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Customer Service

How to Handle a Customer Complaint

Do you like handling customer complaints? Why or why not?

What is it about handling complaints that you enjoy or why do you shy away from them?

These are just a few of the questions we ask when we talk about complaints in our 2-day Art of Giving Great Service Seminar. And believe it or not, there ARE people who really like handling complaints! They enjoy the challenge of winning over an upset customer and they appreciate the ability to learn from an error or mistake. However, these folks tend to be in the minority. The truth is, most of us don’t enjoy handling complaints. When we hear a customer has a complaint and is upset, it’s easy to default to fight-or-flight mode and either get defensive and “fight,” or avoid the situation all together.  Neither option shows the high level of customer service we try to provide. Without a clear system of how to handle complaints effectively, people can easily default to whatever they feel like doing in the moment.

That’s why we’ve created a system at Zingerman’s for effectively handling complaints and teach it to every single employee when they begin their employment here.

Zingerman’s 5 Steps to Effectively Handling Customer Complaints

  1. Acknowledge
  2. Sincerely apologize
  3. Take action to make things right
  4. Thank them
  5. Document

Step 1: Acknowledge the complaint.

This step can appear simple at first, but it packs a big punch! If the complaint was said in-person, we still use the 10/4 Rule [Anytime you’re within 10 feet of a guest, make eye contact and smile and within 4 feet, greet them verbally], and continue to make eye contact, but we would stop smiling and say things like “Oh my gosh!” or “Oh wow,” verbally recognizing we’ve heard what the customer has said. It’s often the case that what the customer wants most is the acknowledgement that they’ve been heard. Service providers might try to skip past this step too quickly, but it’s really hard to move to resolution if the customer hasn’t felt heard and listened to. We listen for both content and context (via active listening) in what they’re telling us rather than waiting for them to be done talking so that it can be our turn to talk.


Step 2: Sincerely apologize.

As we are acknowledging the complaint, we sincerely apologize. “Oh, wow, I am so sorry.” Period. Our first instinct might be to want to explain why something happened or point out to the customer if they had a hand in making the error, but we simply say, “I am sorry.” Apologizing doesn’t admit fault or blame or even say we agree with what the customer is saying.  Per the very first line of our mission statement, we consistently strive to give each one of our guests “The Zingerman’s Experience,” and that means that if someone has a complaint, we’ve failed to deliver an experience they were expecting. And we can always be truly and sincerely sorry for that.

In this step, it’s important not to make excuses for why something happened. Most of the time, the customer doesn’t really care why it happened, they just want to know what will be done about it. Unless the customer asks for an explanation, we simply stick to the apology. It’s important to not assign blame to anyone, either.  For example, if a customer has a complaint that they’ve received a package from us later than they had anticipated and it really was the fault of a third-party vendor, we would never respond by saying, “Oh, I know, they are always delivering our packages late.”  The customer may very well start to wonder why we work with that vendor if that’s the case and we risk losing credibility in their eyes.

At this point in the process, we’ll go back and forth between Acknowledging (Step 1) and Apologizing (Step 2), moving at the customer’s speed. Most customers need to feel like they’ve really been heard before they can move on to even thinking about a resolution, so it’s important to wait until they’re ready. If they’re raising their voice in a public area, we’ll try moving them to a quieter spot, mixing in a calming phrases like, “I can completely understand why you feel this way,” or “I’m so embarrassed that we did that,” or “I’m not going to do anything else until we get to the bottom of this.” One of our favorites is “Tell me more”  – it shows that we’re truly listening to what the customer is saying and as they tell us more, it provides detail that can make it easier to get to resolution more quickly.


Step 3: Take action to make things right.

Every single employee at Zingerman’s has the authority to do whatever it takes to make it right for the customer. This may seem pretty radical, but it’s our belief that when the first person who hears the complaint can fix it, we’re better and more quickly able to come to a resolution that works for them. By empowering our employees this way, the customer doesn’t hear, “I have to go talk to my manager” before getting the help the need and they won’t then have to recount their issue a second time to someone else, which could leave them feeling angrier than before.

