#3 The Difference Between A Good & A Great Complaint Handler

Sarah Lawrence

Sarah Lawrence

Sarah has spent over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry, including over 16 years working at the Financial Ombudsman Service. Sarah specialises in customer service and complaints handling, with extensive experience of management and mediating complaints and is dedicated to passing on her knowledge and experience to businesses to improve complaints handling, customer service and consumers’ perceptions of the industry.

In the third of our series of guest blogs on key issues for complaints handling

(access the previous blogs here…),  Sarah Lawrence, former Technical Manager at Financial Ombudsman Service discusses the key elements of a great complaints handler

Maybe we’re biased, but we think it takes a rather special set of skills to be a good complaints handler. But, there’s also another list of skills to move from being a good complaints handler into being a great complaints handler.

So, what exactly does a good complaints handler look like? It’s an interesting question because what ‘good’ looks like is driven by the workplace culture of a business – and its true attitude toward its customers. But for the purposes of this blog, let’s assume by ‘good’, we mean people who are looking to reach the right outcome for the customer and approach it in the right way.  

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Handling complaints isn’t easy. Customers can be difficult, customers can be rude, customers can be in despair. Meaning as a person a complaint handler must be able to contain that customer’s emotions within that first interaction, then understand what is going to actually help them. Because, as any good complaint handler will tell you, one size doesn’t fit all.

Which also means it can be stressful and use up reserves of emotional resilience that not everyone has. It means being able to think on your feet and be adaptable, because if you’ve used up all your best lines and used every trick you’ve had hidden up both sleeves to resolve that complaint and it’s fallen flat, you need to be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn and move on. Speaking from experience, if you find yourself doing this day after day It can have an impact on you and your ability to help the next customer if you don’t have that emotional resilience and aptitude for problem solving.  

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And this is the point. You need to be a particular type of person to be good at handling customer enquiries and complaints. Not everyone can do it. Not everyone wants to do it. But the reality is that there are people working on the front-line who don’t really want to be there and aren’t invested enough in the business they work for to care about the customers they serve. It doesn’t work for anyone – for them, the customer or the business. No one wins.

We know that, speaking from experience, good complaint handling is an art form. You might well be sceptical because complaints handling isn’t something you dream of doing as a child, but we know that if you are that person, complaints handling can be a career that gives so many rewards. However, you need those basic skills, aptitude and drive.

The basics that we’d expect any good complaints handler to have include excellent listening and communication skills, negotiation and mediating abilities, a questioning mind, confidence and empathy.

But what skills and behaviours elevate a good complaints handler into a great one? You must be the right kind of person with the right kind of mindset. It’s not just about liking people, you need to be curious and empathic so you can talk to customers at their level and pace. It’s encompassing the emotional competence and emotional intelligence to understand and respond well to the different ways customers’ can react when things go wrong, which they will do. It’s also being able to accept that plans won’t always pan out and having the strength and guts to apologise and accept and learn from mistakes through the process.   

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And that takes bucket loads of strength, resilience and kindness, not just for the customer but also yourself. It takes levels of tenacity, creativity and the confidence to question the way things have been done – and whether that was right for that customer. And this can be difficult if you’ve got targets and bosses that have different motivations to you. Which is why it needs someone who can problem solve and understand the bigger picture, in terms of the customer’s circumstances and the business’ needs.

But, perhaps most of all, great complaints handlers need to have an innate drive that means their love of people translates into an innate drive to want to sort out their problems. Which then leads to the biggest reward and that’s when you do sort that problem out. When that happens there’s no better buzz!

It sounds like quite the shopping list doesn’t it? But when all is said and done, that someone needs to love what they do enough to want to take all the knocks but still get that buzz when they do a great job. That someone needs to believe in the business they work for and genuinely care about what happens (or has happened) to their customer. And that’s a special combination. Because complaints handling isn’t for anyone, when you find it in someone you need to invest in them because once they’ve got the complaints handling bug, they’ll want to keep doing what they’re doing.


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