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How to Handle a Consumer Complaint Like a Pro And Come Out Smelling Like a Rose


Over the years of writing about the debt relief space I’ve grown exceedingly frustrated by companies that can’t seem to deal with consumer complaints or unhappy clients in a positive and constructive way. They seem to relish in shooting themselves in the foot, time and time again.

A client complaint is a perfect opportunity to win over new clients if you handle it right.

The GetOutOfDebt.org site sometimes gets posts where people complain about debt relief companies. The site is almost the perfect place to observe examples about how some debt relief companies deal with an unhappy consumer in a poor and horrible way.

Your clients don’t first come to GetOutOfDebt.org and complain typically.

Unhappy clients complain here when they think their debt relief company will not listen to them or will not remedy the problem at hand.

If they feel they need to complain elsewhere because you won’t listen or act, you’ve done something horribly wrong.

Generally the first stop on the unhappy customer train is going to be with an employee at your debt relief company. They will have expressed an issue or dissatisfaction with an employee in an email or phone call. It’s really how your employee handles that issue that can make or break the volume or severity of complaints you get online.

Clients that have an issue are actually perfect potential ambassadors and opportunities for you to help that person and turn them into raving fans who run around bragging about your service and company. These once unhappy customers became tremendously valuable free advertising for you and their personal referrals are more likely to use your services than just someone off the street.

It’s never a question if a debt relief company is going to have a disgruntled client some time. They will. Even the best company will. But that’s not really the issue. The critical part of this equation is how the company handles the inevitable unhappy consumer. That’s when you can really tell the integrity of a good company.

Let me tell you a story.

I was once having a very expensive deck built on an old house. The guy that was installing it really screwed something big up. I was raging angry.

I called the contractor in charge of the job and said I wanted to see him at the house the following morning and we were going to deal with the problem. I’m sure he heard the stress and anger in my voice.

The next morning he showed up five minutes ahead of the appointed time and as he walked around the corner of the house he stuck out his hand and said, “Steve I take full responsibility for any issue you are having and I won’t stop till we fix it and you are happy with our work.”

With that one sentence he entirely deflated the problem, let me know he was going to take care of it and there was no need for a confrontation at all. And he did exactly what he said he was going to do.

The matter never escalated beyond that point, it got promptly fixed, I never needed to complain to a regulator or the licensing board, and I wound up referring three more people to him because I was so impressed with the way he handled the problem.

Time after time I watch debt relief companies here on this site use the exact wrong approach in dealing with an unhappy consumer. Rather than making the situation better or improving the public perception of their company they appear to intentionally do the things that most hurt them in the long run and make the situation worse.

How to Handle a Consumer Complaint Like a Pro And Come Out Smelling Like a Rose

If you’ve ever been in an Apple Store and received customer service you know you will almost never have a representative tell you to get lost and they can’t help you. You can walk into any Apple Store in the world and feel confident, most every time, you are going to get exceptional service and you are going to walk out with your issue resolved. And Apple products are typically more expensive but it’s the exceptional customer service that helps to keep people coming back and paying a premium.

Here is a personal example. One time I flew to the U.S. from Europe, where I bought my Apple laptop. I din’t have a U.S. power cord and had lost my outlet adapter. I walked into the Apple Store in San Francisco and explained my problem and said I wanted to but a new power cord. The representative ran into the back and returned a moment later with a U.S. power cord and said, “We want you to have have this as our gift. Thanks for being an Apple customer.”

There is a huge difference in walking into an Apple store with a keyboard problem and having an employee say, “No problem, we will just go ahead and replace that at no charge to you while you wait.” Or, walking into some other place that sold you some other laptop and having them say, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do. You’ll have to call the manufacturer.” We all know how that ends most of the time, don’t we. But it begins with, “Press 1 for…”

I once had this HR Manager, Kevin. One day Kevin and I were dealing with an employee problem and I was stressing over if we were going to have to let the person go. Kevin told me something that day I hope I never forget. He said, “Steve, we don’t fire people, they fire themselves.” And he was right. It was the negative actions of an employee that wound up in a situation where a separation might occur.