How do Zingerman’s staff know what to do to make it right? Every new hire gets coaching and participates in active role-playing around handling complaints and giving feedback in our internal Art of Giving Great Service class. And no one has ever gotten in trouble for doing too much to make it right, as long as they’ve had the best interest of the business and the customer at heart.


When making it right, try starting small. If a customer doesn’t like a product, perhaps offer to replace it with something they would like. If they still seem unhappy, take the original product and the replacement product off their bill. Another option would be to offer a credit or gift card for future use. If nothing appears to be making it right, and only as a last resort, ask the customer to let you know what would make it right for them. We suggest saving this option for last because by doing this, you’re asking the customer to do more work when you,“the expert,” should know what all available options are. This can also run the risk of the customer asking for something  that you really aren’t able to do, which could result in a complaint on top of a complaint.

But what if you’re in an industry or you offer a product/service where it isn’t always possible to do whatever it takes to make it right? For example, a healthcare professional can’t legally and ethically give a patient in the hospital more pain medicine just because they’ve asked for it. In these cases, Acknowledging (Step 1) and Apologizing (Step 2) while using calming phrases may be all you can do. Even if it isn’t possible to make it right for a customer, you want them to leave the interaction feeling like you’re on their side and you’ve exhausted all of your (ethical) options to make it right for them.

Some companies we’ve worked haven’t given the authority to staff to do whatever it takes to make it right, but they have given clear parameters about what can be done. For example, one client we have empowers their front-line staff to do anything that costs up to $25 without needing a manager’s permission. Another company has given all staff authority to replace the product and offer a refund without needing to ask a manager, but require that they have permission before offering future credit. Regardless of the policy you choose, the key is making it crystal clear to everyone in your organization what they’re authorized to do to make it right – the more detail, the better!


Step 4: Thank them for complaining.

“Thank them? Why would I thank a customer for complaining to me?”

Well, if you don’t know about the problem, how can you be expected to fix it? There could be ten (or even a hundred!) other customers with the same complaint who have never voiced it to you. While many people may never complain, they very will might tell their friends, post it on social media and/or never come back. We sincerely thank our customers for complaining because it gives us the opportunity to fix what went wrong and we believe it shows they care want want to see us improve!

service-2Keep in mind that you don’t have to wait until this point in the interaction to thank the customer. “Thank you” is a great calming phrase as you go back and forth between Acknowledging (Step 1) and Apologizing (Step 2). Thanking a customer multiple times throughout the interaction is not a bad thing, as long as it continues to come across as sincere i.e. don’t overdo it!

Step 5: Document the complaint.

At Zingerman’s, we document all complaints on a Code Red form, which we use to capture the voice of the customer. The first person to hear the complaint is responsible for filling out the form, however, we wait to document the complaint until after the customer has left (but within 24 hours!). Code Red forms enable us to collect data that helps us better track trends and identify consistent issues so that we can continue to improve the service we give our customers. For example, let’s say every Tuesday for the last month, we’ve been hearing multiple complaints from customers that it took too long to get their orders taken. With consistent Code Red data, we can more confidently approach the person in charge of scheduling to request that more staff be scheduled on Tuesdays to reduce wait times.



We believe that teaching the 5 steps – Acknowledge, Apologize, Take Action, Thank and Document– to every employee at Zingerman’s, from the moment they start in the organization, empowers and equips them with the tools they need to walk into any complaint situation and handle it effectively. Having a formalized, teachable and easily repeatable system and has greatly improved our level of customer service and wonder, could such a system do the same for your organization, as well?

Do you want to know more about our approach to handling customer complaints? Check out our free webinar, Zingerman’s 5 Steps to Effectively Handling a Customer Complaint.

Are you ready to get some hands on practice and apply these 5 steps in YOUR business? We’d love to see you at the next Art of Giving Great Service seminar!