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In a perfect world, business would run smoothly. Customers would never leave negative feedback or attack a merchant for a perceived injustice. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world.  Sometimes you must take the good with the bad and adapt as situations arise.  So how do you handle difficult and stressful situations? Are there ways to prevent misunderstandings and future problems?

Create Store Rules and Policies

Have you ever heard the phrase, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?”  Well, it is.  Establishing an ordering structure complete with policies and procedures is extremely helpful. If you haven’t already done so, write a reasonable set of store policies in clear, easy-to-understand language and post them on all your storefront “Policies” pages. Where applicable, include them with order paperwork. Be sure to address your business hours, location, email response time, turnaround times on custom work, payment terms, payment disputes/resolution methods, refund policy, and satisfaction policy on custom orders. Business is easier if customers know your policies before work is started or sales are processed.  It also minimizes the number of policy inquiries and emails you receive from customers.  Most importantly, follow your rules and refer to them as needed.

Establish a review and returns window

In a growing ecommerce world, it’s important to clearly set a timeframe for customers to lodge a complaint or return goods.  This window will vary depending on the job and goods being delivered. In many instances, two weeks from the date of receipt is enough time for customers to inspect and report order errors. If a customer needs to return a purchase, clearly define how long you will accept goods. In most cases, 30 days is a reasonable return window.  If you have a cut-off date, be sure to post it. If you do not accept returns on custom goods, tell the customer prior to work commencement. You also need to highlight this policy on all paperwork. (Need to develop a return policy? Read our in-depth article explaining how right here.)

Listen, Analyze, and Respond

If you are a business owner, odds are you will experience post-sale customer complaints during your business career.  As the boss, it’s important to listen and respond to all complaints—never ignore them. Failing to acknowledge and respond creates hard feelings and ultimately costs you business. Customers want to know that you are willing to correct an error. Keep in mind, the problem could be a simple misunderstanding or an honest production mistake. So, when an upset customer emails, texts, or calls to complain about their recent order from your business, it’s important to remain calm and not react in an emotional way.  Sure, it’s easy to fire off an emotionally fueled, ‘I’m not taking your nastiness’ email, but it’s not necessary and just makes you look bad. Before hitting send on what may be a bad response, stop, take a deep breath, and consider the following:

  1. Don’t read the email/text until you can be objective. If you need a few minutes, take them.
  2. Once you can, re-read the email/complaint carefully. What exactly is the customer complaining about? Is it legitimate? Try to separate business from personal. This isn’t about your hurt feelings.
  3. Collect, organize, review the facts from your paperwork/personnel and check for order errors. If you have employees, ask questions. Compare the finished project specs against the customer’s complaint. Was the work performed as specified and done correctly?
  4. Now it’s time to respond. Clearly and concisely state the facts.  Leave out emotion and make an offer to quickly resolve the situation and (hopefully) satisfy the customer.

If you made a mistake, apologize and offer to correct it immediately or replace it with the item ordered at no expense to the customer.  With a situation like this, it’s good business to offer something like free standard shipping on a future order or 10% off another order. Goodwill gestures show customers that you care about your business and are willing to make things right.  If you aren’t quite sure how to word your response, check out this post about email etiquette with great tips on how to say please, no thank you, and I’m sorry.

If the customer is complaining that the item isn’t quite what they expected, just calmly reiterate and review the facts with your customer. Do not engage in hostile conversations. Word will spread that you didn’t help the customer and will reflect poorly not only on you but on your business.

No article can teach you how to handle every potential customer complaint, but with preparation and a response action plan, you can quickly, professionally, and successfully address issues as they arise.

Did you find this article helpful? Be sure to check out Christine’s first piece about dealing with difficult customers


Christine Warren is a successful, self-employed designer and artist. For the last 23 years, she has designed and created many works of art including one-of-a-kind costumes, pageant, and bridal gowns, and pageant sashes. Last year, she recognized the need for a blog that focuses on creative sewing techniques, sewing products and business issues facing small business owners. She recently launched her blog, The Creative Sewist,www.thecreativesewist.com. Christine can be reached via email at info at thecreativesewist.com

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