and that of the person fielding the complaint. But is this the best way?

In my last post, we looked at how important it is for anyone who is consulting with others to be a “facilitator,” someone who guides connections rather than directs outcomes. So let’s look at how a facilitator—rather than a fixer—would respond to this complaint:

  1. Align.  Due to the emotional tension exchanged in a complaint, your first response should be emotional in nature. For example, recently, a colleague and I worked on a complex project that spanned several weeks. Just prior to a major presentation on our status, he complained that our key points in the presentation were too difficult to understand.I wanted to argue with him or eliminate these key points to end the argument, but I resisted and instead started with, “Clarity and comprehension from the audience is very important. Tell me more about what you’re thinking.” It was an affirmation—not of the validity of his perspective, but of the value of his perspective.Back in the bar, the general manager could have started by saying, “Thanks for telling me. It’s important that we have a good distribution of sizes in stock.”
  2. Expand.  Fixing and solving usually narrows and confines a dialogue. Facilitating usually broadens and deepens the conversation. Sure, in some circumstances, efficiency is the highest priority. But typically, the most important outcome is less about curing the complaint and more about strengthening the relationship between the complainer and the person or brand under attack.To deepen the conversation, the general manager could have asked questions like, “Tell me more about what you’ve noticed in our store?” and “What are your expectations for size availability?”
  3. Respond.  Finally, your objective should be to respond thoughtfully rather than to react hastily. Usually, a response to a complaint includes three steps—point out something positive, acknowledge reality, and make a forward-looking statement.For instance, the general manager could have said: “(1) I’m glad you’ve mentioned this to me.” “(2) I’m afraid that we have been low on inventory lately.” “(3) I’m going to call our buyer tomorrow and talk about our forecasting process so that you don’t have to have this frustration in the future.”

What’s a complaint that you’ve gotten recently, get frequently, or expect to get soon, and how can you facilitate like a consultant rather than fix like a solver?

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