How to deal with complaints

If you are advertising yourself as professional, skilled and reliable engineer, then you are setting high expectations for your clients. Not just for your technical abilities and knowledge, but for your interpersonal and communication skills too. Not many of us benefit from training in this area, so how do you make it an effortless part of your working day?

All CIPHE members abide by its voluntary Code of Professional Standards. Paying attention to the little things raises your game and reputation even higher. Keep your customers happy and you are more likely to gain their loyalty, be employed for further projects and obtain a host of word-of-mouth recommendations.

complaint handler

In a world now dominated by social media, you don’t even need a website or social media profile to be the centre of a glowing online testimonial. Local Facebook groups are acting as the fastest growing medium for word-of-mouth recommendations (or condemnations), meaning once private conversations between friends, family or neighbours, now take place in a public online forum – one that can make or break your reputation in minutes. As a rule of thumb, you need five positive reviews to outweigh the negative impact of one bad review. So, you really want to avoid leaving any customer feeling they have cause for complaint.

1) Put yourself in your customer’s shoes

If you develop just one skill, make sure its empathy. It’s estimated that around 70% of buying experience is influenced by how a customer feels they are being treated, rather than the actual product or service itself.

The ability to understand your customer’s point of view will give you a big insight into their requirements and expectations, along with your approach to work. Some may need a lot of hand holding, while you patiently explain step-by-step what you will be doing, where you need to access and when, while others may expect you to get on with the job with minimal fuss and interruption. Also, remember that if you are there in an emergency, your client may be stressed out and upset.

Kindness also goes a long way. Your elderly client who lives alone may not have spoken to anyone face-to-face in days, so taking an extra five minutes to have a cup of tea and a chat could make a massive difference to their day.

2) Communication is key

Have you ever noticed how telesales people or fundraisers on the street often ask you how you are before they launch into their sales pitch? Saying a cheery hello and making small talk is all part of showing a friendly and approachable demeanour. If you tackle every job in steely silence, only muttering the odd one-syllable word, you’ve already lost the battle when it comes to customer experience. If the worst happens and things go wrong, you’ll be ill equipped to deal with a bad situation.

Did you know the cause of the majority of complaints received by the CIPHE is down to poor communication? Being able to listen to a problem and turn around the situation is one of the most important customer care skills you can learn.

Back in the 1970’s, Dr. Albert Mehrabian found that only 7% of communication is in the words we say, whilst 38% was in ‘non-verbal communication’ (the tone of voice) and 55% in body language. Faced with a complaint, your first instinct may be to go on the defensive, but it is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Stop, take a breath and think about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Be open with your body language, make good eye contact and be confident and calm in what you say.

Learn to listen to your customer’s full grievance too – do not look disengaged and jump to conclusions based on half the problem. Make sure you repeat any key facts back and if necessary, write down any important points. The customer then knows they are being listened to and taken seriously.

While the majority of jobs will go without a hitch, if you get even the slightest hint your client has a niggle, don’t ignore your gut instinct, ask them. By taking responsibility for difficult situations through clear communication, you are upholding the CIPHE’s Code of Professional Standards. Everyone has to deal with complaints from time to time, but good communication will allow you to resolve minor issues before they become major ones.

3) Learn to say sorry

On the topic of complaints, it’s important to learn when to say sorry. It’s a very powerful word. Always remember it is the most effective and cheapest method of resolving a complaint.

A 2016 study by Lewicki, Polin and Lount Jr found that the most compelling apologies included:

  • Expression of regret
  • Explanation of what went wrong
  • Acknowledgement of responsibility
  • Declaration of repentance
  • Offer of repair
  • Request for forgiveness

They found the best apologies (for the worst of actions) used all six aspects above, while minor indiscretions may only require a couple of aspects. The most important part of all apologies was the acknowledgement of responsibility.

So, if faced with a complaint, take responsibility for it. Apologise if the fault is with you, or on behalf of any third party, explaining why things have gone wrong. Most importantly, take ownership of putting things right.

4) Be Positive

People like positivity. A positive mind is focused, flexible, productive and confident. It seeks to find the best outcome, whatever the situation. When breaking bad news to clients, having a positive attitude and using positive language can make all the difference. Focus on solutions to problems, rather than dwell on the negatives at hand


“You should have had those pipes lagged and turned off the water quicker. That leak has caused a massive amount of damage, which will cost thousands to put right.”

Turns into:

“The water is off, so there will be no further damage. Let’s replace the pipework here and make sure everything else is adequately lagged so this doesn’t happen again. Have you spoken to your home insurance to see if you are covered for the damage? If you are not, don’t panic, I can help you work out what you need to do next.”

Even though you are dealing with the same situation, focusing on a positive outcome will deliver on far better customer care.

5) Be clear on schedules

Issues frequently crop up when clients are not given clear, realistic schedules, so if you want to go over and above when it comes to customer service this can be key. It’s really important that all sides understand the timescales involved and if the schedule begins to slip, you talk to your client right away. This gives you the chance to explain why and re-arrange key dates to suit you both.

If additional hours or costs are incurred because a client changes their mind mid-way through a project, then it is your responsibility to ensure they realise the implications of those decisions. Never assume they understand! It is advisable to include clear checkpoints through each stage of designing or installing a project so clients are clear that changing the scope of the installation will add additional time and costs.

6) Be punctual

No one likes having time wasted – time is the one thing in this world that we never get back. If you are going to be late, always let your client know and give them a realistic ETA.

Remember, that it’s likely that your client will have taken a day off work - which may be hitting them financially - or had to rearrange plans to make sure they are home for your visit. So, if you do have to re-arrange dates or timings, make sure you give them an apology, a valid reason for moving their appointment and as much notice as possible.

7) Be clean

Using dust covers to minimize mess and tidying up after yourself is not only polite, but it shows you are professional and respectful of your client’s property. Keeping things neat and tidy stops trip hazards (and potential health and safety nightmares) and shows you are a responsible engineer.

be clean

The majority of homeowners will be expecting mess and dust, so taking an extra five minutes to leave your workspace as tidy as possible and have a quick vacuum around, is a nice touch that most client’s won't expect. Even small gestures, such as washing your cup up after a hot drink, will make you a winner in the politeness stakes.

8) Integrity matters

Last but not least, integrity is everything. We all know some people are only interested in price. In those cases, even the best customer service skills in the world won’t matter, but remember it works both ways. Know your worth as a professional installer. If the only way you can bring your prices down is to use inferior materials, cut corners or ignore Regulations, standards or codes, then you have priced correctly for that job and you can walk away with your head held high. You will likely need all of that learned professionalism when you are invited back to rectify their mistake!

Whilst some of this does not come easy to everyone, know that introducing just a few small changes to your approach can make a really big difference. Make the effort and you will find you soon get known for your five-star service, exceeding your client’s great expectations and maybe even some your own.

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