The same premise is true in having a good reputation for your company.

What’s the reputation you intentionally want to have? The choice is all yours.

Do you want to be known as the place people can go for exceptional help or do you want people to run around complaining that you don’t return their calls, refuse to refund their money, and tell them there isn’t anything you can do to help them when things don’t work out?

Companies don’t get a bad reputation, they make one.

So let’s first look at what not to do when you get an unhappy client or one that complains online.

How to Handle a Consumer Complaint Like a Pro And Come Out Smelling Like a Rose

Here’s How to Handle an Online Complaint Like an Amateur or Scammer

  1. Insult the Poster: Come out attacking the poster and telling them they are stupid or an idiot for not reading their contract, or accuse them of not telling the truth. Insults are not going to get to the root of the problem and improve customer satisfaction or the public perception of your company.
  2. Pretend to be a Happy Client in Response: Posting a comment like you are a happy client to try to neutralize the complaint just makes your comment look contrived or made up. That just does not normally happen, unless intended. Readers can spot a fake comment with ease and that only makes it look like you’ve got something to hide.
  3. Attack the Site: Attacking the site just makes you look like a bully. Besides, attacking the site or other commenters doesn’t help to actually address the underlying customer service problem with your client. It’s simply a misdirection and not helpful if you want to create a positive reputation for your company.
  4. Not Using Your Real Full Name When You Post: The only thing you can do worse than posting under a fake or partial name when trying to resolve an unhappy client situation is to pretend to post as different people with fake names. Posting with a hidden or non-transparent identity isn’t accepting responsibility for the situation and just tells people you are not willing to be open in addressing the problem. It reinforces you’ve got something to hide.
  5. You Don’t Fix the Underlying Problem: The best way to keep getting people complaining about your service is to not fix the problem with the service that people are complaining about. Let’s say people are unhappy you charged them for a service and their impression is you didn’t deliver the benefit they believe they purchased.

    The issue here isn’t the person complaining, it’s the perception that you are under delivering what you promised.

  6. You Don’t Give Refunds: If you insist in not giving a refund to a client that is unhappy it will cost you many times that refund in lost reputation or court action, and for what, a few bucks now? That is unless your real agenda is to scam people.
  7. You Want to Blame Everyone Else: If a client or consumer is complaining about your company or your service, instead of trying to work out the issue with the person having the problem you spend time bitching about the fact someone actually complained or allowed the complaint to be posted online. People don’t want to do business with a company that’s not going to demonstrate they care about their clients.
How to Handle a Consumer Complaint Like a Pro And Come Out Smelling Like a Rose

Now Here’s How to Handle a Complaint Like a Debt Relief Professional

So let’s run through how to best handle a consumer complaint to turn it into a positive event instead of something to be dreaded.

Let’s assume, for the sake of this example, that you have a client that has complained about your service by posting a nasty comment or a report about your company online. But the steps I’m about to give you apply to an unhappy consumer that might just call your company directly.

  1. Train Employees to Actively Listen and Watch for Client Problems: Be sure to let your employees know to listen or watch online for any issue a client may have. The sooner you can address it and deal with it the smaller the problem will be and the bigger benefit you can get out of dealing with it in a timely manner. Don’t let an issue grow into something bigger. The worst thing an employee can do is ignore an issue or pretend it doesn’t exist.
  2. Acknowledge the Problem: Let the consumer know that you’ve heard them and understand that for X reason they are not happy. Just acknowledging the problem to begin with let’s the person know you are there and care enough to listen to what they have to say.
  3. Accept Responsibility for Making it Right: Tell the client that you intended to assist them to resolve the problem and you accept the responsibility for working with them to fix issue.
  4. Clearly Identify Yourself: If you are posting online, make sure you post using your real name and identify your position and role with the company. Posting as an anonymous “customer service” person or “admin” does nothing to foster maximum confidence in your company. People will wonder what are you hiding when you won’t say who you are?
  5. Assign a Dedicated Point of Contact: Let the person know a specific person they can communicate with to resolve the problem. There is nothing more frustrating than being passed off from one person to the next when you are trying to get your problem resolved. Frustration builds into anger. Anger build into revenge. Do you really want this drive the unhappy person to post all over the web?
  6. Tell the Consumer When You’ll Contact Them Next and Do It: Once you have exchanged information with the consumer, let them know what the next step is. If the consumer is waiting to hear from you, tell them when they will hear from you next and make sure you follow-up when you said you would. Even if the best you can do by that time is explain what is currently happening on their issue, don’t miss the promised contact point.

