By Steve Toburen

Eventually, all cleaning and restoration contractors must face customer complaints. While you might have been “darn near perfect” as a solo owner-operator with a complaint ratio at almost zero, as you (hopefully) grow into a critical mass business, I guarantee your techs will have complaints.

Squarely confronting customer complaints is a must since complaints that are ignored are like gangrene in your company. In today’s online world, you must quickly and proactively resolve customer complaints.

Your challenges

Facing an angry and often irrational customer is not an easy task, so let’s begin by looking at why an unhappy customer might scream at you. Consider the following.

First off, reflect on this: Do you find it easy to complain? If you are honest, you’ll admit that it’s not easy to complain. (Think about how many bad restaurant meals you’ve humbly consumed without complaining!) So, for a customer to “get up the gumption” to complain, they must build up a big head of steam — all of which gets discharged on you.

Also, take into account most complaints are emotionally based. Eighty percent of a customer’s decision on whether your company did a good or bad job is based on how they feel about the person actually doing the work. Generally, a complaining customer has felt ignored and/or ripped off, and they respond in kind.

Your biggest challenge is, drumroll — you (or your techs)! You see, when customers complain, it is easy to feel attacked personally. Maybe it is all the four-letter words being screamed at you? However, it is a huge help to depersonalize the complaint.

Steve’s solution

During any complaint resolution situation, emotions (on both sides) are likely to run at a fever pitch, so in my company, our first step was to always use what my employees called “Steve’s Emotional Judo.”

An angry customer is verbally attacking you or your employee. Martial arts work on the principle of leveraging an attacker’s onrushing force to flip them, and with this method, you can flip a screaming, angry customer. When you first encounter an upset customer, start with these steps.

Step 1: “Thank you for letting me know about this.” Aren’t you grateful your customer is talking (screaming?) to you instead of posting a one-star Google review? If so, sincerely tell them so.

Step 2: “I’m so very sorry for this disruption in your life.” Are you sorry they felt like they needed to call you? If so, let them know. (You are not admitting guilt at this time.)

Step 3: “I’m going to do everything I can to resolve this situation.” Here’s your chance to flip the customer. Are you going to work really hard to please this client? Of course, you are! (Especially in this age of online reviews.) So why not reassure them that you’re on top of it?

After emotionally flipping the customer, it is now time to calmly interview them. My employees and I needed a consistent, written procedure that structured this customer interview and would also help the customer feel listened to.

My Customer Concern Follow-up sheet (CCF) is divided into three sections. The first part is filled out by the office during the (often irate) initial phone call. The second, longer section is filled out by the responding technician and includes the very important question: How can we keep this from happening again on all future jobs?

Lastly, the office verifies that the customer is happy with the corrections your tech has made.

Note that we normally did not send back the original, “offending” tech on the return trip. I found even a good tech inevitably developed a chip on his shoulder in returning. Plus, sending back the employee that the customer “ratted out” was a very stressful situation for both the client and the tech. Instead, I sent a neutral, third-party tech who could calmly listen and commiserate with our client.

I know the CCF is more paperwork. And, yes, I could have personally smoothed out each complaint, but I wanted to build a critical mass business that would run smoothly without me, so I needed consistent, written systems and procedures. I suggest you do the same.

The resultCustomer concern contact info

Using this CCF sheet to structure and write down an angry customer’s responses had many advantages:

It gently forced our customer to be specific by structuring the interview and helped us get all the info.

Writing down customer answers created a positive moment of truth.

The CCF reassured our clients we were taking their concerns seriously.

We got insights from the CCF that allowed us to change our procedures so the complaint wouldn’t happen again. I never minded a complaint… the first time, but when the same complaint occurred over and over again, it drove me into a teeth-gnashing frenzy.

Remember, every successful business (including mine) had to start somewhere to make the owner dispensable. The result? You will achieve the ever-elusive personal freedom, which means becoming truly wealthy.


Steve Toburen started and ran a world-class cleaning and restoration firm for over 20 years. He is now the director of training for Jon-Don’s Strategies for Success program. He also founded www.homefrontsuccess.com, a resource portal with training programs for contractors working in customer’s homes. Reach Toburen at stoburen@homefrontsuccess.com.