A Complaint Is a Gift:

Service Recovery That Goes All Out for Service and Sales Teams

Do you know how many new customers you gained last quarter? Perhaps more importantly, do you know how many you lost and why? Do you know if the customers who left you gave you a warning by leaving a complaint with someone in your organization? And, was the way in which that complaint was handled the primary reason that pushed these customers out your doors?

Spiders, who generally sit in the center of their webs, can detect when insects invade their webs long before the spider is ready to attack. The gentle movement of the web is an early warning system that lunch awaits. A complaint is like an early warning system that danger is afoot for the organization — if service or sales representatives pay attention to what their customers say and know how to recover their good will.

A Complaint Is a Gift is a performance-based customer service workshop about turning complaining customers into business opportunities, regaining customer trust, and keeping them as customers — perhaps even as more loyal customers. Service providers understand that feedback helps organizations to improve. But that doesn’t mean that they like receiving negative feedback. Everyone would prefer to receive positive feedback. Improved performance in this part of customer service requires learning how to respond in a way so conflict is diminished, emotions are handled, and problems are solved.

Complaint handling is truly performance based. You can learn all the statistics ever produced in this field and that won’t help you when facing an angry customer who is determined to leave your organization if you don’t go all out for them.

Service and sales people typically fail with complaint handling because they:

  1. Are not sure about what effective complaint handling is really all about, what the point is, what role they play, and why they must learn a variety of tools to use depending on the customer in front of them
  2. Do not know what behaviors are required of them to show customers the type of personal attention and personalized service they need to receive when customers face problems so they are brought to a feeling of wholeness
  3. Do not know how to collect important information from conversations with customers and how to add this information to the system, so that future mistakes are not made
  4. Are unable to distinguish between emotional responses and cognitive responses from customers so they can appropriately respond to needs

And yet, the above behaviors are fairly easy to learn and perfect. A Complaint Is a Gift is not only a practical “how-to” customer service program that takes participants into the world of customer relationships, but also provokes and inspires changes in related thinking, attitudes, and habits.


In a major study of seven hundred service incidents from the airline, hotel, and restaurant industries, researchers found that of all positive memories customers have of good service, fully 25 percent started out as some kind of failure in service delivery. The lesson to management is critical. Businesses do not need to run away from service breakdowns. Each company representative has a chance to turn a negative situation into a positive experience for the customer.

Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller,
A Complaint Is a Gift, 2008

Tool Kit: A suggested list of performance skills and knowledge-based behaviors from which we can help you build an optimal performance program.


  1. Apply the latest research about complaining customers
  2. List four reasons why complaints are gifts
  3. Use the complaint is a gift formula
  4. Differentiate between emotional and rational components to complaints and how to respond appropriately
  5. Describe the customer experience: how would you feel if you were handled this way?
  6. Intervene with speed
  7. Use the appropriate amount of empathy in complaint handling
  8. Display fairness and understand why fairness is more important in certain situations than in others
  9. Work to increase customer tolerance zone at all times
  10. Represent your brand best when responding to written complaints
  11. Know when to ask for help from supervisors and management when necessary
  12. Pass off customers from one person to another with minimal fuss
  13. Apply organizational refund policies when customers complain
  14. Take customers from poor response evaluations to wow! response evaluations when they complain
  15. Help customers avoid embarrassing themselves when they complain
  16. Determine when and how to refuse a customer’s demand
  17. Get the best results when you yourself have to complain