    If you say you’ll email them the following day at 2 pm and you don’t, all that happens is you reinforce their doubt that you’ll really fix the problem.

  7. Suck It Up: Debt relief clients are considered to be a disadvantaged class of consumers when it comes to regulators. If you let a problem fester or leave it unresolved and let the consumer go complain elsewhere then you are the one that loses. You will be perceived to have taken advantage of a disadvantaged consumer and you will have to fight back from being guilty first.

    It might not be a fair reality but it is the way debt relief problems are perceived by the Attorney General, BBB, Ripooffreport.com, etc.

    It’s much better for you to make a refund and make the consumer happy. In fact, bend over backwards and give more than you have to and repair the relationship. You might part ways with the consumer but you want that to be a parting where the consumer feels satisfied.

  8. Stay Off the Regulator Radar: If you want your company to stay off the regulator radar and not have to face investigations and further enforcement action, read the previous step again and again. Regulators don’t take action because of happy clients, they take action because of unhappy clients that the company did not or would not satisfy. There is no benefit in you just being right. The true benefit is in addressing the issue, reaching a satisfactory resolution and not having unhappy consumers that want to complain.
  9. Don’t Piss Off the Regulators: It’s one thing to stay off the regulator radar but if you do get a letter from a regulator then whatever you do, don’t send a letter that quotes some part of the contract or refuse to remedy the situation. A regulator doesn’t care if you are right, they care that the consumer they serve is satisfied with the outcome.

    If you get a regulator letter and they want to know how you plan to fix the problem, just tell them your top priority is to make the consumer happy. If that means refunding money to the consumer then do that. A full and prompt refund terminates most complaints in their tracks. Besides, any regulator will be impressed with that response and a refund and you will wind up with a more favorable impression of you and your company.

    If you insist in standing your ground and not making the consumer happy then you only invite needless scrutiny, attention, and potentially administrative or legal action against you and your company. And for what, the fact you said no refunds in your contract?

    I’ve covered so many lawsuits against debt relief companies that began with a simple refund request and needlessly escalated to a lawsuit.

  10. Say What You Can Do: When a client has a problem with your service, they are not interested in what you can’t do for them. They want to hear what you can do to make the situation better. Focus on that and do what you say.
  11. Give a Full and Prompt Refund: Don’t try to be crafty or tricky about it and ask the consumer to sign some agreement in exchange for a refund. Just give them the refund and do it as quickly as you can. A refund with restrictions is not an exceptional customer service event. That’s just you covering your ass and it makes the unhappy client bitter. It makes them and others think you’ve got something to hide. Do you?
  12. Let Others Know You Fixed the Problem: If the situation was reported on this site or another and that’s how it came to your attention, be sure to post a follow-up comment about how you took care of the situation and made the client happy. Future readers of the complaint will see you fixed the problem and will be much more likely to use your service knowing you stand behind what you deliver. You might as well get all the extra benefit you can out of doing the right thing and delivering exceptional customer service.

Bonus Quiz

Which response would you rather have current and potential customers of yours read to form an impression about your company?

