What to do when you receive a customer complaint about your employee’s performance

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In my previous articles, I provide warnings to managers who rely on indirect sources of information about employees’ performance in providing performance feedback.  I generally advocate that a manager use direct observation to provide performance feedback, as this is the path that most likely will generate improved performance.  Relying on indirect sources tends to erode trust and is often very confusing.  I provide some tips on what to do about “indirect sources” here.

But there are times when you receive some sort of feedback about your employee’s performance that doesn’t allow you to wait until you can notice a trend and/or perform more direct observation.  A common scenario is when you receive a complaint from a customer about something one of your employees has done.  So let’s talk about what to do in this scenario!

1. Get info from the customer about what happened.

When a customer complains to you about what the employee did, try to get the points of fact about the situation, what was said and done during the situation, and where things stand now (has the issue actually been resolved, or does it still need resolution?”)  Often with complaints – and if you are speaking directly with the customer – the details are fairly fresh in the customer’s mind – and usually given right away after the situation, so it is possible to get fairly specific quotes about what your employee said, specific info about what your employee did.  Try to write these quotes/actions down and understand as many of the “facts” of the situation possible.  Of course, if you receive this complaint indirectly (like via a survey), then this option is not available.

2. Resolve the customer issue/inform that you will take action

When a customer complains, there are often two complaints wrapped in one.  

Possible complaint 1: There is the thing that they wanted to happen when they first encountered your employee. (“I wanted a refund processed, but it didn’t happen.”)

Possible complaint 2: The employee’s behavior in treating the customer (“I was treated rudely.”)

If, after listening to the customer, the issues is only with original issue, then focus on resolving that.  If only the employee’s behavior, then focus on resolving that.  If it is both, then focus on resolving the first one first, the second one second.   You can articulate this to the customer, “Let’s focus on making sure your original issue first, and then we’ll discuss [employee’s] behavior.”  Then follow your procedures to resolve the original issue.

Only after the steps for resolving the original issue are complete should you then address your employee’s behavior.  Here is something you can say in this area, “Thank you for providing the specifics on this.  I will take this up with [employee].”  The customer wants reasonable assurance that this won’t happen again, and getting this assurance from the employee’s manager provides that.

3. Write down the incident

I’ve written in the Manager by Designsm blog about the benefits of keeping a performance log.  Here is a great opportunity to document this information.   This complaint may be a single incident, or not.  The performance log will reveal the trends – or lack thereof.

4. Spend time getting points of fact with the employee

OK, so you need to address this complaint with the employee. Generally the sooner you do this the better.  Here’s an example illustrating why this is.

Now, the first thing to do is to spend time getting the points of fact straight with the employee.  The customer had a complaint, and perhaps provided many details, but the customer is still an indirect source of info – so this is inherently not fully trustworthy.  So when discussing the situation with your employee, make sure you provide ample opportunity for the employee to share his or her side of the story.  You can say something like, “I’d like you hear your perspective about what happened.”

Aligning the perspective of the customer and the perspective of the employee will perhaps be the majority of the conversation.  Your main goal is to get a semi-coherent picture of what happened, and it is unlikely that you will get the full story.

Where you can find points of agreement as to what happened, this is what you will provide feedback on.  It could be that the employee did the right thing – on these points of agreement.  Or it could be there are some different actions that could have been taken – on these points of agreement.  Focus on these in your feedback discussion.

And what about the points of disagreement?  (i.e., the employee says, “I never called the customer an ‘idiot.”) You will not be able to “win” this discussion.  You are better off using these loose threads as something you need to perform more direct observation to provide feedback on in the foreseeable future.   As the discussion point has been introduced, the employee is aware that this is a risk, and may self-correct.  If the employee does not have this level of self-awareness, then the direct observation will still be necessary.

5. Apply the sympathetic feedback model to the discussion and make it a strategy session

If a complaint is made, it isn’t necessarily the case that it’s the employee’s fault.  For example, the customer wants a refund, but the company policy states no refunds. . .and there have yet to be guidelines provided to employees on how to explain this.  So it is entirely possible that the situation generates a complaint, and the employee’s behavior can be interpreted as “rude” and it is still not the employee’s fault.  It could be a more systemic problem – the refund policy is inflexible and there hasn’t been a good method for explaining it to customer so that they don’t generate complaints.

In the sympathetic model, the manager and the employee strategize on how to handle the situation in the future, rather than the conversation be a “correction” of the employee’s behavior.  The manager may come away with suggestions for improvement, such as, “There’s a need to improve how we manage refunds.”  The employee may come away with better actions, “Instead of repeating, ‘no refunds’, instead explain the scenarios refunds are accepted (within 30 days, with receipt, etc.), and get some help if the customer still expresses dissatisfaction.”

In the sympathetic corrective feedback model, the employee may get feedback on what to do next, but the complaint that was generated also reveals larger issues that could be addressed by management.   The customer feedback  — especially in the form of complaints – can reveal the areas where both your employees and your organization as a whole can improve.  Treat it is as such!

In my next set of articles, I’ll provide more info about how to treat what many people consider “feedback conversations” and transform them into “strategy sessions” with your employee.

Related articles:

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 1)

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 2)

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 3)

What inputs should a manager provide performance feedback on?

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: Practice sessions

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: On the job

Areas of focus in providing performance feedback based on direct observation: Tangible artifacts

What managers can do about “intangible human-based artifacts”

Three reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information doesn’t work

Bonus! Six more reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information is risky

Tips for how managers should use indirect sources of information about employees

Helpful tip for managers: Keep a performance log

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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