  1. “This person is stupid. They knew what they signed up for and the contract said no refunds. We even gave them three days to change his mind. Besides, this complaint isn’t even probably real. Don’t you check these things out first. I bet this was posted by a disgruntled ex-employee that we had to fire. And whoever let this be posted, we are going to sue you and you are a jerk.”
  2. “Hi, this is Jim Smith from Super Debt Help. I’m sorry to hear you feel there was an issue with the service you’ve received from our company. We pride ourselves in doing an exceptional job for our clients and your satisfaction with our services is very important to me and our company.

    I want to help you resolve this unfortunate situation for you in a positive way. Please contact me directly at [email protected] or call me directly at 202-555-1212.”

Which answer do you really want online for your company legacy?

Bottom Line

I totally understand that you may feel you’ve invested some cost in the debt relief service the customer signed up for and maybe you’ve even partially delivered the service. You may have even collected advanced fees for a future service the consumer has contracted for and you want to keep them.

But I can tell you with extreme certainty that by not giving the unhappy debt relief client a refund and turning this into a positive customer service moment to brag about, it will cost you many times over with complaints from others and a negative perception of your company that will foster more complaints. It’s just not worth it in the long run.

How to Handle a Consumer Complaint Like a Pro And Come Out Smelling Like a Rose
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About Steve Rhode

Steve Rhode
Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.
  • Dee

    The advice to debt settlement companies on how to settle with unhappy clients is excellent in a perfect world. I’m personally following a Complaint against Professional Debt Consultants for a total lack of service and their receiving their fees up front. They have lied to the BBB regarding a Complaint i  filed with them and I am certain they will do the same with the Fla Consumer Affairs. People like Philip DiVirglio and Henry Conerly have no conscience and will just move along to another company, offering the same services and scamming people at their most vulnerable point in their lives. I wish all the best to Matt Hearns for what he is trying to do and to you Steve Rhodes with his knowledge of the industry. Unfortunately, money in a scam artist’s pocket is more important than worrying about what a client has to say or how many bad posts they get online. If it only were that simple.

  • Jeff Crews

    I think there is some great stuff here. How one handles complaints in the internet world can make you or brake you. I think this can be applied in other avenues. Twitter is just one example. It goes a long way when someone complains or have a question on a major companies Twitter, and the major company Twitter actually responds with a personal response and really willing to help. That is something we might not always think about but is really important.

  • bpanuva bpatel

    I also like this concepts. no any updates from SAFTI ?? what not some more from this.

  • http://twitter.com/mstarsllc MSTARS Staff

    This is one of the many reasons why SAFTI was created. At the end of the day it’s all about the consumer receiving the service they were sold. If everything we do doesn’t revolve around the customer experience, what’s the point?

    • Marty

      What’s happening with SAFTI? Any updates? I think the concept is great and very needed and I have been following the progress.

    • Marty

      What’s happening with SAFTI? Any updates? I think the concept is great and very needed and I have been following the progress.

      • http://twitter.com/mstarsllc MSTARS Staff

        Things are going along fantastic. We are in the process of verifying companies, certifying agents and taking nominees for the board. We have actually been electing a few as the votes come in and adding them to the site. We also added a professional mediator and attorney that has agreed to mediate any escalated complaints between the parties involved in the event a resolution cannot be obtained. We are also working with the largest mobile marketer to roll out mobile campaigns for SAFTI and developing our phone app. That said, we are taking recommendations from the field in the creation of an extremely robust “Standards and Protocols” system that will be adhered by the membership. It has been an incredible experience watching the debt relief providers that are consumer focused and want to change the industry bind together and unite in very meaningful ways. We launched the LinkedIn group for members (albeit, we haven’t had the time during this setup phase to really use it). We are pretty excited about where this is heading. I am mostly excited about creating viable metrics on the success of the system to begin marketing this to the regulators. This is definitely the future. Of course, have you ever known MSTARS to do anything “half-assed”? Lol. Sorry but I had to say it….Watch for the official Steve Rhodes report. I promised him I’d have it to him by week’s end…

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